Not to Ask the Reason Why by Aly Renwick


Not to Ask the Reason Why – The Recruitment and Conditioning of British Soldiers

From the end of the Second World War National Service had filled Britain’s Armed Forces with young recruits, but many had not wanted to be there. The military command were also unhappy with conscription – to them it had meant ‘short term soldiers’ who were often prone to ‘indiscipline’, ‘a lack of commitment’ and having ‘educated agitators stirring things up.’ National Service was phased out in the early 1960s and the army was returned to a non-conscript, elite ‘professional’ force.

In 1974, Billy Connolly released his ‘Cop Yer Whack for This’ Album, which included the track ‘I’m Asking You Sergeant, Where’s Mine’ – later shortened to ‘Sergeant, Where’s Mine?’ Connolly had spent some time in the territorial army and the song was inspired by the conflict in Northern Ireland – being told from the point of view of a wounded soldier and makes ironic reference to British Army recruitment advertisements of the era that showed recruits having a grand time in exotic places and enjoying sporting activities like skiing. [Listen to the song:]

A few years earlier the first soldier fatalities in Northern Ireland had featured prominently on the front pages of British papers, while later soldiers’ deaths were relegated to a few lines on an inside page. At the end of 1972, the magazine New Society did a survey of the 100 British soldiers killed in the north of Ireland between January and November of that year: ‘77 were privates, of whom 47 were twenty-two years or under when killed. Only six came from the seven largest cities of Britain, whilst most were from market towns in the West Country, the Fens, or small industrial centres in Lancashire, Tyneside, Scotland or Wales. On average it was the less educated boy who has to leave home to have a hope of employment who joins the British Army.’ [New Society, Dec. 1972].

In the recruitment ads these soldiers were called ‘The Professionals.’ Recruiting from deprived areas – what could be called a de facto economic conscription – now enabled army commanders to target their choice of potential soldiers like Frank Gilchrist: ‘He was born in Pilton, Edinburgh, and grew up on a working-class housing estate that was ‘a bit like the Gaza Strip.’ School held few attractions for him and after several bouts of truancy the 14-year-old Gilchrist was sent to a ‘special school’ that was ‘one step away from borstal.’ Frank’s career prospects were not exactly bright. He left without taking ‘O’ levels and opted for the job of trainee milkman, aged 16. “Then I saw an advert on television – join the army and see the world. It seemed great”.’[Morning Star, 14th Feb. 1989].

Eager to recruit school-leavers with little or no experience of civilian life, the recruiting sergeants hooked potential soldiers with themes like ‘Adventure,’ ‘Sport’ and ‘Travel.’ Chris Byrne, an ex-Royal Marine veteran, said: ‘I joined up because I had no education or qualifications, and where I lived in Essex there wasn’t much work available. I knew others who had joined up, so I decided to follow them. I joined up as a Junior Marine when I was sixteen. I wanted a bit of excitement, a bit of travel, to be tough, to be something – rather than just be nothing outside.’[Ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne, British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, Information on Ireland 1978].

Youths from a low educational background were targeted for recruitment, because they were easier to mould into the type of soldiers the officers required. They were unlikely to question their training or orders, and those who did become disaffected had difficulty articulating their grievances or organising protests. Many recruits had racist, sexist and homophobic prejudices then current in society, which were often encouraged in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways, during training. Some were attracted to the army by the macho image that many regiments like to portray: ‘The image of the services, “disciplined,” “tough and professional,” was very attractive. … It’s a very masculine atmosphere … you get a lot of crap about how they are going to separate the men from the boys … The pressure is on you to stick it out and get through the training because you want to prove yourself to your mates.’ [Ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne].

Once recruited, ordinary soldiers were tied to binding contracts, which were often many years in length. Basic training, as experienced NCOs hammer the recruits into line, has altered little over the years: ‘The shock of the first couple of days was intentionally brutal. The new recruits would usually be met at the station, given food reasonably soon after arrival at the camp, and provided with the means to write and say they had arrived safely. But these were virtually the last kindly acts for eight to twelve weeks in a system of basic training designed to suppress individuality, restrict freedom in every possible way, install instinctive obedience without questions 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].


In the old days soldiers had been flogged to keep them in line. Now, with this type of corporal punishment no longer an option, officers ensured that increasing emphasis was given to the indoctrination of recruits. Training is designed to mould squaddies into the Army’s way of thinking and sense of purpose and 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 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 this training is the crude verbal taunts, often 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 take easily to this type of military life, and the first casualties of these methods often occurred inside the training units themselves: ‘A bullying corporal made life hell for army recruits, it was claimed yesterday … At barracks where three young soldiers have died in the last three months … The incidents are alleged to have taken place at Shorncliffe Barracks, Kent, last summer. At the barracks in December, 17-year-old soldier Nicholas Burnup apparently shot dead a corporal and turned the gun on himself. A month later another 17-year-old, Jeffrey Singh, was found hanging dead.’ [Daily Record, 5th March 1987]. The inquest into the death of private Jeffrey Singh heard allegations of bullying and that he had been called a ‘black bastard.’ [Independent, 12th Oct. 1987].

Any veteran who has experienced basic training will know that sometimes things will happen that have the potential to get out of control. At Deepcut Barracks in Surrey there were allegations of sexual harassment, including rape, of female recruits and the deaths of 4 recruits – 3 male and 1 female. The army declared that all the deaths, which occurred between 1995 and 2002, were suicides – but later shut down the barracks and released the land for housing development. The families of the four who died at Deepcut, thought that the recruits had been murdered and they led a campaign calling for a public inquiry into these deaths and also any more like these across all the army. The Labour MP, Kevin McNamara, asked questions in parliament about Deepcut and also wanted to know the extent of any other such events in the army? He was told that across the army there were more than 100 deaths a year being caused by non-combatant and natural causes.

Those recruits that survived basic training were then posted to a unit within their designated regiment. The army regimental system binds soldiers to their particular unit and promotes competition within the army structure. It is also used to promote values that encourage ‘loyalty’: ‘Individual soldiers identify with this unit of 500 or 650 men [armoured regiment or infantry battalion] as their tribe or clan (tribe, clan and family are all words frequently used by the Army to describe its regiments) … units generally have an affiliation with a specific part of the United Kingdom (especially for recruitment purposes). … There is a corpus of sacred history, a hoard of sacred possessions (e.g. the paintings and silver of the officers’ mess), a special dress code (e.g. the scarlet tunics and bearskins of the Guards), a totem (usually called the colours), and a rigid hierarchy within which an individual’s place is clearly known to himself and others. … The individual, commissioned or not, enters the regiment after the rite of passage of training and must then undergo a period of semi-official apprenticeship or probation … the origins of hierarchy are often perceived as feudal, with all members being categorised as officers, non-commissioned officers or other ranks (similar classification being applied to their dependents as well), and with the social organisation and practice of the regiment generally mirroring that of “Old England” (or Scotland or Ireland), an attractive mythical land to which a living link is maintained through the person of the sovereign.’ [A New Model Army, by Michael Yardley and Dennis Sewell, WH Allen and Co 1989].

Once in their regiment, recruits are still at risk from their fellow soldiers during unofficial initiation ceremonies, called ‘beastings,’ to which the officers turn a blind eye: ‘A young soldier told yesterday of his ordeal during a “beasting.” A nightmare initiation ceremony for recruits to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers … The 20-year-old recruit told the court (martial) that after an evening’s drinking in a pub in Colchester, where the First Battalion was based until March, he had gone back to his room to sleep. … He was wakened by [soldiers A and B], who put a motorcycle helmet on his head and told him to mark time naked beside his bed. “I didn’t do it fast enough, so I was hit on the head,” said Private Guthrie. He was marched naked to another room where, before a group of privates who included the accused, the initiation began. … Guthrie said [soldier C] tied a string round his private parts, and attached it to his right ankle. Then he was forced to mark time, despite intense pain, until the string snapped. Next, said Guthrie, he was indecently assaulted with a broom handle as he bent over a table. And then, he claimed, he was burned three times on the private parts by [C] using a hand-made flamethrower – an aerosol can and a cigarette lighter … Next, Guthrie told the court, he was forced to perform a sex act while colour photographs were taken. And finally he was put into a mattress cover, punched and kicked, and dropped through a window about 20 feet to the ground, where he was forced to crawl through the snow.’ [Daily Record, 28th Oct. 1987].

Beastings are unofficially encouraged and condoned by the military command because these practices are thought to toughen-up newcomers and be character forming and helpful in creating bonds between the soldiers. Officers were also known to have indulged in similar activity within their own ranks.

Real Men

Most recruits who stayed the course and qualified as ‘professionals’ become distanced from their old life and society outside. Prevalent military culture encourages the soldiers to see themselves as ‘real’ men. This macho ideology often leads squaddies into increasingly sexist views, which become a part of their army life: ‘Walk into any British military barracks and often there exists a culture of sexism fuelled by an under-ground market of hard-core pornography. Porn may not have the approval of senior officers but in trouble spots like Bosnia and Ulster, where virile young soldiers are often confined to barracks because of the hostility of locals, it is regarded as acceptable entertainment … The seeds of female debasement are sown at an early stage in a serviceman’s career. Recruits undergoing training are sometimes encouraged, if not ordered, to produce salacious pictures of girlfriends for inclusion on so-called grot boards. A grot is military-speak for a woman, and the grot boards are hung in the barrack room. The recruit who produces a picture of his girlfriend indulging in the most lurid sexual act wins a prize…’ [Express, 11th Oct. 1997, article by Sean Rayment].

A Para veteran, Michael Asher, wrote that after a night’s drinking in Aldershot off-duty paras would perform the ‘Dance of the Flaming Arseholes: ’ A soldier would clamber onto a table and strip off while his mates sang ‘The Zulu Warrior.’ When naked, a rolled-up piece of newspaper was thrust into his anus and then lit. A man showed his bottle by allowing the flames to get right up to his anus before removing what was left of the paper. Paras also held ‘grot contests’ that consisted of seeing which soldier could pick up the ‘most nauseatingly ugly girl.’ The women would be brought back to a certain pub at a certain time and ‘the grot’ of the evening would be judged: ‘The crowning act of utter obscenity was to obtain a woman’s hand-bag under some pretext and defecate into it.’ [Shoot to Kill – A Soldier’s Journey Through Violence, by Michael Asher, Penguin Books 1991].

Marilyn French, in her book The War Against Women, describes how males are conditioned and their subsequent behaviour: ‘From boyhood, males are bombarded with the message that “real” men dominate women, which means they control women’s behaviour and may abuse them verbally and physically … To justify abusive treatment of women in their own minds (after all, most men love some women), men must view them as a separate species, like pigs or dogs or cows (terms often applied to women).’ [The War Against Women, by Marilyn French, Penguin Books 1993].

Lance Corporal Vincent Bramley wrote a book called Excursion To Hell about his experiences with the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands War. Aboard the SS Canberra sailing to the islands he tells about the letters of support the soldiers received: ‘At home, the massive support had produced in hundreds of females a sudden liking for both the Army and Navy and they all wanted penfriends. This amused us very much. The daily sackfuls of letters were dumped in our rooms and we picked out the ones we fancied.’ Bramley continued:
‘The whole platoon would gather in one room, grab armfuls of letters and retreat to our cabins. There we would first feel an envelope to see if there was a photo in it, then gather around the growing pile of snaps and pick the best lookers. Some of the lads, even myself, found some right beauties, though writing back to hundreds of women was out of the question … Naturally, not all the photos were of beauties, and the platoons took to keeping personal ‘grot boards.’ You could visit another platoon to view their board for the ‘Ugly Pig Contest.’ Some of the pictures that found their way on to the boards made you wonder if England had anything worthy of Miss World. You would hear a scream of delight when someone found a ‘grot’ photo, and this would bring the rest of the platoon crashing into the cabin to look, making comments like, ‘Fuck me, who’d love that beast?’ or, ‘Pig in knickers!’ [Excursion To Hell – The Battle for Mount Longdon, by Vincent Bramley, Pan Books 1992].

There is probably no stronger ‘real’ men’s club in Britain than that of a regiment in the British Army. Marilyn French points out the characteristics of such organisations: ‘Men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they are inferior. They seek a centre in other men, in male solidarity through male cults (in simple societies), priesthoods, military or paramilitary groups, academies, professions, teams, religious brotherhoods, or the new male cults.’ French continued: ‘All of these exalt not men-as-a-caste but group members, posited as superior to most other men and all women. All such priesthoods teach xenophobia – hatred of strangers – and bigotry; all exalt some form of self-denial – austerity in living, denial of feeling or need – and all worship aggression and violence because all worship domination. Only the ability to dominate others makes them superior to women. And superiority to women is the very foundation of this kind of male identity.’ [The War Against Women, by Marilyn French, Penguin Books 1993].

To Do or Die

Getting out of the army proved to be a problem for many soldiers, as the military did not readily want to lose experienced men. Obtaining a discharge, especially on conscientious grounds, was a long and hard process. Even for an officer, as ex-captain Mike Biggs discovered: ‘There is a means whereby you can get out of the army on grounds of conscience, but the army doesn’t go parading that around. They never told me I could get out on grounds of conscience, even though I was asking to go out because of Northern Ireland and because of my values.’ Biggs continued: ‘It was only by going to an external source that I found out that the army had a means whereby conscientious objectors could go out. I was charged for refusing to do my work on grounds of conscience. They delayed a decision on my case. They employed all the normal psychological things that they do employ when someone tries to go out on grounds of conscience. Obviously it’s not very good publicity for a soldier or officer to go out on grounds of conscience. Far better if he buys himself out, or he goes out because he goes AWOL, or deserts.’ [BRM Radio, Birmingham. The interview was broadcast on 9th Aug. 1979 – the tenth anniversary of the conflict in Northern Ireland].

Ordinary soldiers could expect an even harder time, many just gritted their teeth and soldiered on. There was often a large increase in charges for petty offences before and after a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. Royal Marine Chris Byrne, who was sent to an army prison for being absent without leave, said: ‘After Northern Ireland I was beginning to develop pacifist and anti-military views and my tour in Cyprus when I saw that we were not there to protect human lives but only British military interests and NATO missiles trained on Russia strengthened this. I finally decided I had to get out. I went home to London without leave to think things out and, when I was picked up and charged with being AWOL, I was slung in jail and court-martialled for desertion … I spent three and a half months in Colchester prison and it was an interesting experience looking back on it. The type of people I met in Colchester were, much to my surprise, mostly people who were not in fact criminals. The reasons why they were in Colchester were things that in civilian terms were not criminal offences; absences, refusing to obey certain orders and things like that. One of the surprising things was the amount of people actually in Colchester for desertions and absences and the way the prison population had increased over the period that the British Army had been in Northern Ireland. I concluded from that that sending soldiers continually back to Northern Ireland has obviously some effect on this and I think that a lot of dissatisfaction with service in Northern Ireland is manifested by drunkenness, petty offences, absences and desertions and things like that and I think this is one of the reasons the prison population went up.’ [British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, Information on Ireland 1978, by ex-Royal Marine Commando Chris Byrne].

The soldiers who did get out were usually those who had questioned the actions they were asked to carry out. This tended to leave a more hard-core element, including some who considered themselves to be ‘real’ men – who had few qualms about dishing out the aggro. In his book, Shoot To Kill, Michael Asher outlines his experiences in the Parachute Regiment. In graphic detail Asher tells about his training and his tours of duty in Northern Ireland. He describes the tension and the fights that break out between soldiers in this situation. He then describes the extremes that training, conditioning and alienation can bring out in some soldiers: ‘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 … 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].

After deploying their soldiers on the streets in the north of Ireland in 1969, Westminster politicians were always talking about the ‘peacekeeping role of the army in Ulster’ – and the British media were saying ‘what a jolly good job our boys are doing in Northern Ireland.’ The army, however, gradually embarked on a series of aggressive operations. These actions, which included the Falls Curfew 1970, Internment 1971, Bloody Sunday 1972 and Operation Motorman 1972, quickly turned Northern Ireland into a zone of on-going conflict. These hostile acts, however, did not cow the Nationalist section of the population – and instead only bred a violent resistance. At the time of the Falls Curfew it was estimated that IRA activists were less than a hundred, but by the end of Operation Motorman they numbered in their thousands. Since then British troops have been deployed in various other places around the world, often with similar results.

Brigadier Frank Kitson, who was an army commander in Belfast during those aggressive operations in the early 70s, ironically pointed out that: ‘It might be of interest to recall that when the regular army was first raised in the seventeenth century, “Suppression of the Irish” was coupled with “Defence of the Protestant Religion” as two of the main reasons for its existence.’ [Brigadier Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations, 1971]

An army – the name is taken from the Latin ‘arma’ (arms or weapons) and old French ‘armée’ (armed) – is usually known as the land-based fighting force of a nation or state. Britain’s ‘professional’ army of today can be traced back to Comwell’s New Model Army that emerged during the English Civil War. Fighting for a more democratic England, many Leveller supporting regiments in the New Model Army elected rank and file delegates, called Agitators, who attended the army council with the Grandees (senior officers). After winning the Civil War, Cromwell and the other Grandees then set out to invade Ireland. This was opposed by many Agitators and Levellers, which in turn led to them being supressed and demolished by Cromwell. That was the only time that the rank and file have had a voice, or any say, in the British Army. [To read ‘Agitators and the New Model Army’:]

Now, in civvy street, if conflict is being promoted by our politicians, lots of people will quite rightly ask about the reasons put forward for going to war – and question – are they right? Or are they wrong? But, when it comes to soldiers, concerns like these are kept out of the equation – and soldiers’ thoughts on this, unless gung-ho, are usually not welcomed.

While it is British taxpayers who fund our armed forces, our military is directed by ‘professional’ politicians, is organised and controlled by an officer class and is used to further the interests of not only our own establishment – but also the powers that be in the US and multinational banks and corporations. Military personnel swear allegiance to the reigning monarch and experts have claimed that after training our soldiers will fight:

1) For themselves – combative instincts / manly pride / survival.
2) For their mates – bonding / fear of letting the side down.
3) For the regiment – tribal loyalty.
4) For national reasons – Queen and country.

The rights or wrongs of wars and conflicts do not enter the equation.

So, training, as well as building recruits physically and developing combat skills, is also used to strengthen the soldiers’ reasons and will to fight. This is then expanded within the regiment, especially before tours of duty, as the officers try to ensure that their soldiers have lost their last vestiges of individuality and have become cogs in the army machine. Ready to do or die – and not to ask the reason why.

Aly Renwick served with the British Army in SE Asia during the American war in Vietnam, he is a member of Veteran For Peace UK.



  1. Phil Bird says:

    Excellent read. A perspective that makes complete sense.

  2. Malcolm Samuel says:

    Yes, that hits the nail right on its head, and it says it all.

  3. Fiona Gallagher says:

    Aly, such a powerful piece of writing. I’m actually in awe of it. I straight to the point, honest piece of writing. So informative and frank. I hope to have the pleasure of meeting you at the conference this Saturday x

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