Like most soldiers I was recruited into the army at a young age. In my case I signed on and took the oath of allegiance at 15 – and turned 16 during my first week of service at an Army Apprentice School. Later, after growing increasingly disillusioned, I realised there was a huge gulf in truth between:
1) The recruiting ads – and actual life in the forces.
2) The real reasons we go into wars – and the justifications put forward by the politicians who advocate them.
3) What soldiers actually do in conflicts – and what the public are told they do.
And those gulfs in truth hide many secrets about the training of recruits, what the establishment use soldiers for, and the way the officer elite conducts these wars.
Military training is designed to mould squaddies into the Army’s way of thinking and sense of purpose. It is also intended to ensure they bond with their fellow soldiers. Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell, then a Navy psychiatrist just back from the Falklands War, explained the process to the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee:
‘Yes we indoctrinate them in the forces. Otherwise they wouldn’t fight. That’s why we cut their hair the same, make them wear the same uniform, make the same salute, and march together. We indoctrinate them in order to enhance group cohesiveness. That’s how you get people to fight.’ [Guardian, 1st Nov. 1982].
A feature of training is the crude verbal taunts, usually sexual in nature, directed at the newcomers. At first, recruits are intimidated and shocked by the physical training and the bawling out by the NCOs, but later will start to use such terms themselves and giggle when this treatment is dished out to others. Not all recruits, however, take easily to some of these aspect of military life.
There is a competitive edge to training that can see it getting more and more extreme – and the first casualties of these methods often occur inside the training units. Between 1995 and 2002, on four separate occasions, young soldiers were found dead at a training barracks in Surrey. Pte Sean Benton, Pte Cheryl James, Pte Geoff Gray and Pte James Collinson all suffered gunshot wounds at the Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut. Benton was found with five bullet wounds to his chest.
Their inquests, which took place amid allegations of bullying and extreme abuse at Deepcut, returned three open verdicts and one of suicide. Further claims have been made about sexual assaults – including rape – of female recruits. Despite various police and judge-led reviews, the circumstances around their training and deaths remains unclear – and their families continue to fight for the truth about their bereavements.
The War in Angola
Probably, the worst thing you can do as a civvy is to go out and kill another human being. A soldier, however, is trained to kill – and is expected to do so quickly and effectively. Costas Georgiou was a soldier who excelled at this, especially after he became known as ‘Colonel Callan.’ He came to world attention, on 10th July 1976, as four mercenaries, who had fought for opposition groups in Angola, were executed by a Government firing squad.
The civil war in Angola happened after the country won its independence and occurred during the global ‘Cold War’ period. The rebel groups were armed by the CIA and backed by the US, Western business interests and the then apartheid South Africa. While Angola’s Government forces fought them with the help of Russian tanks and Cuban soldiers.
Within a few years most of the mercenaries were rounded up and imprisoned – or shot by Government firing squads. Three of the executed men, Costas Georgiou, Derek ‘Brummie’ Barker and Andy McKenzie were former members of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment and veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict. The fourth man, Daniel Gearhart, was a US ex-Special Forces Vietnam veteran.
Costas Georgiou came from a family in the large Greek Cypriot community in north London. Before he joined the British Army he had been described as: ‘a quiet, introspective youth.’ But, later, during his trial as Colonel Callan, it became clear that Georgiou had been responsible for untold deaths, both on his own side and that of the ‘enemy’.
A BBC Panorama programme on the mercenaries said:
‘In Angola it was the psychopathic exploits of a mercenary leader, the self-styled Colonel Callan that caused public outrage. Callan, a dishonourably discharged paratrooper, ordered the execution of twelve mercenaries … when they refused to fight’.
The John Wayne Syndrome
During Georgiou’s initial army training, as experienced NCOs hammered the recruits into line, he responded resolutely and threw off his quiet, introspective side:
‘Once in the army … a more aggressive side to his character emerged. He seemed determined to prove himself the best soldier in the entire British Army. And, for a time, he came close to achieving his ambition: during training at Aldershot, he picked up awards as best machine-gunner, best Self-Loading Rifle shot and best al-round recruit in the camp. Not content with this, he became a fitness fanatic, soon excelling at the physical side of army training’. [‘Fire Power,’ by Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins, Corgi 1978].
One of the initial tests for the Paras is called ‘milling’, when recruits fight each other for a set period. Win or lose, they are expected to show sustained aggression and will be rejected by this elite unit unless they do so. As well as tough and brutal training, Paras are encouraged to regard themselves as superior to other soldiers, whom they scornfully call ‘craphats’.
Georgiou also responded in kind to this and adopted a hard persona:
‘He went out of his way to develop a tougher, more aggressive image than anyone else in his unit. He spent hours in front of a mirror, perfecting the toughest, meanest scowl he could devise. When off duty he adopted a solid, swaggering walk that John Wayne might have been proud of. Such stunts were crude but they paid off – his officers took notice of him. Of all the men in his regiment, Georgiou was the one chosen for the prestigious position of bodyguard to his Commanding Officer in Northern Ireland’. [‘Fire Power,’ by Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins, Corgi 1978].
In the War Zone
The late playwright John Arden, spent his period of National Service in the Army a few years after the end of the Second World War. Later, in the early 70s he described some soldiers he encountered during a journey:
‘I travelled recently on the Irish Mail train from Euston to Liverpool. In the long open carriage was a group of very young ‘skinhead’ soldiers, in full battle-gear, on their way to the Belfast ferry. Nearly every passenger in that carriage was obviously Irish, from their speech. The soldiers sat in a mute savage huddle, their eyes twitching to follow the movements of each man who passed them on the way to the toilet or the buffet-car. For them, it was clear, the Falls Road began in Euston Square.
I have said these boys were “skinheads”: their haircuts were civilian and cultic, even though they wore uniform. What is a “skinhead” but the most alienated and rancorous product of our present state of industrial opportunism compounded by induced unemployment? The rejects join the Army; already disturbed, they are inducted into an already lunatic system’.
Tony Clarke served with the Paras as a private, a NCO and as a commissioned officer from 1971 to 1978. In his book, ‘Contact’, he described a typical para unit, inside a fort in west Belfast:
‘As time drags on, the whole camp is praying for a contact. For an opportunity to shoot at anything on the street, pump lead into any living thing and watch the blood flow. Toms [soldiers] sitting in their overcrowded rooms putting more powder into baton rounds to give them more poke; some insert pins and broken razor blades into the rubber rounds. Buckshee rounds have the heads filed down for a dum-dum effect, naughty, naughty, but who’s to know when there are so many spare rounds of ammunition floating about.
Lead-filled truncheons, magnum revolvers, one bloke has even got a Bowie knife. Most of the NCOs and officers are aware that these things are around and if they aren’t, then they shouldn’t be doing the job. We have spent months and years training, learning from pamphlets called “Shoot to Kill”, “Fighting in Built-up Areas” and others. So now, we’re let loose on the streets trained to the eyeballs, waiting for a suitable opportunity to let everything rip’. [‘Contact’, by A F N Clarke, Pan Books 1984].
The soldiers, intensely trained and indoctrinated for tours of duty in Northern Ireland, were often hyped-up, aggressive time-bombs – ready to explode at any minute. In his book, ‘Shoot To Kill’, Michael Asher outlines his experiences in the Parachute Regiment. In graphic detail he tells about his tours of duty in Northern Ireland:
‘One group of soldiers would hold so-called “gunge” contests. They sat round in a circle and tried to outdo each other in acts of gross obscenity, like eating shit and drinking urine. During house searches they vented their anger on their victims, smashing down doors and breaking up furniture, kicking and rifle-butting anyone who resisted, making lewd suggestions to the women of the house and threatening the children’. [‘Shoot To Kill – A soldier’s journey through violence’, by Michael Asher, Penguin Books 1991].
Brigadier Kitson and the Paras
In 1970, Brigadier Frank Kitson was posted to Belfast to command the 39th Infantry Brigade. Kitson had joined the British Army as a young officer soon after the end of the Second World War and helped sharpen the army’s counter-insurgency techniques in Kenya, Malaya and Oman. In 1971 his first book, ‘Low Intensity Operations’, was published and many people believed that the aim of the book was to promote the Army’s ‘new role’ in dealing with internal dissent within the UK.
Kitson’s appointment to Belfast reflected the changing military emphasis from policing to counter-revolutionary operations – and signalled the start of an army offensive against Nationalist districts and the republicans. The Paras, recognised to be one of the Army’s toughest units, were used by Kitson as shock troops to subdue ‘troublesome areas’.
Michael Asher, after telling about the tension and fights that would sometimes break out between soldiers, then described how some Paras were affected by the extremes that training, conditioning and alienation brought out:
‘… The circumstances of our training, coupled with the peculiar nature of our existence in Northern Ireland – a blend of boredom, frustration and occasional terror – turned us into savages. We begged and prayed for a chance to fight, to smash, to kill, to destroy: we were fire-eating berserkers, a hurricane of human brutality ready to burst forth on anyone or anything that stood in our way. We were unreligious, apolitical and remorseless, a caste of warrior-janizaries who worshipped at the high-altar of violence and wanted nothing more’. [‘Shoot To Kill – A soldier’s journey through violence’, by Michael Asher, Penguin Books 1991].
Costas Georgiou seemed to relish this situation and, while serving with the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in Belfast, acquired a ‘hardman’ reputation. He and other soldiers, seeking aggravation and violence with the local population, would often use unconventional methods to bring about confrontations:
‘Like pelting hot-headed mobs of Catholic youths with stones, provoking them into retaliation that could be matched with further violence’. [‘Fire Power,’ by Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins, Corgi 1978].
The role of the army in Northern Ireland was described as ‘peacekeeping’ in the British media, but throughout the conflict the Paras earned a notorious reputation. Costas Georgiou’s unit was responsible for the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in early 1972, in which 14 civil rights demonstrators were shot dead.
Almost thee decades later a civilian witness at the Saville Bloody Sunday Inquiry spoke to the Irish Times:
‘The witness said that … Bloody Sunday journalists had shown him some photographs and he had picked out one which resembled the soldier who shot at him. He was told that the paratrooper in question had been among a number of British mercenaries who were tried and executed during the Angolan civil war after they had killed and wounded many innocent civilians. The journalists showed him a picture of a man … and told him this was the same paratrooper, that he was a Greek Cypriot nicknamed “Colonel Callan”, and that he had fired 26 bullets on Bloody Sunday’. [Irish Times 15th Dec. 2000]
During the Saville Inquiry, UNK 180, was the cypher used for a soldier, who some thought could be Costas Georgiou. He was referred to by witness Soldier 027, who gave the following account about him:
‘Soon after arriving in Belfast I received a beating at the hands of UNK 180. He was an individual who lived in a world that I cannot comprehend. He had all the positive attributes of a para. He was a very efficient soldier, and by reputation an excellent shot and a top recruit. However, he was totally lacking in the attributes usually associated with a normal human being. On a day off with a colleague, he took a sub-machine gun from the barracks and attempted to rob a Post Office in Belfast (it was not difficult to get weapons out of barracks if you wanted to). He was given 5 years and, during his trial, he threatened to kill the prosecuting officer. He was dishonourably discharged and later became a notorious mercenary’.
From Costas Georgiou to Colonel Callan
The Paras, after their brief, but bloody, deployment to Derry, returned to Belfast. And Costas Georgiou, after prison and a dishonourable discharge, arrived in Angola a few years later as Colonel Callan. So, what had changed the quiet Georgiou into the brutal Callan?
In 1886, ninety years before, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ was published. The book explored the idea that most people, especially men, have competing impulses within them: Good vs Evil, Truth vs Lies, Love vs Hate and Friendliness vs Aggression. The book depicts the kind and caring Jekyll drinking a special potion and changing into the inhumane and brutal Hyde. At the start Dr. Jekyll, who’d developed the concoction, can control his conversions into Mr. Hyde, but later, loses control, and the transformations increasingly happen in an involuntary manner.
Georgiou, like most soldiers, joined the army at a young age, and, no doubt, the military would have liked Dr. Jekyll’s potion to unleash his blood lust. However, in the absence of that, they relied on their tried and trusted training programmes:
‘The shock of the first couple of days was intentionally brutal … in a system of basic training designed to suppress individuality, restrict freedom in every possible way, install instinctive obedience without a question of any kind, increase physical fitness, and generally so depress the conscript into a common mould that he would instantly serve the force’s purposes in anything that it asked him to do: to the point of killing fellow human beings, or of offering himself to be killed.
The forces had learnt how to train men quickly and intensively in the Second World War; the absolute necessity of training them to this zombie-like state had been taught in the trenches of the First, when an order over the top to almost certain death had to be obeyed instinctively or it would not have been obeyed at all.’ [‘All Bull: The National Servicemen’, from the introduction by B S Johnson, Quartet Books 1973].
It was training like this that produced the cannon fodder for the ‘Great War’ and many more conflicts since. It was training like this, combined with indoctrination and his period of duty in Northern Ireland, that changed Costas Georgiou into Colonel Callan and made him a good and efficient killer. And, as he walked out to face his firing squad, he had ‘MADE BY THE BRITISH ARMY’ stamped all over him. Some veterans will be proud of this, however all I feel is anger and sadness – firstly for the victims of Colonel Callan in Ireland and Angola, but also for that ‘quiet, introspective youth’, the pre-army Costas Georgiou.
Aly Renwick is a member of Veterans For Peace UK. He served in the British Army for 8 years in the 1960s, and his new novel, ‘Gangrene’, has just been published by the Merlin Press.