≡ Menu

My Friend The Enemy, by Steve Metcalfe

My Friend the Enemy, by Steve Metcalfe

 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about an old friend, somebody I’ve known since my army days, and one of the cleverest and funniest blokes I’ve ever met.

Let’s call him Dave.

Dave left the army while I still had a couple of years to push. For his nine years he’d been rewarded with two stripes and a medal, for active service in Northern Ireland.

I clearly remember the last time I saw him as a serving soldier. I remember how he laughed at us on the day he left. He was headed for the real world and freedom, while we, with our poxy little bedspaces and pork pie haircuts remained prisoners of “the system”.

It was several years before I saw him again, by which time I had myself taken the road to “freedom” in civvy life and struggled daily with the consequences of that decision.

To my surprise Dave arrived at the reunion wearing a crisp dark blazer and regimental tie, his one medal with its purple and green ribbon on proud display. Dave had evolved. He was now an ex-serving soldier, a veteran, and over the years he’d discovered that this actually afforded him more status in the eyes of the world than he’d ever had while in uniform.

Dave was still Dave of course. He’d been a trickster and a rebel in the old days and never worried about the kind of trouble it got him into. But I soon realised that he’d done something with his memories, adjusted them to fit tighter into a different narrative than the one I remembered.

Don’t we all do it to one degree or another?

He’s well into his sixties now, has been a civilian since the age of 27, but still thinks of himself as a “rifleman”. And these days those altered memories have become the cast-iron facts of Dave’s story.

And he has enemies. He sees them everywhere. His enemies are not usually specific individuals. There are no blood feuds or vendettas hanging over his head. He has no gambling debts, and he gets on fine with most of his family, his neighbours, and with the crowd down the pub.

No, the enemies that plague his life are of a more generalised and varied sort and tend to fit handily into particular categories or types. Naming them helps him to focus and makes them easier to identify, especially when pointing them out to others.

In no particular order:

Lefties; Greens; Socialists; Liberals; Vegans; Muslims (inevitably); Immigrants, illegal or otherwise; “Snowflakes” who want to ban golliwogs and fox hunting; White poppy wearers, or those who don’t wear a poppy at all; Guardian readers; Anti-monarchists, especially if Irish or Scottish; Foreigners of all types whose first language isn’t English, (but especially the French);

And army veterans who don’t play the game the way he does.

You get the idea.

Some of those on the list are black or dark skinned, many are not. So whatever else you might accuse him of you could not call him out for being exclusively a racist.

The one thing they have in common is their tendency to stand out for being “different”. Different from Dave, that is. By definition of course, enemies are different from us and observe customs that are not our own. And the epitome of difference is the foreigner.

If that foreigner happens to be a dark-skinned Lefty who hates the Queen, so much the better.

In recent years his list of enemies has grown in leaps and bounds. Brexit gave him an unprecedented opportunity to widen the scope of his hunt. “Remoaners” seemed to be everywhere he looked. Some lived next door or up the street. Shockingly there were even one or two in his own family.

Facebook gave him a platform from which to express his views about those he hated. It also allowed him to connect with like-minded souls with whom he could exchange bits of news to help stoke the fire. But a brief flirtation with the BNP ended when he saw that their violence was too random and ill-disciplined. They hated everyone, even themselves.

Of course these days everyone’s doing it – finding enemies and eviscerating them online that is. But it has a special quality when the hunter is a military veteran. In Dave’s case for example, after leaving the army he simply carried on doing what he’d been trained to do – search for and find the enemy, then do whatever he was able to do to destroy it, almost as though he was carrying out a subliminal instruction.

Although he’d never admit it Dave needs his enemies a lot more than his enemies need him. Having an enemy is important to him, not only to help him define his identity and demonstrate his own worth, but also to provide him with an obstacle against which to measure his system of values .

I doubt that he could manage otherwise. His grievances give him a reason to get up in the morning, get the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing. The need to have something to react against has become second nature, almost like the daily intake of a drug, helping to reassert his sense of self and the things he stands for. So much so that …

… If there were no enemy he would have to invent one.

I still see Dave from time to time. He’s not the man he used to be, but he’s not a bad person either. He took good care of his kids, loves his grandchildren, and is good company over a couple of pints.

Back in the day we talked about everything under the sun, being still young enough to wonder about the people we could become, the women we would meet and what our kids would grow up to be. Now we talk mainly about the past and our supposed glory days, the only thing we have in common.

And I have to tread very carefully. I walk a fine line. It would take very little for me to become one of Dave’s enemies.

  • Norman Scarth 22/01/2020, 11:07

    If I could understand what ‘Steve’ is trying to say, I might be less disturbed by it. We MIGHT even be on the same side?
    As it is, I find it most distasteful – not at all what I expect from Veterans for Peace.
    Norman Scarth.
    Veteran of the Arctic Convoys & the Battle of North Cape in World War 2.

    • Steve Metcalfe 23/01/2020, 13:44

      Hi Norman, thanks for your comment.

      I suppose the the first thing is that I’m not “trying” to say anything other than what’s written on the page. There’s no sub-text or hidden meaning. The piece was written from my own personal experience and my own personal thoughts about a number of old comrades amalgamated into the figure “Dave”. It’s likely that many of us, as veterans, have regularly come across similar people.

      Any ambiguity you find in the writing is deliberate. I’ve met very few people that were either all “good”, or all “bad”. Dave’s certainly not all bad. He’s just a character that’s made certain choices and sees the world through his own personal filters. As someone from a similar background to Dave I could easily have gone down his route but didn’t. That doesn’t make me a saint, and it doesn’t make Dave a monster either.

      I didn’t write this specifically for VFP. I wrote the piece for my own purposes on my own blog and saw no reason to make it fit into a particular narrative or viewpoint other than my own. I wasn’t sure whether it was suitable for the VFP page so asked the website editor and clearly they did. I’m not quite sure why they left off my surname. I’m not trying to hide or looking for anonymity. Hopefully I can get that fixed.

      I’m quite happy to hear any other thoughts you might have. Any insights can be useful.

      All the best, Steve Metcalfe

  • David Lawrence 22/01/2020, 11:35

    As a 15 year old Junior Leader, I was sat down in a classroom and taught racism by a senior corporal I could name him but I won’t.) Along with racism I had lessons in misogyny homophobia and general hate subjects.

    Throughout my army career I used casual racist language until I was serving with NATO forces where I received a lot of support from a mixture of ‘skins’. I realised then that people are good and bad whatever their origins. A shameful lesson was learned by me which has been built on ever since. I can understand ‘Dave’ because the forces attitude to anyone who was different in the 70s and 80s was disgusting. Dave might evolve once he meets his ‘enemy’.

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:27

      I’m afraid that Dave’s past the stage when he could look at himself and his attitudes objectively. For one thing it would take too much of an effort. He’s comfortable where he is and is backed up by a system that essentially praises and rewards his prejudices.

  • Spike Pike 22/01/2020, 11:35

    So sad. I know so many of his ilk. They never left the military. They failed to evolve. It’s all about the “regiment”.

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:31

      I’m glad you said that. I was pretty sure that most of us would know a character like Dave, maybe lots of them. The regiment is is everything to them. In some cases almost like a religion.

  • Kieran Devlin 22/01/2020, 12:12

    I was Dave and I was all of the things mentioned above. I wonder how many of us and our former comrades have a wee bit of Dave in us. Fabulous article.

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:37

      Thanks Kieran. Me and Dave are basically still on the same level. I lived with his attitudes for a long time but got lucky and picked up some different insights. That doesn’t make me better than him. We just chose different paths, that’s all.

  • Eddie Carroll 22/01/2020, 13:58

    Dear Steve, I “get the idea”. I think Dave would have nailed me then and nailed me now as his “enemy”. I fit every category apart from “first language” and “Muslim”. I’m Irish/Scots, my Grandparents were Irish immigrants. The difference for me is that these “enemy” values were mine when I was in the mob and I still hold to them. Still I’m constantly read the Classics or Philosophy or Poetry, go to Art Galleries, Museums, Theatre when I can, and listen to classical music. I’m too old and injured now to play football and run and box anymore but I still get out into the hills for a wee climb occasionally. That was my spare time in the mob – try telling them that when asked what you did with your weekend pass! I couldn’t be pigeon holed and confusingly I was/am very comfortable on my lonesome. My tenement hard East-End of Glasgow accent helped and my phlegmatic manner. Enigma is the word and if you play the game smart and learn to gently help them to step out of their frame of reference, survival is not so hard, in fact it can be an enjoyable challenge; you can and I hope I did, make them think. There weren’t any “heavy-duty” troubles I couldn’t deal with. My old man was a Sergeant, CQB and Small Arms instructor and I was brought up brutal but with a good education and even he would very much have been Dave’s enemy. I was the quiet “in-your-face at the material time” guy. In common with Dave I have tried to bring up my children well and give them the best life chances I could and I’ll help to do that with my Grandchildren and maybe one day the Dave’s of this world might sit down and have a quiet pint with someone like me without being “enemies”. It’s not about hatred, its about dialogue and understanding. A lovely piece of concise writing and I could relate to every word.
    Best Wishes,

    Eddie

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 20:58

      Many thanks Eddie,

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:18

      Many thanks Eddie. The thing about Dave is that he’s basically a decent person who’s been educated in an “us and them” mentality. At some point as he grew older he chose the path of least resistance. That was an easier road than being the outsider, and really, all he wanted to do was fit in. He doesn’t know any different and is now too old to change – he’s comfortable with the persona he’s created for himself, and with the way things are for him. It’s bad luck if you happen to be on his “list” because he’s comfortably with the majority. There’s safety in numbers, as we all know.

  • Gerry Osborne (Mr) 22/01/2020, 15:04

    Still a victim of army training ‘your unit is the ultimate elite’ and every thing else is lower and civvies just don’t cut it at all.
    I realised while in combat that civvies are not part of the game, only it’s victims.

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:46

      The sad part about Dave is that he could have chosen to see things differently but didn’t. He chose the easy route, the better to fit in with his mates and society at large. He’s at the stage now where he wouldn’t know the difference any more anyway.

  • Mike Hastie 22/01/2020, 15:53

    I’m a Yank veteran of Viet Nam. I had to go to war to realize that ” I ” was the enemy in Viet Nam. Lying is the most powerful weapon in war. I was born in America, but my heart is Vietnamese. That last sentence will be on my tombstone.

    • Adrian Walker 23/01/2020, 10:12

      ❤ Love that last line. Thank you.

  • Paul Rogers 22/01/2020, 15:54

    Very good, poignant in fact.
    ‘Dave’ could be me or any number of ex servicemen.

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:47

      It definitely could have been me as well. I got lucky.

  • David Westgate 22/01/2020, 18:11

    Defining oneself by “othering”, having to have hate-figures, is a dangerous as well as a personally destructive way to live. Perhaps that is just an obvious truth, but there are plenty who can’t see it. And the kind of early experience, even if only relatively short-term, like basic training for national service, can all too easily foster it, particularly if up to that time you have a feeling of not belonging or being valued. To “belong” is a powerful motive and feeling. To realise you belong to humanity, and that we all have our value as humans, is to avoid “othering”, even if we all have preferences about who we want to be with. Be thankful if that is your condition.

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:53

      That’s a really good point. I see Dave as someone who decided that above, everything else he wanted to belong. Now his entire worldview is tailored to fit in with a particular segment that he identifies with. Anyone outside of that is, at the very least, a suspect.

  • ALY RENWICK 24/01/2020, 10:21

    In Victorian Britain, just like in our own time – despite waves of pro-imperial propaganda – many people had misgivings about the morality of taking and holding other peoples’ land by armed force. This often gave rise to contradictory feelings about our soldiers, which were expressed by Francis Adams in his poem England in Egypt:

    From the dusty jaded sunlight
    of the careless Cairo streets,
    Through the open bedroom window
    where the pale blue held the palms,
    There came a sound of music,
    thrilling cries and rattling beats,
    That startled me from slumber
    with a shock of sweet alarms.
    For beneath this rainless heaven
    with this music in my ears
    I was born, and all my boyhood
    with its joy was glorified,
    And for me the ranging Red-coats
    hold a passion of bright tears,
    And the glancing of the bayonets
    lights a hell of savage pride.

    So I leapt and ran, and looked,
    And I stood, and listened there,
    Till I heard the fifes and drums,
    The fifes and drums of England
    Thrilling all the alien air!
    And “England, England, England,”
    I heard the wild fifes cry,
    “We are here to rob for England,
    And to throttle liberty!”
    And “England, England, England,”
    I heard the fierce drums roar,
    “We are tools for pious swindlers
    And brute bullies evermore!”

    And the silent Arabs crowded,
    half-defiant, half-dismayed,
    And the jaunty fifers fifing
    flung their challenge to the breeze,
    And the drummers kneed their drums up
    as the reckless drumsticks played,
    And the Tommies all came trooping,
    tripping, slouching at their ease.
    Ah Christ, the love I bore them
    for their brave hearts and strong hands, –
    Ah Christ, the hate that smote me
    for their stupid, dull conceits –
    I know not which was greater,
    as I watched their conquering bands
    In the dusty jaded sunlight
    of the sullen Cairo streets.

    And my dreams of love and hate
    Surged, and broke, and gathered there,
    As I heard the fifes and drums,
    The fifes and drums of England
    Thrilling all the alien air! –
    And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
    I heard the wild fifes cry,
    “Will you never know the England
    For which men, not fools, should die?”
    And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
    I hear the fierce drums roar,
    “Will you always be a cut-throat
    And a slave for evermore?”

    • Steve 24/01/2020, 21:53

      Thanks Aly. Powerful stuff.

  • Alan Chick 25/01/2020, 15:36

    I am on a Facebook page for HMS Raleigh, which is a shore base at Torpoint near Plymouth where you go to join the Royal Navy and do basic training. I am constantly seeing posts from guys celebating their anniversary of joining the Navy. Saying that they would do it all again in a heartbeat. Proud that their son has joined. How great it all was, etc. It is all bullshit.
    I don’t know where these people were when I was in. They must have been hiding. All I remember hearing is “ROMFT” which stands for “roll on my fucking time”, “roll on civvy street”,etc. It seems that when they leave some look back with rose tinted specatacles. Perhaps it is just that they want to recapture their youth.

    • Steve 26/01/2020, 11:00

      Thanks Alan, you make an important observation – the fact that so many ex-forces people look back at their time as though it was their personal golden age. For me “Dave” represents all the people I knew who were desperate to free themselves from the military but then, once out build up a picture of themselves as heroic veterans who should be placed on some kind of pedestal. Along with that comes the concept that anyone not for them is against them – and the appearance of “enemies” at every turn.

  • Graham Horne 07/02/2020, 13:45

    The more I read of the experiences of either long served or combat experienced veterans the more I realise how lucky I must have been to have 3 years of doing nothing and don’t believe I have the issues that others seems to have adjusting to civilian life.

    The army of the 70’s was racist in the extreme and I certainly was a small part of it. This was the age of Alf Garnett and most of us at the time had imported Alfisms into our every day speech.

    I do remember one incident when a black soldier was posted to our regiment and the first person he came on was the provost sergeant. A truly assholic piece of work. I heard the racist abuse that the PS aimed at this lad and even I was shocked.

    A lot of you are much more forgiving than I would be if I tripped over a Dave in the pub. Racists are assholes. No exceptions. No excuses.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.