“Civvies is an open wound … Nothing in Civvies hadn’t happened. It wasn’t a fictional drama. It was fact, all of it. The shoals of letters I still get: ‘That was my brother, that was my father, that was my uncle, that was my husband’.”

Lynda La Plante – award-winning writer, talking about her TV drama, ‘Civvies’, which was broadcast in 1992.

All serving personnel will eventually leave the Forces and become veterans in Civvy Street, many will still have a high-regard for their old unit – ‘The Regiment’, or equivalent – and their military life-style may continue in a regimental blazer and tie. Other will be critical of aspects of their life in the forces and sometimes of the conflicts they were deployed in. Some will believe they have suffered moral, or psychological, injuries due to the various forms of training and/or the tours-of-duty in hostile situations.

All of these veterans, however, can end-up with problems, which are often kept personal to them and their families. 1968, ironically called the year of revolution, was claimed to be the first year since the end of WW2 that British troops were not officially involved in armed actions somewhere overseas. But even then, some covert operations were still being undertaken.

In Oman for instance, seconded British military personnel, ‘advisers’ and mercenary units were engaged in a conflict to ensure the rule of an imperious Sultan. One year later, regular British troops were sent out onto the streets of Derry in Northern Ireland, where, from 1969 to 2007, Operation Banner was to become the longest continuous deployment in British military history. During which troop numbers rose markedly over the duration of the conflict.

Two decades later, in 1989, violence from ‘the Troubles’ disturbed the peace in an idyllic part of the English countryside. As gunfire rang out in a tranquil Suffolk village, the local people scurried for cover and requested help. This incident, however, did not involve the IRA, the violence came from an ex-British soldier:

“When Corporal Michael King bought himself out of the British Army in 1988 he left the barracks in County Armagh with only one intention: to escape from what seemed to him an intolerable life. His two years of infantry service in Northern Ireland – street patrols, mortar attacks, deaths of fellow soldiers – had stretched his nerves to breaking point. He had resolved to abandon an eight-year military career, his friends in the regiment and to start anew on the mainland.”

[Observer Magazine, 10th June 1990, by Peter Nasmyth].

Michael King had settled happily into civilian life, living with his wife in the village of Nayland and all was going well until a day in April 1989. Strolling home one Sunday afternoon, King suddenly believed he was back in the war zone on active service. Imagining IRA men in the surrounding area he ran home and took out his shotgun and what he had left of his old army equipment.

With his terrified wife hiding in a cupboard, King then set up a firing position at the front window of their flat and started shooting. His first shots hit the vicarage, attracting the attention of other villagers who summoned help. Soon he was surrounded by police squads, which including armed marksmen prepared to shoot.

Michael King had suffered a ‘Flashback’ – a symptom of combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But without any knowledge then of this condition, King desperately tried to come to terms with what was happening:

“Worst of all he could find no explanation for his loss of control. Knowing nothing of PTSD or its treatment, he concluded himself to be ‘beyond help’, a danger to society, and called on the police marksmen to shoot him – ‘take me out’. But the police had sensed that the threat to the public had ceased, and that the only life in grave danger was King’s – at his own hand. Throughout the night two police officers talked to him and finally convinced him of the option of surrender.”

[Observer Magazine, 10th June 1990, by Peter Nasmyth].

In April 1990, Michael King appeared before Ipswich Crown Court and pleaded guilty to charges of criminal damage. He entered a plea of mitigation that he had been suffering from PTSD, the first time this argument had been used in a British court. Sentencing King to a three- year probation order, contingent upon him continuing a course of therapy, Justice John Turner said:

“I am now satisfied you were suffering from a serious condition of trauma associated with your service with Her Majesty’s Army… and there is no real risk of a repeat providing you undertake therapy.”

[Observer Magazine, 10th June 1990, by Peter Nasmyth].

Around that time there had been a continual series of other incidents in Britain involving Northern Ireland veterans. Often described as soldiers ‘cracking-up’, the occurrences involved veterans committing act of violence, sometimes with family members, or to strangers outside. The following are two examples of the type of problems that were happening.

In February 1990, fourteen-year-old Jamie McSloy was train-spotting on a school outing from Walkley, Yorkshire, to a rail museum in Reading. The railway platform was crowded and Jamie picked up what he thought was his sports bag. In fact, he had picked up a bag belonging to Ireland veteran, Scott Purnell, a twenty-year-old paratrooper. The Sun reported that Purnell:

Gripped the terrified schoolboy in a headlock and punched him in the face at least eight times. When helpless Jamie collapsed, the para jumped on him with both feet and stamped on his head. Jamie – who had a similar bag to Purnell – has a fractured skull and internal bleeding.”

[Sun, 21st July 1990].

At his trial a year later, after the Judge was shown a secret report from the Army, Purnell escaped jail:

“Instead, Private Scott Purnell, who works in Army intelligence and has a medal for service in Ulster, was given two years’ probation and ordered to pay his victim £2,000, after admitting grievous bodily harm … Assistant Recorder Peter Cooper told Purnell, of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, Aldershot: ‘I accept that you lost your reason and sense of control. The matters which caused this have not been touched on in open court but I accept them’.”

[Daily Mail, 21st July 1991].

In 1991, Gary Roberts was sent to the Gulf with his unit, the 1st Battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment. He was there six months and took part in the conflict, helping to overrun Iraqi trenches. Roberts received a leg wound in a ‘friendly fire’ incident, but soldiered on till the fighting stopped. Afterwards, he required three operations for his wounds, then he was granted leave:

“Back home his mother, Maureen, commented: ‘It was clear immediately that something was terribly wrong. He drank masses. All he did was get up, go out, drink and shout … Half-way through his seven-week leave, he broke down watching television pictures of the Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq … He kept saying: ‘We’ve done that, it’s our fault’. Then his eyes glazed over and he started to strangle me. I lay on the floor because I couldn’t fight my own son and he was too strong; he just got up and ran out’. After a night sleeping rough, Gary returned home and poured out his heart to his parents: ‘He was sobbing. He said, I need help, mum, I need help. He told my husband what he had done, that he’d gone into the Iraqi trenches and found men with no feet, and others dead, the same age as his sister, who was then 13. And an old man dead, clutching a shopping bag with his possessions’. Mrs Roberts rang an army careers office and asked for advice. ‘They simply told me, tell us who it is and we’ll come and get the little bastard. He needs to be locked up’.

Back with his unit in Germany, Gary and a number of other soldiers were travelling in two cars which were stopped and searched by the Military Police, and a quantity of cannabis was found. In order to help her son Maureen Roberts contacted his unit, but she was reassured by those in charge. Officers and other soldiers told Mrs Roberts that Gary and the others had ‘nothing to worry about’. The regiment, she was told ‘was awash with cannabis after the Gulf war’. In light of this, Gary and four other soldiers pleaded guilty at their court martial, which was held at Long Kesh in Northern Ireland. However, the soldiers’ Gulf war experiences were not accepted as mitigation and they were sentenced to seven months imprisonment, then dismissal from service. In the draconian environment of an army prison, Gary’s condition deteriorated … The prison psychiatrist at Colchester has prescribed daily doses of tranquillisers and anti-depressant drugs. His mother, Maureen Roberts, yesterday described a visit to her son last week: ‘He was smiling but his eyes were dead. It was as if he was there but not there at the same time … They tell me that, on the day of Gary’s release, they will give him his breakfast and his medication and discharge him, and leave it up to me to seek further help. When it came to the crunch and he had to serve his country he was not found wanting. Now the army couldn’t care less’.”

[Observer, 30th August 1992].

While many of these violent incidents involving veterans were reported, the media tended to be cautious and each example, more often than not, was conveyed as a one off. So, very few accounts put a string of these incidents together. Therefore, the cumulative effect of these occurrences was missing and the problem for affected veterans remained largely unrecognised, undiagnosed and untreated.

The Michael King episode at Nayland was just the tip of an iceberg of such events. As incidents continued to happen, however, the predicament of some ex-forces members began gradually to come to public attention. Veterans also started to take up the issue and Mick Furey wrote the following poem about his experiences about trying to live with combat-related PTSD:


We are the secret casualties

The walking, talking wounded

No visible scars

Missing limbs

Or sightless eyes,

Just sudden starts

Wakeful nights


And numbed emotions

We cope with life

As if it’s just milk spilt

Mopped up, wrung out

Then swilled away

We carefully unwrap old memories

As if they are too fragile

Or too awful to examine

Victimised by our own dreams

We forever re-live old horrors

Cherishing life

Yet unafraid of death

Somehow dead

Around the time of the ex-Corporal Michael King incident in Nayland, British people had recently witnessed a series of accidental disasters. Graphic press and TV coverage had created an indelible image of the tragedies: the sinking of the ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ at Zeebrugge and the ‘Marchioness’ on the Thames; rail disasters at King’s Cross and Clapham; football tragedies at Bradford and Hillsborough; and Pan Am flight 103 exploding from the skies onto Lockerbie.

With the public feeling sympathy, sorrow and sometimes anger, there was also a growing realisation that survivors – and often rescuers and witnesses – could afterwards suffer severe psychological problems. Gradually, in some civilian cases, official recognition of PTSD meant that short and long-term counselling was often provided and compensation sometimes paid for mental suffering.

Thankfully, most of us go through life without having to face such situations. Veterans, however, thrust into conflicts which continually throw up violent and bloody actions, can not only expect to experience traumatic events, but their whole raison d’être is to train for and take part in them. Tragically, the authorities prefer to ignore and hide the problems of veterans who are suffering from conflict-related PTSD – rather that confront the issue and do something about it.

Because of the macho army culture many soldiers think it would be a sign of weakness to admit to showing symptoms of ‘mental issues’ and veterans can be very suspicious of outside interest in them and are often averse to answering questions. Michael King was just one of many soldiers who have suffered from this condition after tours-of-duty in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere. They need help, but King’s experiences proved that this was just not happening:

“In 1984, just after the Harrods bombing, King had experienced an earlier, lesser episode of PTSD. It happened while he was on leave from his battalion’s intelligence section. He was arrested in an abandoned house which he deludedly believed to be the base of the bombers. ‘It came from all the same symptoms, lack of sleep, isolation, and a sense of guilt at why the English police, in the capital city of my country, should have to deal with a problem I should be dealing with as a member of the military’. The civilian psychiatrist put it down to depression but told me to consult my battalion’s medical officer on return to base. When I told him the symptoms, he said: ‘Yeah, no problem, we’re being posted to Ireland, let’s just leave it there’. So, instead of a medical discharge, King received a two-year tour in Northern Ireland. Of the mental agony leading up to his second episode, King says: ‘If there had been a place, a person or even a telephone line I could have called when my life was ruled by PTSD symptoms, then all this would probably never have happened’.”

[Observer Magazine, 10th June 1990, by Peter Nasmyth].

Veterans suffering from combat-related PTSD are often ‘on-edge’ and they can become prone to having flashbacks, which can sometimes lead to them becoming involved in violent incidents. The problem is complicated, however, by the fact that many veterans themselves do not want to know, or consider, that they might be suffering from ‘mental problems’. Surely, hard, tough soldiers would not succumb to a condition like PTSD, they think – and sadly this helps the MoD and successive Governments to continually turn a blind eye to their plight.

The Hidden Wounds of Psychological Problems after Wars

From very early times, physical conflict between peoples has induced shock among many of the combatants, which can cause problems for veterans long after the conflict has ended. Many centuries ago Roman historians, like Suetonius, had recorded incidents of soldiers’ adverse reactions to battle. In the Civil War in the US (1861-65) a condition called ‘nostalgia’, ‘soldier’s heart’, or ‘camp disease’ was noted that was marked by a ‘lassitude of the spirit’, which soldiers might be ‘laughed out of’ by his comrades, or by ‘appeals to his manhood’.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who is often called the greatest writer in the English language, did not have a name for this condition that affected many veterans, but he knew and wrote about it. In his Henry IV – Part One, Shakespeare has Lady Percy express concern about her warrior husband Hotspur:

“O, my good lord, why are you thus alone?

For what offence have I this fortnight been

A banish’d woman from my Harry’s bed?

Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee

Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,

And start so often when thou sit’st alone?

Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;

And given my treasures and my rights of thee

To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy?

In thy faint slumbers I thee have watch’d,

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,

Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,

Cry ‘Courage! To the field!’ And thou hast talk’d

Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,

frontiers, parapets, of cannon,

Of prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers slain,

And all the currents of a heady fight.

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,

And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,

That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow

Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;

And in thy face strange motions have appear’d.

Such as we see when men restrain their breath

On some great sudden hest.

O, what portents are these?

Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,

And I must know it, else he loves me not.”

Those close to a veteran are usually the first to see how different they are from before they went off to war, as to how they can become after their return. So, Lady Percy was expressing anxieties often felt by family members on the return of a veteran from conflict and her description of Hotspur’s condition indicates that:

  • He was anxious, tense and preferred to be alone and had lost his appetite for food and sex.
  • He appeared depressed, was easily startled and his mind was still in ‘a heady fight’.
  • He was experiencing problems sleeping and when sleep came it was troubled, with murmurings and nightmares about the wars.

All these suggest he was suffering from post-battle trauma, which we would now call PTSD. The condition was not recognised during the time of Shakespeare. He did, however, provide us with one of the first accounts of this type of combat-related psychological disorder, which often occurs among those who fight in brutal wars. 

In our recent past, the early years of the conflict in Northern Ireland had coincided with the latter years of the Vietnam War – and one legacy of the USA’s involvement in Vietnam was the psychological problems that afflicted many of the GIs after they returned home. In 1990, fifteen years after the ending of the Vietnam War, a study in the US found that over fifteen-per-cent of Vietnam veterans were still suffering from PTSD. Many with this condition were unemployed and liable to abuse alcohol or drugs, seventy-per-cent had failed marriages and almost half had served terms in prison.

Four years later, in 1994, a study by CRISIS into homeless people in London found that: ‘Around one-quarter of all single homeless people have served in the forces’. Twenty-nine per-cent of the ex-service people interviewed said they were suffering from nerves, depression and stress and forty-one per-cent of them had spent time in prison.

These were mainly veterans of Northern Ireland and the Falklands, with a few from WW2, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. After, they were joined by veterans from the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1990 I’d received a letter from Frankland maximum security Prison in Durham written by a ‘Category A’ prisoner, who was serving a life sentence for murder. The writer, ex-corporal Jimmy Johnson, had served two tours of duty with the Royal Tank Regiment in Northern Ireland in the early 70s. Operation Banner (1969-2007) was the army name for its Northern Ireland deployment, which is sometimes referred to in the military as the ‘Corporals’ War’.

Before his tours-of-duty, Johnson’s unit had spent many weeks sharpening their combat skills at the ‘Killymurphy’ Tin City complex at Sennelager in West Germany. On tours-of-duty in Northern Ireland, Johnston, as a corporal, commanded patrols that headed out into hostile ‘Indian territory’, which often ended up in unfriendly actions against the locals. During a bombing, Jimmy had been awarded ‘A Mention in Dispatches’ (MID) for attempting to rescue a woman who unfortunately died during this incident.

After leaving the army with his MID gallantry award, Jimmy had gone from Hero to Zero and killed two civilians at different times in Civvy Street. In prison, he’d been aware that his service in Ireland had changed him. He could not work out how or why, however, till a chance meeting in prison, when he’d made friends with a doctor, who was also serving a long sentence, who kept asking Jimmy about his tours-of-duty and the army preparations and training for them.

Then one day the doctor said that he thought Jimmy was probably suffering from PTSD. Not having heard about this condition before, a mystified Johnson had shrugged his shoulders and asked the doctor what he was on about. The doctor had explained by saying that from what Jimmy had told him it was obvious that the soldiers were wound up before a tour-of-duty and that the situation, once there, probably wound them up even more – the doctor had added that it was apparent that there was no process for winding down afterwards.

The doctor also suggested that some soldiers would no doubt be unaffected, but others, like Jimmy, might leave Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland would never leave them. At that moment Johnson was not sure what to think, but the more he thought about his army service and his life after, the more he believed that the doctor might be right. In different prisons Jimmy had met a considerable number of other veterans, most of whom had also served tours-of-duty in Northern Ireland and since leaving the Army, many had also gone down a similar path to Jimmy – that had led them to prison also.

Desperate for help, Jimmy wrote to the MoD and to a now high-ranking officer he had served with. But he received noncommittal replies that were little more than polite brush-offs. Jimmy was also reading anything he could get his hands on that might give him a further understanding of past actions, and by chance came across a copy of my first novel ‘Last night another soldier’ in the prison library.

I had served in Northern Ireland too, but that was in 1968 a year before the troops were first sent out onto the streets in Derry. I’d left the army soon after that, but, Jimmy, thinking that as an ex-soldier I might at least understand, wrote to me asking for assistance in taking up this issue. These are extracts from Jimmy’s letter:

“I have served in the army for ten years, 14 months in Aden (1965-1966) and a 4 month and a 12 month tour of duty in N. Ireland. … Immediately after my 12 months tour in Ireland I bought myself out of the army, for family reasons. Upon returning to civilian life I found I could not settle in or indeed adjust in any way. Although I had the offer of several steady and permanent jobs I simply could not cope. My marriage which had been under great strain whilst I was in Ireland now fell apart. After that it was all downhill and within a mere four months of leaving the army, and my chosen career, I found myself in prison with a long sentence, hence the address. Once in prison I was surprised to find quite a number of ex-soldiers and N. Ireland veterans as fellow inmates. A much higher percentage I would suspect than average for any other profession. This has set me to thinking of the American experience in Viet-Nam and the major adjustment problems their veterans have had upon their return, also the more recent but similar problems the Russians have experienced with their vets from Afghanistan. Now it really would be too much to believe that the British Soldier had come unscathed through 20 years of stress and trauma … Now the Americans have made no secret of their findings and problems, nor indeed have the Russians. But from us the British there is a total deafening silence. Consequently I would greatly appreciate any comment or opinion you might have on this whole aspect of what might best be described as post-Northern Ireland Trauma.”

After receiving his letter and overcoming my initial scepticism, I gradually realised that Jimmy was highlighting a major hidden issue of the conflict. I’d started by looking for other examples of veterans, who, like Jimmy, had become involved in violent acts back in Britain after their return from tours-of-duty in Northern Ireland. After monitoring a few newspapers and a little bit of research, I was surprised at how quickly my file of cases built up and I realised that this was just the tip of the iceberg of a very large problem.

I then started working with Jimmy, a collaboration that has now gone on for over 30 years. We set up Veterans In Prison (VIP) to campaign on the issue and Jimmy wrote many hundreds of letters that strikingly outlined the problem, which we posted off to the great and the good. Via their replies, we gradually realised that the MoD and successive Governments were fully aware of the problem – but rather that do something about it, they preferred to obscure the issues and keep them hidden.

At first, campaigning about combat-related PTSD seemed like banging your head against a brick wall. So, in 1999, based on our ongoing work and research, I wrote ‘Hidden Wounds: The problems of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street’ in an attempt to raise public awareness about the issue. Continually, there were reports of violent incidents involving veterans and, gradually, cracks in the wall started to appear, with others starting to show interest and some beginning to take up the issue.

In 2010, a feature article by Erwin James appeared in the Guardian, which questioned ‘Why are so many former soldiers in prison?’ The article detailed the devastating effects of PTSD on the life of one veteran – Jimmy Johnson. Through Jimmy’s story the article, which was read by an international audience, reflected on the hidden suffering of countless veterans struggling with this disorder and its debilitating consequences (a link to the Erwin James Guardian article is given at the end of this post).

One reader inspired to action by the article was Tom Barman, frontman of the Belgian band dEUS, and he wrote a song called ‘Hidden Wounds’ that was based on Jimmy Johnson’s story:

After hearing the song, Dutch filmmaker Tomas Kaan and production group Prospektor (duo Arnold van Bruggen and Eefje Blankevoort) decided to delve further into the issue. Fuelled by the power of dEUS’s musical work, the team created an interactive music video for the track made up of interviews with 24 veterans suffering from PTSD. Men of all ages, from across the US and Europe, speak about their shared but profoundly isolating experience of returning home but never shaking the memories of battle: 

It was no coincidence that interest had been taken up in Belgium and Holland about this issue. Like Britain, both these countries once had empires too, with post-WW2 memories of facing similar problems trying to maintain their colonial rule. So, there is a shared experience and interest in the hidden wounds of psychological problems, which occurred after our soldiers of empire had come home from colonial wars.

The Cannon Fodder Syndrome

Throughout past centuries, British soldiers and sailors were engaged in many conflicts across the world. After wars, the streets back home were usually filled with discharged veterans. Many were wounded, either physically or psychologically, who the authorities did very little to help and even targeted because they often regarded discharged servicemen as an internal threat to social order.

In the old days many civilians were often coerced, or duped, into joining the armed forces. Resistance to this type of recruitment became commonplace, especially in places like Ireland, which for a time was supplying a large number of the soldiers and sailors for the British Army and Navy. An Irish protest song, ‘Arthur McBride’, from the early 1800s, vividly expressed this opposition to recruitment into England’s armed forces:

The army and navy turned to the press-gang and increasing numbers of civilians were forcibly turned into soldiers and sailors. Once in Barracks, or on ship, the servicemen were immediately subject to a totally undemocratic military system, with harsh laws and extreme punishments, like flogging, for the slightest hint of disobedience. Britain’s empire and the country’s standing as a world power ensured there were almost continuous wars that the soldiers and sailors were thrust into, which were usually brutal and often inhumane.

In 1870, ‘Poetry of the Pavement’ carried a poem called ‘The Hulks’, with this introduction: ‘The Hulks are old vessels kept for the convenience of imprisoning disobedient sailors, who presume to have a conscience opposed to the destruction of foreigners who have no wish on their part to interfere with the private affairs of other countries. But a warrior should never think, and if he keeps a conscience he must soon learn to surrender it to the call of duty (which means the doing of acts contrary to his inclinations, and which may therefore be defined as unnatural morality), or he will soon feel the reason why’. The poem followed:

The youth now leaves his home, his work, his friends;

All social happiness on earth he ends,

And learns assassination as a trade,

Which does his Christian feelings deep degrade.

Conscience at last will claim the power to speak,

And now for conscience brave, for duty weak,

In calm refusal to engender strife,

He earns with conscience clear the hulks for life.

Awake – free trade! and teach us better things;

Show earth is for the people, not for kings;

Show man should send his produce to exchange,

Not armies over other lands to range,

And claim possession through success in war.

Free trade! we ask that you at once restore

The Nation’s sense of justice, and disperse

Kings, Priests, and Warriors, every nation’s curse.

Even after they were discharged veterans were persecuted. In 1824 the Vagrancy Act in Britain had decreed to: ‘act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, and rogues and vagabonds’. Actually, it was enacted mainly to deal with the problems that were occurring in England following the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, because of the large numbers of soldiers and sailors that had been discharged with no job or accommodation and little help to settle back into Civvy Street.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act specifically targeted injured veterans by stating that: ‘Every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms … shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond’. Thus soldiers and sailors who had fought for their country – and suffered wounds in battle – were criminalised on their return home. The Act, which also made it an offence to ‘sleep on the streets’ or ‘to beg’ is still in force, although it has been amended in places by later legislation.

At the time the act was introduced veterans were feared, with some being quick to fly into rages and liable to use violence. They’d received little reward for their service, or help for disabilities and settling back into civilian life. This continued to happen and Henry Mayhew, who wrote many articles about the poor, described some veterans from the Crimea War (1853-6) who were now in Civvy Street:

“The first, or soldier proper, has all the evidence of drill and barrack life about him; the eye that always ‘fronts’ the person he addresses; the spare habit, high cheekbones, regulation whisker, stiff chin … He carries his papers with him, and when he has been wounded or seen service, is modest and retiring as to his share of glory … The second sort of soldier-beggar is one of the most dangerous and violent mendicants. Untameable even by regimental discipline, insubordinate by nature, he has been thrust out from the army to prey on society and is dangerous to meet with after dark on a lonely road.”

During WW1, sixty years after the war in Crimea, over 300 British soldiers were shot at dawn by firing squads from their own side. A few were accused of crimes, but most had been charged with cowardice and desertion. Many, however, due to the horrific nature of the warfare, were suffering from ‘shellshock’ – the name used then for PTSD. ‘King and Country’ was a film made about this issue:

Given the numbers of physically injured, perhaps it is not surprising that little sympathy would be spared for those suffering from hidden wounds. This harsh view was alleviated, to some extent, by the realisation that the officers appeared to be more susceptible to shellshock than ordinary soldiers. By the end of the first year of the war reports from the Army Medical Corps revealed that 7 – 10% of all officer patients and 3 – 4% of ordinary soldiers undergoing treatment were suffering from mental problems.

The percentages mentioned for shell shock cases were very low estimates anyway, but special shellshock hospitals, like Craiglockhart in Edinburgh, were opened for officers. Here they were subjected to brow beatings and coercion from the doctors; rank-and-file soldiers often ended up with more brutal treatment, where electric shocks and other forms of violence were used. The same objective was in mind for both, however, to force them back to the trenches as cannon-fodder.

Siegfried Sassoon, a patient at Craiglockhart for a time, was a model front-line officer, leading with such bravado that he had won a Military Cross. In his poem ‘Suicide in the Trenches’, Sassoon showed his attitude towards the war and those who cheered on from the side-lines:

Known as ‘mad Jack’ to his men in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Sassoon, while recovering at Craiglockhart, clearly felt deeply about the suffering of his fellow soldiers and expressed anger against those who had caused it:

“Shell shock. How many a brief bombardment had its long-delayed after-effect in the minds of these survivors, many of whom had looked at their companions and laughed while inferno did its best to destroy them. Not then was their evil hour; but now; now, in the sweating suffocation of nightmare, in paralysis of limbs, in the stammering of dislocated speech. Worst of all, in the disintegration of those qualities through which they had been so gallant and selfless and uncomplaining – this, in the finer types of men, was the unspeakable tragedy of shell-shock; it was in this that their humanity had been outraged by those explosives which were sanctioned and glorified by the Churches; it was thus that their self-sacrifice was mocked and maltreated – they, who in the name of righteousness had been sent out to maim and slaughter their fellow-men. In the name of civilisation these soldiers had been martyred, and it remained for civilisation to prove that their martyrdom wasn’t a dirty swindle.”

All those countries who fought in the ‘Great War’ had veterans who suffered from ‘Shell Shock’. These were some of the French causalities from the Battle of Verdun in 1916:

Through the gradual realisation of what conditions at the front were really like and the evident effects this had on their returning men, the British public started to accept shellshock as a condition that could affect any soldier. In Europe, people like Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, took up this issue:

“The war, as Freud noted in the introduction to a psychoanalytic study of shellshock, ‘was not without an important influence on the spread of psychoanalysis,’ because medical men ‘who had hitherto held back from any approach to psychoanalytic theory were brought into close contact with them when in the course of their duty as army doctors they were obliged to deal with war neuroses’. The book had arisen from contributions to the fifth International Psychoanalytical Congress held in Budapest in late September 1918. A symposium had been held on ‘The Psychoanalysis of War Neuroses’ … official observers from the highest quarters of the Central European Powers were present as observers at the Budapest Congress. In Freud’s words, ‘The hopeful result of this contact was that the establishment of psychoanalytic Centres was promised, at which analytically trained physicians would have leisure and opportunity for studying the nature of these puzzling disorders [the war neuroses] and the therapeutic effect exercised on them by psychoanalysis.’ Before these proposals could be put into effect, however, ‘the war came to an end, the state organisations collapsed and interest in the war neuroses gave place to other concerns.”

[From War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press 1993].

In London in 1922, on the anniversary of Armistice Day, 25,000 unemployed First World War veterans marched past the Cenotaph in remembrance of the dead. To protest about their own plight, many pinned pawn tickets beside their medals. Ex-soldier George Coppard recalled: ‘Lloyd George and company had been full of big talk about making the country fit for heroes to live in, but it was just so much hot air. No practical steps were taken to rehabilitate the broad mass of de-mobbed men’.

At the end of WW1, all over Europe, there were many young men who had gone straight into the trenches and who knew no life save that of soldiers, some who had served at the front, were left traumatised and brutalised by their experiences. In Germany disillusioned veterans were recruited into the anti-revolutionary ‘Freikorps’ by their former officers, who used these veterans to crush the political Left. Some were later to join Hitler’s paramilitary SA, or ‘Brownshirts’, in the Nazi party; in Italy they marched on Rome with Mussolini and in Russia they fought on both sides in the civil war.

In Britain, the establishment also recruited some veterans again, this time to fight against the Irish people, who were seeking their independence. Rank and file ex-soldiers joined the Black and Tans, while a number of their former officers joined a more formidable force, the Auxiliaries, and, with both attached to the Royal Irish Constabulary, they combined to wage a campaign of state terrorism against the Irish people. When disbanded back in Britain, at the end of that conflict, some were recruited once more and sent to Palestine as an armed Police-militia – to be used to do the same job again against both Jews and Arabs.

In the decade after the ending of WW1, pension boards examined over 100,000 cases of former front-line troops suffering from mental disorders. Many of the worst cases were kept out of sight – locked away in mental institutions, often till they died. At the start of WW2 the British Government was still paying £2 million pounds a year towards shell-shocked veterans of the First World War:

The term a ‘bombers moon’ was used during WW2 to indicate a night with a bright full moon, which enabled the aircrews of bombers to easily find and strike their targets. Conversely, it also helped anti-aircraft guns to target bombers, or enabled fighter planes to find and shoot them down. Both the German Luftwaffe and the British RAF took advantage of bombers’ moons and civilians in cities like Coventry, or Cologne, learnt to fear those especially bright nights that would probably bring air raids.

Mike Harding was born in 1944, a few weeks after his father was killed returning from a bombing raid over Germany. When, many years later, Harding released his song, ‘Bombers’ Moon’, he said it was:

“Dedicated to the memory of my father, Flight Sergeant Louis Arthur ‘Curly’ Harding, a navigator in Lancaster Bombers, who died with his crew when his plane was shot down returning from a raid over Germany. It’s also dedicated to the memory of my good friend Jurgen Boch of Cologne, who was a small child in a bomb shelter in Germany on the night my father died, and to my mother who was a bride, a widow and a mother within the space of a year.”

During WW2, the war in the air proved a decisive battle ground and air crews found themselves in a front-line role. During a two year period of the war, RAF Bomber Command sustained 50% casualties and fifty-five-thousand aircrew met their deaths in combat over Europe. Some crews were faced by the statistical odds of zero for surviving a tour of duty.

After a varying number of missions, many crewmen experienced feelings of intense anxiety and depression. Some had nightmares about bombing missions, others would ‘freeze’ while in the air. These conditions were then called ‘combat-fatigue’, which we now know as combat-related PTSD.

Richard Pape, in his book ‘Boldness Be My Friend’, explained how many crewmen experienced a very real fear that the next mission would be their last:

“I strolled back to the mess, coldly, practical, unconcerned. And then it happened. As I walked through the deserted crew room my eye caught the enormous map of Europe on the wall. A terrible feeling of panic gripped me. I stood motionless, staring at the map, my eyes hypnotised by the coloured tapes that indicate the bombing routes. My heart pounded violently; I leaned against the wall gasping and breathless. To try and pull myself together I began to swear – my infallible cure for nerves. As I steadied blind panic gave way to stark horror. Five words beat into my brain with maddening repetition: ‘You will not come back. You will not come back’. I knew then I was doomed.”           

Sir Arthur Harris, was appointed Commander in Chief, Bomber Command, in February 1942. He became extremely worried by the number of aircrew reporting ‘sick’ and asking to be taken off flying duties. He called such men ‘weaklings’ and ‘waverers’ and warned his commanders that such men should be dealt with harshly, for ‘the risk of contagion is very real’.

In 1988, Simon Berthon produced a documentary, ‘Whispers in the Air’, for Granada Television. Among former aircrew interviewed was a bomb aimer named Arthur Smith, who began to develop a growing fear of flying. His symptoms increased, until on one mission he found himself ‘frozen with fear’ and unable to carry out his duties. The aircraft returned to base with a ‘sick bomb aimer’ and he was immediately taken to hospital. When he was found to be physically fit, he was sent to a centre where a psychiatrist interviewed him. It was clearly spelt out to him that if he refused to fly, he would be dealt with harshly, along the lines recommended by Air Chief Marshal Harris.

According to Jack Wallis, a former RAF Station Adjutant, this meant an immediate reduction in rank to Aircraftsman 2nd class, the lowest rank in the RAF. The ‘offender’ was then posted off station and his documents had ‘LMF’ (Lack of Moral Fibre) written in red ink, slanting across the right hand corner. Arthur Smith was informed that his family, girl-friend and his colleagues would be told that he was considered a coward. He was also told that in 1914-18 he would have been charged with ‘desertion in the face of the enemy’ and shot. Rather than face the degradation, Smith chose to return to flying, but the fears continued and a few missions later his aircraft crashed. Some of the crew were killed but he survived, albeit with severe burns.

Another aircrew member interviewed was John Wainwright, a rear gunner. On his 72nd mission his aircraft crashed on landing, injuring him. After recovering in hospital he found he was unable to return to flying. Having completed 72 missions and been wounded in battle, he thought his removal from combat flying would be an easy process. He recalled, however, that the RAF doctors considered: ‘I was bonkers, completely bananas, because I didn’t want to go over Germany and drop bombs’. Wainwright went through an entire series of degradations because of his refusal to fly any more.

Sir Arthur Harris ordered that the methods of dealing with cases of ‘LMF’ be classified as ‘top secret’. In 1944, the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, wrote a private memorandum to Harris to say that if the way the RAF treated its combat-fatigue victims were made public, with the writing of LMF on their service records, then it would be ‘indefensible in Parliament’. For a time the documents were marked ‘W’ for ‘waverer’ before the insidious practice eventually ceased.

In the early 1980s, during our own recent past, Britain was engaged in a conflict in Northern Ireland and also defeated an Argentine invasion force on the Falklands. Consequently, there was a build-up of homeless veterans again on the streets, with some suffering from PTSD. Like before, many received little, or any, help – and some, who had swelled the homeless, were being targeted under the Vagrancy Act again.

VFP member Michael ‘Spike’ Pike is a Northern Ireland veteran. In his poem, ‘Parade’, Spike gives us a vivid and realistic view of service in the forces and the aftermath:

The cannon-fodder syndrome has operated for hundreds of years, with the ruling rich recruiting the poor and marginalised into the Armed Forces. Then training them to kill and die, before using them in overseas wars of conquest and exploitation. Afterwards, when the veterans return to Civvy Street, they receive no help from – and are often ostracised and criminalised by – their own Establishment.

Bringing the Wars Home

That situation, and the consequences caused by it, continued to occur post WW2 – during the run-down of Empire. In England, during the 1966/67 soccer season, gangs of youths, in football grounds across the land, used the following jingle to taunt the police who faced them on the terraces: ‘Harry Roberts – he’s our man. He shoots cops – bang, bang, bang’. Roberts had always been a bit of a tearaway, having left school early after already getting a conviction for handling stolen goods.

In 1956, on release from borstal, where he’d served a 19-month sentence, Roberts was called up for National Service. Ten years later, on a sunny afternoon, two weeks after England had won the football World Cup, news broke that three policemen had been shot dead on a west London street in Shepherd’s Bush, just a few miles from Wembley Stadium. Two men were quickly arrested and a search undertaken for the third man, who was known to have started the shooting and killed two of the policemen.

After a three-month manhunt, described as the biggest ever launched in Britain, Harry Roberts was caught hiding in a wood near Bishop’s Stortford. To evade the police he’d used survival skills, which were taught to him while in the army, by living rough in a camouflaged hide made of wood and plastic bags:

“He joined the Rifle Brigade, becoming a marksman and a lance corporal and served in Malaya during the emergency; jungle training and guerrilla warfare taught him much and hardened him.”

[The Murders of the Black Museum 1870-1970, by Gordon Honeycombe, Bloomsbury Books 1992].

Over 73 years ago, on 11th December 1948, just after the start of the ‘Malayan Emergency,’ men of the Scots Guards were ordered to round up civilians on a plantation near Batang Kali and separate the men from the women and children. That evening one of the male prisoners was killed by the soldiers and the next day 23 other men were murdered by them – one of the dead was found headless. The victims were not insurgents, but unarmed villagers, and the incident became known as the Batang Kali Massacre:

This was during the early years of the ‘Cold War’, with Malaya, at that time, producing over a third of the world’s natural rubber and it, along with tin, accounted for three quarters of that country’s exports. The veterans were fighting to keeping these assets in the hands of British businessmen, although other reasons were given out by Westminster. In 1952, a speech by Gerald Templer, the British High Commissioner of Malaya, was re-broadcast in Australia and Templer, who later was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1955, told the radio audience:

“The hard core of communists in this country are fanatics and must be, and will be, exterminated.”

[The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy Since 1945, by Mark Curtis, Zed Books 1995].

British Army units then started to keep score boards of CTs (Communist Terrorists) killed. A National Serviceman described how units who had killed ‘CTs’ used to bring the bodies back for identification. After a period, they brought back the heads only:

“As Private Houchin walked past me, I noticed he was carrying a large, round object, wrapped in a poncho, on his back. He usually had a ready smile, but this time he looked a bit grim and, when I asked him what he was carrying, he just said, ‘A head’. I couldn’t believe it, so he explained.

It seems that the bodies were proving so difficult to carry that the lieutenant had ordered the Ibans to chop the heads off, so that just the heads could be brought out of the jungle as evidence. The Ibans … had refused this grisly task, so the lieutenant had ordered some of his men to do it. Poor Private Houchin seemed full up with emotion, so I went to have a word with Lieutenant Surtees. When I got near to Surtees, I saw that the other lieutenant was with him, and they seemed to be discussing the very issue … so I just hung around within earshot. … I heard Surtees tell him that such actions would give the men nervous breakdowns. As far as Houchin was concerned he was right, for he was the man who was to cry out in his sleep.”

[Rex Flowers, who served with the Lincolnshire Regiment, told in Six Campaigns – National Servicemen at War 1948-1960, edited by Adrian Walker, Leo Cooper 1993].

In his book, ‘The Malayan Emergency’, Robert Jackson quoted a young British officer who had been involved in the fighting: ‘We were shooting people. We were killing them … This was raw savage success. It was butchery. It was horror’. Many of the soldiers carrying this out were National Servicemen, and Jackson went on to state about them:

“But, like seasoned jungle veterans, they became accustomed to it. They coped, and coped very well, and boys of 19 emerged from the jungle as men with leadership experience that would carry them through any experience they might encounter on their return to civilian life.”

[The Malayan Emergency: The Commonwealth’s War 1948 – 1966, by Robert Jackson, Routledge 1991].

While this might have happened for some veterans, for others, like Roberts, it clearly did not, because he used what he had been taught in the army to carry out more murderous activities when he was back in Civvy Street. In early 1993, after serving twenty-six years of a life sentence, the news leaked out that Roberts was being considered for parole. Police groups said Roberts should never be released and the ‘Guardian’ journalist Nick Davies visited him in Dartmoor Prison, where the veteran Roberts told Davies about the police shootings:

“We were professional criminals. We don’t react the same way as ordinary people. The police aren’t like real people to us. They’re strangers, they’re the enemy. And you don’t feel remorse for killing a stranger. I do feel sorry for what we did to their families. I do. But it’s like people I killed in Malaya when I was in the army. You don’t feel remorse.”

[Guardian, 2nd Feb. 1993].

Harry Roberts admitted to killing at least four people in Malaya and he told another veteran prisoner in jail that he had gotten into trouble with his army superiors for refusing to shoot another defenceless civilian. When he was demobbed from the army, his wife Margaret had said about him:

“He seemed bitter, and talked about killing and the fear of battle and the danger … He seemed to have become slightly ruthless and much more tough.”

[Guardian, 2nd Feb. 1993].

Eight years after the 3 policemen were shot in West London, towards the end of 1974, in another part of England – this time the midlands and the north – the police were chasing a robber who had carried out a series of raids on post offices. The descriptions of the mystery man were always the same: army camouflage suit, black plimsolls, white gloves and covering his face was a black hood, across which a visor-like slash had been cut for eye holes. Nicknamed the ‘Black Panther’, the man was always armed with a pistol and a sawn-off shotgun. The robberies had netted him some £20,000, but he’d left 3 men dead and others badly injured.

In early 1975, the ‘Black Panther’ was to commit the crime that would bring him nationwide notoriety. He kidnapped 17-year-old Lesley Whittle, intending to ransom her for £50,000, but his victim met a horrible death. Lesley Whittle’s body was found tied up and naked, in the ventilating area of a sewer system. Around her neck was a noose of wire with which her kidnapper had secured her to an iron ladder.

A huge manhunt was launched, but it was not until the end of 1975 that the ‘Black Panther’ was unmasked and captured. At the time there was a vast amount of lurid publicity about his criminal activities:

Donald Nappy had been born in Morley, near Bradford, in 1936. In later life he changed his name to Neilson, after being taunted at school as ‘Dirty Nappy’. A neighbour said Neilson was: ‘Rather secretive … He looked every inch a part-time paratrooper. We called him ‘Castro’ because he always wore battledress and marched down the street’. In early 1955, Neilson, then 19 years old, had been called up for his National Service and afterwards he stated: ‘I enjoyed my time in the Army. But I never admitted owt about it … It’s possible to be afraid and at the same time to enjoy oneself’.

For most of his time in the army Neilson was involved in colonial conflicts. He served his term of National Service with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry:

“His two years in the Army shaped his life, giving him interests and excitements unknown before: the peculiar pleasure of jungle warfare and survival skills, of the power of weapons, of fitness and self-reliance. He relished the hide-and-seek thrills of security patrols, dealing with Mau Mau gangs on Mount Kenya, EOKA guerrillas in Cyprus, and Arab nationalists in Aden. A fellow soldier, who had served in Kenya, said: ‘After Morley it was a bit like paradise. The sun was always shining … I wouldn’t look any further than Kenya to work out how Nappy [Neilson] learned the tricks of his trade … In a way it’s not surprising that one of our number used his training for illegal purposes in later life’.”

[More Murders of the Black Museum 1835 – 1985, by Gordon Honeycombe, Arrow Books 1994].

All countries who sent men to fight in foreign wars experienced difficulties with some of their returning troops. Colonial conflicts, especially, are usually dirty and brutal affairs, which are often morally corrupting for those caught up in them. Most National Servicemen sent to Kenya experienced killings, like these soldiers who found a hut in a ‘prohibited area’ and waited in ambush inside:

“As the Mau Mau bent over to come in, he [one of the other soldiers] opened up with the Bren gun. The weight of the bullets pushed the Mau Mau back; but when [he] stopped firing, of course, with the momentum, the Mau Mau started to come in again. So [he] shot him again. When we saw him the next morning, oh God! he was shot to pieces; but … they could still hear him moaning out there after they’d actually shot him. The corporal said to the rifleman to go out and finish him off. This little lad, a Londoner, he … went out there and put the actual muzzle of the rifle on his forehead and pulled the trigger; but the next morning … we saw he’d actually shot him in the throat, he was shaking so much. He would have been dead, anyway; he had his kidneys hanging out – you imagine, half a magazine of Bren … In the Aberdare Forest you were allowed to shoot any black man – if he’s black, you shoot him because he’s Mau Mau – it was a prohibited area.”

[Ron Hawkes, veteran of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, told in Six Campaigns – National Servicemen at War 1948-1960, edited by Adrian Walker, Leo Cooper 1993].

Some young soldiers, like Neilson, called up for National Service, trained and indoctrinated for combat against ‘terrorists’ and then thrust into the middle of a colonial conflict, would find their later life dominated by their brutalising experiences:

“He spent six months in Kenya altogether. Those six months probably had a greater influence on what was to become of him than any other period of his life. They began with an intensive period of jungle warfare training, when he was taught how to fight with the rubber-stocked, short-barrelled .303 jungle rifle British troops in Kenya were issued with, and which bear a striking resemblance to sawn-off shotguns, and how to operate as a completely independent unit. The tactics of the British were to cut off the terrorist supplies of food by preventing them from reaching the lowland farms of the white settlers which had been their main source of supply hitherto, and to harass and harry them in the forests … Nappy [Neilson] learned racialism and there were apparently other lessons to be learned too. Few national servicemen can have served in so many trouble spots as Nappy [Neilson] did in his two years with the Queen, or seen so much action. It was perhaps an experience he never really recovered from …” [The Black Panther Story, by Steven Valentine, New English Library 1976].

The ‘Black Panther’, ex-soldier and colonial war veteran Donald Neilson, received life sentences for each of four murders, plus 61 years for kidnapping. Thirty-five years after being jailed Neilson died in prison in 2011. Harry Roberts, however, was still alive and the media reacted with shock and horror at the news that he might be released after serving 47 years:

Some sections of the media suggested that the 78-year-old prisoner should stay locked up and the key thrown away. If the politicians who had started those wars and sent Roberts and Neilson into those colonial conflicts were to be locked up too, perhaps one might have agreed. In 1966, just after the three policemen had been shot dead at Shepherd’s Bush, the ‘Daily Mail’ had expressed its outrage at the shootings in an editorial:

“In Britain the policeman is still the walking sign which says that a society has reached and takes for granted a certain stable normality of public order and decency … That is why the death of a policeman by violence is felt so deeply by us all. The deaths of the three men at Shepherd’s Bush, senselessly and deliberately gunned down on the job of maintaining that order and decency, come as a frightful shock that seems to rock the very earth. A dazed incredulity is followed by the realisation that order is not to be taken for granted. The jungle is still there. There are still wild beasts in it to be controlled.”

[Daily Mail, 13th Aug. 1966].

The actual connection with the jungle is that it was there, in Malaya and Kenya, that Roberts and Nielson, in the interests of big-business, had learned to kill for Queen and Country. In 1966, on that fateful day in Shepherd’s Bush the relatively civilised face of law-and-order at home, in the form of the unarmed London bobby, had met the uncivilised face of British colonial law-and-order, in the form of ex-soldier Harry Roberts. Trained to kill and brutalised by his experiences serving abroad, Roberts brought those wars home – the result was three dead policemen. 

Vietnam & Combat-related PTSD

Over fifty years ago, it was the American involvement in Vietnam that most awakened us to the severe psychological problems that wars can bring to those that fight them. The US military planners had taken into account the possibility of psychiatric casualties. Combatants were sent to the war zone for a set period, one year for most soldiers and 13 months for the Marines. Each man knew he would leave after this period, and that had a ‘holding-on’ effect – to keep going and see it out.

A medical apparatus was put in place to deal with psychological casualties as close as possible to the combat zone. The aim was to return patients back as quickly as possible to their unit and the front line – drugs were often used as part of this treatment. In Vietnam, the percentage of US combatants who had to be evacuated because of psychiatric breakdown was under 2%.

The US military planners thought they had reduced this problem to an almost irrelevant level, but after many of the troops had returned to America problems began to surface. Back home, many Vietnam veterans felt alienated and isolated and had difficulty settling down. Their combat training and tours-of-duty had moulded them into effective soldiers, but was now causing them to be troubled and ineffective civilians.

Some flew into rages with little or no provocation, often using violence against their partners, or others they came in contact with. The US country and folk songwriter and performer John Prime (1946-2020) wrote ‘Sam Stone’ after leaving the US Army. Many Vietnam veterans had turned to alcohol, or drugs, to relieve their suffering and the song depicts a veteran who has become hooked on drugs:

In America, the Vietnam veterans struggled to get the US population to come to terms with their involvement in that war. Some veterans, who were against the war, had to show courage and tenacity in taking their message to the American people, because there were many who were hostile, or who did not want to hear:

“There is … considerable rage, much of it beneath the surface, towards Vietnam veterans. They are resented both for not winning the war and thereby being agents of humiliation, and also for the ‘dirty’ things they have done. Moreover, they are deeply feared by a society that sense their potential violence and is all too quick to label them as ‘drug addicts’ or ‘killers’ – and this kind of fear can be quickly converted into rage. Finally, there are large elements of American society enraged at – because deeply threatened by – the anti-war veterans’ transformation. For that transformation depends directly upon exposing the filth beneath the warrior’s claim to purity of mission, upon subverting much that is fundamental to American warrior mythology. Americans profoundly involved with that mythology may experience considerable rage towards these bearers of bad news, whom they may then blame for the news itself – for the decline of the old virtues. Underneath that rage are the profound doubts of everyone, even those who would most like to remain true believers in all aspects of American glory.”

[Home From the War – Vietnam Veterans neither Victims or Executioners, by Robert Jay Lifton, Beacon Press Boston 1992].

Back in America, a few Vietnam veterans chose to live a solitary life, usually armed to the teeth, in the National Parks or other wild countryside. Other veterans turned against the war and campaigned for its ending, they also took up the issue of PTSD and other problems to do with their resettlement back into civilian life. Their ‘Viet Vet Survival Guide’ starts its section on Psychological Readjustment like this:

“Most people think the Vietnam war was over in 1975. A lot of Viet Vets know they’re wrong. For hundreds of thousands of vets – and their loved ones – the psychological effects of the war are a part of everyday life. Most of these vets suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some have other war-related psychological problems or a war-related dependence on drugs or alcohol … For most Viet Vets, the adjustment back to civilian life posed few or no major problems. But for others – perhaps as many as 40% of vets who served in Vietnam – things haven’t gone well. In fact, sometimes things seem to be getting progressively worse. These and other complaints are often heard:

  • “I can’t keep a job.”
  • “I have no skills or training that will get me a decent job.”
  • “I feel my life is going nowhere.”
  • “I can’t stay in a relationship. I’ve been married and divorced [once or several times] and the same thing keeps happening over and over again – I go so far and that’s it.”
  • “I just can’t get close to anybody. I don’t trust anybody.”
  • “Sometimes I have nightmares about the ’Nam or I wake up in a cold sweat, trembling.”
  • “I’m always tense, wired for something to happen, can’t relax.”
  • “I thought when I left Vietnam I left all that behind me, but things keep coming back – memories, thoughts, feelings, for no apparent reason.”
  • “I feel so dead [or empty] inside, just numb to people and things that happen.”
  • “I started drinking [or taking drugs] over there and now I’ve started again.”
  • “I just don’t fit in anywhere in society.”
  • “I look around, and I seem to be the only one who is having these emotional problems.”
  • “During certain times of the year I just seem to lose it, and that’s not normal.”
  • “I feel so alone.”
  • “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
  • “At times I think I must be going crazy.”
  • “How can something that happened ten, fifteen, twenty years ago still be influencing my life?”

The feelings expressed in the quotations just given can be a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, such as war. But when the normal healing process of adjusting to terrible experiences becomes disrupted, a normal stress reaction can worsen, becoming a ‘stress disorder’.”

[The Viet Vet Survival Guide, Ballantine Books, New York 1985].

Vietnam proved to be an unpopular and ultimately, from the US Establishment’s point of view, an unsuccessful war. In this case there was no ticker-tape parades to welcome back victorious troops and the fixed term of combat was found to be something of a Trojan horse. Although ensuring the replacement of soldiers after they had completed their tour of duty, those being replaced returned as individuals to an indifferent and sometimes hostile home population, just a jet flight away.

Soldiers, who had seen their combat period through, sometimes after treatment for psychiatric problems, found their memories of the war, combined with the gap between their expectations and the reality of the situation on their return, overwhelming. Back in the US there were high levels of suicide amongst Vietnam veterans. One veteran stated after his tour-of-duty in Vietnam: ‘They gave me a Bronze Star … and they put me up for a Silver Star. But I said you can shove it up your ass. … I threw all the others away. The only thing I kept was the Purple Heart because I still think I was wounded’.

In 1980, five years after the ending of the Vietnam war, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was officially recognised as a condition, when it was included in DSM111 (the Third Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association).

It had taken a lengthy campaign by the Vietnam veterans and their friends to force the US Government to admit that some returning soldiers were suffering from PTSD and other rehabilitation problems.

The war had caused deep divisions within America and 15 years after its ending many Vietnam veterans, and consequently those who came into contact with them, were still suffering from that war:

“During the last decade of the twentieth century, America is still haunted by Vietnam. In 1990, a definitive study of the Vietnam generation revealed astonishing psychological costs of the war, still affecting veterans themselves and reverberating throughout much of American society 15 years after the last American combatant had left Vietnam. The study found that 15.2 percent of all male Vietnam theatre veterans, 497,000 of the 3.14 million men who served there, currently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder … Those with post-traumatic stress disorder are prone to other profound affects: they frequently experience various psychiatric illnesses; they are five times more likely than those without the disorder to be unemployed; 70 percent have been divorced; almost half have been arrested or in jail at least once; and they are two to six times as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.”

[Home From the War – Vietnam Veterans neither Victims or Executioners, by Robert Jay Lifton, Beacon Press Boston 1992].

Wars are usually fought in an onslaught of propaganda and a crescendo of patriotism. Colonial wars are no different, except that these conflicts are often not declared as wars, and subsequently patriotism and propaganda take more subtle and hidden forms. In colonial situations the conventional rules of warfare tend to be thrown out of the window and the concepts of justified war start to break down.

Returning Vietnam veterans often found that the home population had a simplistic view of the war that was far from most GI’s experiences. In many soldiers’ minds Vietnam could never be a good or honourable war:

“Veterans have always come to some terms with their war experiences through some formulation of their survival that permits them to overcome much of their death anxiety and death guilt … Crucial even to this partial resolution of survivor conflict is the veteran’s capacity to believe that his war had purpose and significance beyond the immediate horrors he witnessed. He can then connect his own actions with ultimate humane principles, and can come to feel that he had performed a dirty but necessary job … But the central fact of the Vietnam War is that no one really believes in it. The larger purposes put forth to explain the American presence – repelling outside invaders, or giving the people of the South an opportunity to choose their own form of government – are directly contradicted by the overwhelming evidence a GI encounters that he is the outside invader, that the government he has come to defend is justly hated by the people he has come to help, and that he, the American helper, is hated by them most of all.”

[Home From the War – Vietnam Veterans neither Victims or Executioners, by Robert Jay Lifton, Beacon Press Boston 1992].

Doubts, Fears & the Conflict of Loyalties  

Just a few decades after British veterans Roberts and Nielson had served in Malaya and Kenya and during the last years of the Vietnam War, a new generation of British soldiers began asserting their presence across nationalist areas in Northern Ireland. In 1970, the American magazine ‘Monthly Review’ published a prophetic article about this conflict:

“More than any country in the West, Britain has fostered the myth of a non-violent, civilised society, symbolised by the unarmed London bobby … Even in its period of greatest peace at home, Britain was fighting a series of Vietnams throughout its former colonies (Malaya, Kenya and Aden). Today … Vietnam has come home to Britain, in the armed resistance of the colonized Irish within a territory which the British claim as part of the United Kingdom.”

[Monthly Review, Nov. 1970, by Russell Stetler].

Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran, made a series of films about the American involvement in Vietnam. In the Guardian, journalist Martin Woollacott wrote about Stone:

“This idea of an America fighting itself is at the heart of his vision of Vietnam. The corruption of American society, in his argument, was such that an immoral government started a bad war and a degenerate middle class pushed the burden of fighting it off on to the poor and the ignorant. They, in turn, filled with anger at the way in which they had been abused, turned their rage on the Vietnamese.”

[Guardian, 18th Jan. 1994].

Much in Stone’s vision could also have been said about many of the conflicts the British Army has been involved with since the end of WW2. And many British veterans have had experiences similar to the Vietnam veterans in some of the conflicts they have been involved in.

During Operation Banner 1969 – 2007, for instance, British soldiers in Northern Ireland have been shot dead, blown to bits by bombs and endured taunts and missiles from hostile crowds.

Many soldiers, who would have died in more conventional conflicts, were saved – only because they could be rushed to expert medical treatment. Some live out their lives with terrible wounds, from which they will never recover. Certain soldiers performed heroic acts, providing protection from sectarian violence or rescuing people from bombings or other life-threatening situations.

Intensely trained in ‘Tin City’ complexes, however, the soldiers dished out lethal violence as well as receiving it. Life for soldiers in Ireland was usually long periods of isolation and boredom, punctuated by brief, often intense, episodes of violence and mayhem. Many veterans found they could not leave the war behind, with IRA actions in Britain leaving many soldiers feeling on edge and vulnerable, even after coming home:

“When I went back on leave, the first day I went out shopping with my sister we were walking down the street and a car came past and backfired. Before I knew what I was doing I’d jumped over a garden wall and was crouching down behind it. My sister burst into tears. She said it was horrible to see me like that.”

[Soldier, Soldier, private Ken J. interviewed by Tony Parker, Heinemann Ltd 1985].

American soldiers who became alienated from the war in Vietnam, or who developed sympathetic feelings towards the Vietnamese people, suffered disproportionally afterwards:

“Blacks, vet-for-vet, have many more cases of PTSD than vets in general. According to Legacies of Vietnam, a 1981 study commissioned by Congress … nearly 70 per cent of blacks who were in heavy combat suffer some degree of PTSD. The figure for whites is ‘only’ 23 per cent. The percentage may be so much higher for blacks partly because blacks as a group were more sympathetic than whites towards the Vietnamese people and were more opposed to the war. As a result, they presumably suffered more guilt in connection with the killings and brutalisation of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.”

[The Viet Vet Survival Guide, Ballantine Books, New York 1985].

Some Irish soldiers in the British Army felt a conflict of loyalties when the warfare in Northern Ireland started:

“Former commando Derek McAdam has just won the battle of his life … over red tape. But it has taken almost 20 years to prove that action in Northern Ireland has mentally affected the Dublin-born Royal Marine. Now, at last, 60-year-old Derek has been awarded a lump sum of £25,000 and a pension of almost £200 a week. … it was in the early 1970s when he was posted to Northern Ireland that things started to go wrong. Derek said: ‘I was a weapons instructor and I was training commandos to shoot my countrymen. This split in loyalties began to make me very depressed and I was sent to a military psychiatric hospital’. He was discharged but the MoD and DHSS refused to accept his depression had been caused by his service in Ireland …”

[Daily Record, 13th May 1994].

In Northern Ireland, those soldiers who suffered from alienation or doubts had little outlet from their frustrations. Many soldiers took it out on any nationalists they came in contact with, others just ‘cracked up’, and some brought these problems home. In 1992, the ‘Irish Post’, the paper of the Irish community in Britain, reported the fate of such a soldier:

“A British soldier’s Northern Ireland experiences led him to commit suicide, a Lancashire inquest into his death has decided. Stanley Farrell, a 24-year-old from Bootle, Merseyside, was religious but deeply distressed by the bigotry he met during three army tours of duty of the North, the Ormskirk inquest heard last week. The young man was found dead in his fume-filled car last month. Philip Farrell told Coroner Howard McCann that his son joined the British Army aged 18 and left in December 1990. His son felt Northern Ireland’s problems ‘could have been resolved quite easily’ but the father revealed last week that Stanley Farrell developed personal difficulties of his own through what he saw on Irish streets.”

[Irish Post, 18th Jan. 1992].

If one compared conventional wars with colonial conflicts – say the Normandy landings with Vietnam or Northern Ireland – the scale and intensity of fighting would undoubtedly be greater in the former, but other factors make soldiers fighting colonial wars particularly prone to psychiatric disorders, especially after leaving the services. In Northern Ireland, many aspects of British Army operations and subsequent soldiers’ actions were usually hidden from the home population, consequently remaining unknown. Troops occupying nationalist areas, often had difficulty in even deciding who the enemy was:

“Standard rubrics of traditional warfare, as for example ‘the only good German is a dead German’, cannot be trusted in a conflict in which a dead Irishman may well turn out to have been a good Irishman. The basic distinction between good and bad – ours and theirs – is missing in a conflict when they cannot be reliably separated from another larger group – the innocent.”

[The British Media and Ireland, article by Philip Elliot, Information on Ireland 1979].

Back home, like many Vietnam veterans, some British soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland began to have doubts about their role in the conflict:

“During my first tour I remember remarking to a corporal: ‘If I’d been born here, I think I could have joined the IRA’. Not because I respected them, but because I could see what it was like for the poor people in the ghetto areas. It was different from Bradford where we had kicked a ball around in the streets. Here there was no peace. I could see how they looked at it, being harassed by soldiers from overseas who could wreck their houses and laugh at them from behind our guns. I could even understand why some of them used violence in return. But at that time I made the simple point that it was my duty to put down violence. I thought I was right because I was backed by the Government, the Law and the majority of the British People. Later I changed my mind. They call the IRA terrorists, but the longer I thought about it, the more I began to wonder who the real terrorists were. For a guy drinking his pint and watching the telly it’s simple who the baddies are, but such a person does not know the history of the situation or about the oppression or harassment.”

[Humo, 10th and 17th Aug. 1989, veteran Dave Roach interviewed by Jan Hertoghs].

Conventional wars are generally supported by the home population. Battles are fought, in the main, according to certain rules and returning soldiers are heroes who can talk about their experiences to an admiring and supportive audience. Colonial wars, on the other hand, are usually dirty and brutal affairs and the home population does not want to know.

Like GIs returning from Vietnam, British soldiers going home from Ireland often faced an unresponsive or sometimes hostile population – who were generally unwilling or uninterested in listening to tales about the conflict:

“I had the impression that they did not understand or did not want to hear. The army is a world apart on its own, but Northern Ireland is like another planet. Back home they only relate to the 9 o’clock news, but that is far from the reality of the situation. Even to my wife, I told her very little about the army and Northern Ireland. Nobody knows that I’m still looking for snipers. I’m not afraid of being killed, but walking down a street or driving on a motorway I keep noticing: this spot could be an ambush. It’s a reflex, I left the army and Northern Ireland, but the army and Northern Ireland is still within me.”

[Humo, 10th and 17th Aug. 1989, veteran Dave Roach interviewed by Jan Hertoghs].

Soldiers’ relatives were often upset by the insensitive treatment dished out by the authorities, including after the event of soldiers’ deaths or injuries:

“The mother of an IRA victim has attacked the Government after getting half the compensation paid out to a farmer who lost an animal.

Mrs Irene Macaulay’s 20-year-old paratrooper son Donald was one of three soldiers killed by a booby trap bomb in Northern Ireland two months ago. She received £2,250 compensation from the Government – and has complained that a farmer in Cumbria was paid £5,000 when his Llama was killed during RAF manoeuvres. She also claimed that one of the soldiers who was badly injured in the same attack, Lee Manning, has been told his overseas pay will be stopped if he does not start patrolling the streets again within 21 days.”

[Daily Mail, 11th Jan. 1990].

Westminster politicians knew that among the British people there was widespread disillusionment with the ongoing conflict, Ireland, therefore, had to become a forgotten war. The prominent details of soldiers’ deaths in papers would have contradicted this, so subsequent reports moved gradually from a prominent front-page position to a few lines on an inside page. Refusing to allow the names of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland to be added to war memorials was another issue that caused distress to soldiers and their relatives, as Soldier magazine reported:

“It is saddening that unseemly wrangling over the commemoration of soldiers killed in Northern Ireland has followed in the wake of the Warrenpoint Massacre in which nearly a score of soldiers were slaughtered. Press reports have told of the powers-that-be in towns and villages where some of the dead came from, refusing to allow the soldiers’ names to be added to the local war memorials … All manner of shuffle-footed justification have been offered as excuses for not placing the names of Northern Ireland victims on memorials. And one can only speculate on the real reasons, be they a fear of reprisals from terrorists or a belief that the conflict in Ireland is not really a war (as one eminent contemporary politician was reported as saying of the Suez campaign in 1956: ‘This is not war, it is armed conflict’ – then as now, it did not make the bullets less lethal or the dead come back to life).”

[Soldier Magazine, Feb. 1980].

Keeping Hidden Wounds Hidden

After the end of WW1, political battles had been fought in the British Parliament and in the medical establishment to prevent the practice of designating the worst cases of shell-shocked soldiers insane and committing them to asylums. But the War Office did not want to see the ‘Great War’ being blamed for the veterans’ conditions, so they continued to refuse to accept shellshock as a diagnosis. They wanted the issue of the psychologically wounded to disappear and racism plus class prejudice was clearly evident in their attitude towards the problem:

“The War Office Committee of Inquiry into Shellshock under the chairmanship of Lord Southborough in 1922 entertained but then rejected Freud’s therapy, or at least the ‘sanitised’ version they had been offered by Head and Rivers [British shellshock doctors]. The committee declared that Jews, the Irish and the working classes were more likely to break down, as were ‘artistic types’ and ‘imaginative city-dwellers’ and other such ‘highly strung’ people.”

[From War Machine – The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, by Daniel Pick, Yale University Press, 1993].

During a visit to the US, in 1990, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) told me that it had taken a huge effort by them and their civilian allies to get the authorities there to admit that many veterans were suffering from combat related psychological problems. They faced a further battle before they succeeded in having the name Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recognised for the problem. The US authorities, during an unpopular war, did not want the issue raised and preferred to blame the background / personalities of the veterans for their problems, rather than a condition (like PTSD) that could be traced back to traumatic incidents the veterans had experienced during their tours of duty.

Vietnam veterans also told me that the US authorities would often produce ‘experts’, who would claim to be non-partisan, but who always attempted to rubbish and negate the appeals and concerns of the veterans. Back home, when I started to campaign with Jimmy Johnson for British veterans we soon realised that the authorities here were acting in the same way. That their preference was to keep the problems hidden – rather than do something about them.

The MoD and successive Governments denied there was a problem, or that there were high numbers of veterans in prison. Even today, they not only try to hide the numbers of veterans suffering from combat related mental traumas, but also try to obscure the nature and source of their conditions (like in the US they do not want to recognise PTSD as a main problem). They also produce ‘experts’, who are expert in spin, – and who, to those interested, attempt to minimise and bewilder about the numbers and nature of the problem.

In the early years of this century the MoD and Government were again under pressure about various issues to do with veterans. The Government then took a junior position at the MoD – the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence – and added ‘and Veterans’ to it. They then claimed this appointed person would be the ‘Veterans Champion’, while some veteran organisations thought this was a good step forward a question had to be asked: ‘Will the ‘Veterans Minister’ really serve the interests of veterans? Or will they instead serve the interests of their Party, the MoD and the Government?’

Unfortunately, the latter has turned out to be the case as successive Veterans Ministers have not brought any resolution to veterans’ issues, but more often than not have become a brake on these concerns instead. Meanwhile, in the UK there were a few veterans campaigning about the issue of combat-related PTSD and through his work on this issue ex-corporal Jimmy Johnson had become the voice of veterans in the prison system. Through Veterans In Prison, Jimmy and I were trying, with others, to get the MoD and various Governments to recognise that if they intensely train and then send young soldiers into wars and conflicts, then some veterans will come back with psychological conditions like combat related PTSD.

In extreme cases this might even lead to some veterans bringing their war home and committing acts of violence in Civvy Street. Time after time, however, we were to come up against establishment hired and paid ‘experts’, who tried to dismiss the Tin City intensive training and the hidden wounds of combat related PTSD as a trigger for such violence. In its place, these experts produce stereotypes of veterans – who’s ‘individual weaknesses’ could then be blamed instead.

They attempted to explain away veterans’ problems and violence by saying they came from ‘broken homes’ and / or other ‘disadvantaged backgrounds,’ with low ‘educational levels’ – and when disturbed veterans turned to drugs and / or alcohol – the ‘experts’ claimed they did so because they all had ‘addictive personalities’.

This was similar to Lord Southborough’s report in 1922, after WW1, which stated about Shell Shock: ‘That the Jews, the Irish and the working classes were more likely to break down, as were ‘artistic types’ and ‘imaginative city-dwellers’ and other such ‘highly strung’ people’. They both attempted to blame the problems being caused on stereotypical aspects of the veterans themselves, which obscured the issues and excused army training and the subsequent wars / conflicts of being the main part of the cause.

Of course, like any good lie, there were some little bits of reality in the typecasts outlined by the MoD’s ‘experts’, but this was mainly because army recruiters had targeted these demographics in the first place. So, if these ‘experts’ were right they could have soon solved the whole problem by excluding the recruitment of soldiers from ‘deprived backgrounds’, ‘broken homes’, with a ‘lack of education’ or ‘addictive personalities’.

These excuses were only put forward, however, to further obscure the real truth and was an attempt by the MoD to spread bullshit over the cracks caused by the actual problems. Exactly, like Lord Southborough’s report had done in 1922. Anyone who really looked at the problems in both cases would see that the common denominator, amongst most of the veterans who had ended up in asylums in the 1920s, or the criminal justice system 80 years later, was the fact that they had both undergone intensive army training and then taken part in brutal wars / conflicts.

Inside the British military, in the late 1980s, there had been some concerned doctors in the Medical Corps who had attempted to set up programmes about PTSD. Knowing about the example of the US Vietnam War veterans, they suggested centres to identify and deal with the problem when it occurred. Their efforts, however, foundered on the indifference shown by their superiors:

“Major Jeffrey McPherson, the senior lecturer in psychiatry at Woolwich Military Hospital, was close to the gods in Army psychiatry. Along with Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell of the Navy, he recognised the need for proper provision for PTSD. In 1987 he formed the first PTSD group at Woolwich without any policy or direct financial support from the Army medical hierarchy. His intention was to establish the Army’s first clinic … McPherson recalls: ‘It was really a one-man-and-a-dog affair. We received no encouragement, and had to fit it in where we could, which, at its height, amounted to half a day a week. However, the few we were able to treat – about 70 in all – responded well; we had a high success rate in getting rid of symptoms; but it was poor as far as going back and serving. Most of the guys were discharged out of the service’. He continued to press the Directorate for a proper PTSD programme and educational and preventive courses during training. ‘They gave it a lot of lip service but in the end simply posted me to Germany, which is the Army’s way of saying Give up’. Which is what he did. Both he and his most experienced behavioural therapist, John Rose, resigned from the Army in despair.”

[Observer Magazine, 10th June 1990, by Peter Nasmyth].

The failure of the MoD, and successive Governments, to deal with this problem of veterans suffering from psychological conditions has led to many dramatic and tragic incidents in Civvy Street. Roderick Orner, the District Clinical Psychologist for Lincoln, contrasted the treatment of Vietnam veterans with British war veterans of various conflicts. In an article in ‘The Psychologist’, he told how, less than five years after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, a conference was convened:

“To ‘review the status and predicament of the veterans of United States military engagement in South East Asia’. Speakers from the fields of law, political science, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology and psychiatry lent credibility to the campaigns of veterans’ groups. Thirteen years after the Falklands War it is doubtful if enough data have been gathered about our veterans group to even consider arranging a similar conference in the United Kingdom. Even less so for Northern Ireland veterans or veterans of the Gulf War. All of this is entirely consistent with the impression left by recent commemorations of the end of World War Two. The welfare and welfare rights of British war veterans have so far not attained high public priority. At this moment of reckoning, it is clear that those who should have represented the interests of British ex-service personnel returning from war and their families, leave a shameful record. This may be a consequence of a conspiracy of silence and sanitation in relation to truths about wars and their aftermath …”

[The Psychologist, August 1997].

In Britain, anyone raising the issue of Northern Ireland veterans who were suffering from psychological problems after their tours of duty, could expect to face hostility from the military establishment. They even took umbrage about TV programmes that touched on the problems. In 1992, Lynda La Plante’s TV drama, Civvies, was case in point.

La Plante, an award-winning author and screenwriter, had written Civvies after some ex-Paras had done some building work in her home and told her about themselves. The series was based on the violent lives of these veterans in Civvy Street:

“Karl Francis, the director, believes that it reflects a much bigger real life story, which has yet to be told. As a self-styled radical film maker, Francis admits to finding the theme of Civvies a challenge: ‘Instead of looking at the hearts and minds of the communities the soldiers have tried to conquer, it looked at the minds of the soldiers themselves – trying to conquer their own demons and live with them afterwards’. ‘I’ve got cousins and friends who’ve been in the army’, he says. ‘I’ve heard how they try and deal with the stress – their wives have told me. I’ve met the soldiers who ended up pill-poppers and drug addicts. I’ve listened to the awful stories of their dreams. People respond to soldiering in different ways. Being a soldier doesn’t make you a good or a bad person. The lads in Civvies came out of the army still fighting, they were all wounded emotionally, they wanted healing’. He does not lean towards sentimentality: ‘They were screwed up. And yes, they were victims. But they dished it out as well, and if you deliver hell, sometimes it comes around on you and you have to live with it’.”

[Guardian, 4th Nov. 1992, The mind as combat zone, by Martin Collins].

Lynda La Plante had made friends with the group of ex-paras she had based her drama Civvies on. She tried to help them settle back into civilian life, but, by the time the show was broadcast, every single one of the soldiers she’d met and found jobs for was in prison. She said: ‘It made me deeply angry … the show was an angry plea to the Government to do something about PTSD’:

There was no doubt that Civvies, which was denounced by the military, was La Plante’s most difficult and controversial series. It was described as ‘offensive’ by the Defence Ministry, and as ‘inaccurate, belittling and will demoralise the troops’ by the Parachute Regiment. Later, Lynda La Plante answered back:

“Civvies is an open wound … Nothing in Civvies hadn’t happened. It wasn’t a fictional drama. It was fact, all of it. Yet I was vilified and abused by everybody. The shoals of letters I still get: ‘That was my brother, that was my father, that was my uncle, that was my husband’.”

[Observer Life, interview by Andrew Billen, 10th March 1996].

Recognising Combat-related PTSD

For three decades Veterans In Prison (VIP) campaigners have consistently raised the issue about the numbers of veterans in the prison system, only to be told time and again by the MoD and Governments that there were ‘no statistics’ for the numbers of ex-forces personnel in prison. An ex-Army Captain, serving a life sentence, carried out a survey into the numbers of ex-Servicemen in the prison in which he was serving his sentence. The results of his survey were startling: There were 40 ex-Servicemen out of 374 prisoners – 10.6% of that prison’s population. On the Wing he was serving his sentence on there were 12 ex-Servicemen out of 80 prisoners – some 15% – and out of those 12 ex-Servicemen 6 of them had attained the rank of Sergeant or above.

Jimmy Johnson then contacted veterans he had met in different prisons and asked then to carry out head counts of prisoners, in total and then the veterans, on their prison wing. In the prisons tested the results consistently showed that 6% to 9% of prisoners were ex-army veterans, while less than 1% were either ex-Royal Navy or ex-RAF. We in VIP tried to bring this information to public attention and Jimmy Johnson issued a statement saying: ‘for myself, I can only state the following’:

“As an ex-soldier, having served tours of duty in Northern Ireland, it took eighteen years before someone enlightened me that I had been suffering from PTSD. Now that I know about this disorder I shall not keep quiet about it. I shall do my utmost to expose the Government and the MoD’s callous indifference to the fighting men, who are still unknowingly suffering from this disorder because of active service seen in Northern Ireland. If the Government needs to commit their soldiers into a war of unknown and faceless enemies, then, they should help their soldiers and not betray them – which the Government and the MoD, with their conspiracy to keep silent, are doing. The MoD must ensure that their stressed and traumatised soldiers have a psychological return ticket, back to a normal life, and are not cast aside like a piece of discarded equipment. The soldiers and ex-soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland have to be switched off! The families of these men know that I am right. They know that they did not get their true husbands or sons back from these ‘tours of duty’ in Northern Ireland.”

Meanwhile NAPO, the Trade Union and Professional Association for Family Court and Probation Staff, were getting increasingly concerned about the number of veterans their members were coming into contact with. In September 2009 NAPO published a briefing paper that concluded that 8.5% of the prison population, nearly 8,000, were ex-military and that 6% of those on probation and parole, about 12,000, were also veterans. While the authorities had claimed for ages that there were ‘no statistics’ available for the numbers of ex-service personnel in the prison system, suddenly in January 2010 the Ministry of Justice then produced a study suggesting that 3%, about 2,500, of the prison population are veterans.

So, while the VIP and NAPO figures were indicating that 6 to 9% of the prison population were veterans, the Ministry of Justice had suddenly found some ‘statistics’ that said the figures were ‘only’ 3%. The fact is there have been no definitive figures produced to date to give the exact numbers, but surely the NAPO figures are a cause for alarm. If they are correct, this would mean that at that time nearly 8,000 veterans were in prison and a further 12,000 on probation or parole – in total around 20,000 former military personnel in the criminal justice system.

Most of the veterans in the prison system will have been through the pro-active training for conflict that is triggered when a flare-up of violence occurs during tours-of-duty. This has not been removed from their brains, however, and can be generated again in stressful situations in Civvy Street. This is the main reason that veterans in the prison system are mainly charged with crimes of violence and a way must be found to switch-off veterans from this impetus to physical force.

While most of the veterans who end up in prison have internalised the violence they were trained in and used during conflicts – and then made automatic use of it again in Civvy Street. There is growing evidence to show that numerous veterans who end up in the prison system are also suffering from PTSD, or other combat-related mental traumas. NAPO stated in their study, which contained the details of 90 case histories of veterans sentenced to community penalties, that:

“Nearly half were suffering from diagnosed or undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. The principal offence was one of violence, particularly in a domestic setting. The vast majority … did not receive adequate support or counselling.”

PTSD can make veterans susceptible to the acts that lead many to prison and the condition often remains undiagnosed. Some veterans, including Jimmy Johnson, who were suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and therefore not receiving treatment, have served one jail term, then been released and have gone on to commit the same sort of crime and have ended up in prison again. Jimmy stated about the problem:

“The fact that there are large numbers of ex-soldiers serving ‘life sentences for murder’ in the Criminal Justice System will horrify and shock the British public, and many will undoubtedly find it incomprehensible, especially the unsuspecting families of the innocent murdered victims of these ex-soldiers. Yet a critical factor with these high numbers of ex-soldiers serving life sentences for murder, is that the vast majority of them have served in wars/conflicts and there is a noticeable pattern which stands out when compared with Royal Navy, RAF personnel and ex-soldiers who have not served in wars/conflicts, and who are also serving life sentences for murder in the Criminal Justice System. As for example: The headcount for our Veterans In Prison (VIP) survey of ex-servicemen in the prison population in 2007, (on the prison wing where I am serving my life sentence), I counted 12 ex-servicemen, out of 120 inmates (10%) and the ratio of these ex-servicemen worked out at: 1 Royal Navy (0.8%) and 11 ex-soldiers (9%). However, same as Royal Navy personnel there was 1 ex-soldier who had not served in a war/conflict (0.8%), but the other 10 ex-soldiers had all served in wars/conflicts (8% of the wing population) and all 10 are serving ‘life sentences for murder’ – plus not one was ever checked for combat related PTSD at the time of their trials (which is a statement in itself). Furthermore, to give a very recent on the ground update (10/04/14) of veteran statistics: At my place of work in the prison, there are 26 inmates working at one time and out of these 26 inmates, 4 are ex-soldiers (15%) and all 4 have served in Wars/conflicts – there are no Royal Navy or RAF personnel, but 3 of the ex-soldiers are serving ‘life sentences’ (11.5%). This same distinctive pattern amongst veterans of all 3 of our armed forces who haven’t served in wars/conflicts remains very low and in line with the civilian population – but ex-soldiers of wars/conflicts ‘serving life sentences for murder’ remains horrendously high – more on par with the top murder rate capitals in the world – and is testimony of them ‘unknowingly’ bringing home the violence of wars/conflicts!”

Dr Morgan O’Connell was an ex-Royal Navy consultant psychiatrist who treated the psychological wounded during the Falklands conflict. In a subsequent interview in the Belfast Telegraph Dr O’Connell said that: ‘A separate prison should be established to deal with the needs of increasing numbers of former servicemen now behind bars’. The article continued:

“Dr O’Connell, who was attached to the Royal Navy and was with the Forces in the Falklands war, claims there are a disproportionate number of ex-servicemen in the prison system suffering from mental disorders like PTSD. He recently set up a PTSD management programme at Holy Cross Hospital in Haslemere, Surrey, and was struck by the number of ex-servicemen attending fresh from prison. Dr O’Connell says there needs to be a special therapeutic community established to deal with the problems of the ex-servicemen: ‘I’m not trying to say that they should not be in prison but that their misbehaviour reflects a traumatic experience they endured while serving their country and that condition needs to be examined. PTSD is a syndrome arising out of an unusual experience – the experience that created the condition is trapped in the victim’s memory and can be triggered at any time. When the event involves extreme violence, failure to treat the condition means that the victim is in effect a walking time-bomb waiting to go off at any time’.”

[Belfast Telegraph, 16th March 1998].

Jimmy Johnson has now spent over 45 years in a prison cell, during this time Jimmy had expanded his writing and produced ‘The Veterans’ Survival Guide’, copies of which we in VIP used to print off from a computer to send to veterans and others who had contacted us. The book was welcomed by many veterans, who recognised themselves in many of the descriptions of training and combat he vividly portrayed. In 2016 ‘The Veterans’ Survival Guide’ was published and 6,000 copies were issued free to veterans and their families.

This is what other veterans said about ‘The Veterans’ Survival Guide’:

  • “Thanks you so much for the Guide, which I read about 5 times. It’s dead on, if I’d known about it before my court case I wouldn’t be here now.” – Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Falkland’s veteran.
  • “When I read the Guide I started to cry, I could relate to it so much it was unreal. If I’d been given this Guide on leaving the Army it would have helped me a lot and also helped my family spot the changes in me. How can you spot someone suffering from PTSD if you don’t know what symptoms to look for?” – Afghanistan veteran.
  • “Thanks for my Guide, it’s an amazing piece of work and it’s such a relief to know I am not alone.” – Northern Ireland veteran.
  • The Guide made me cry and I do have lots of the problems that are in it. I was amazed at how the Guide is so ME and my ex-wife said the same. It is so appreciated thank you.” – Northern Ireland and Gulf War veteran.
  • “The Guide is very informative, I related to it, thanks for letting me open up. I find it helps knowing someone else knows. It feels very scary reading the Guide and relating it to myself, but you are a lifeline.” – Northern Ireland veteran.

From his cell Jimmy Johnson continued his writing and produced a number of publications that expanded on the work he’d done in his ‘Veterans’ Survival Guide’. These included: ‘Combat Veterans Murderous Legacies’, ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Harrowing Facts of Suicide’, ‘Veterans Four Pillars of Destruction – Created by Combat Related PTSD’ and ‘Break Off: The Cause and Prevention of Extreme Violence for Combat Veterans’.

In any conflict if a civilian was to be given a gun and rushed to the front line, they’d probably be totally ineffective and die very quickly. On the other hand, the induction and training that turns a civvy into an effective soldier – who would be proactive and survive a conflict – often means that returning veterans become uneasy civvies. While any veteran who has gone through the processes of the armed services can be troubled, those who have experienced the intensive pre tours-of-duty deployment drills – and then served in conflicts – are usually the worst affected.

A combat-veteran may return bodily from conflict, but, switched-on to violence for tours-of-duty, their mind often remains in the war zone. Walking down to the shops, his wife will try to engage him in chat about everyday issues – but he is scanning the windows and roofs of buildings for snipers. A car backfires and she scarcely breaks step – but he has crashed over a front garden wall and is lying prone trying to discern the direction of ‘the shot’.

In a pub the veteran will insist on sitting with their back to the wall, in a position to scan the entrance and exit doors. Family and friends think that a stranger has returned to them, but the veteran will think that it is them who are out of step – and not him. To them his behaviour is bizarre and irrational; for the veteran, however, it is not only rational – but also necessary, to protect his family and himself.

One of the biggest problems is that many veterans suffering with combat-related PTSD have not been diagnosed with the condition – and some do not want to consider that they might be suffering from it. So, the following guide, based on Jimmy Johnson’s writings, might be of help to veterans, family members and friends to recognise aspects of this condition:

A GUIDE TO RECOGNISING COMBAT RELATED PTSD Veterans will not tell their wives, families or friends that they are suffering from combat-related PTSD – because they simply do not know themselves. The hidden wound of PTSD, however, can show itself in several ways:

  • STRANGE BEHAVOUR at HOME: The veteran’s behaviour at home begins to get on his partner and family’s nerves. They often sit at home and hardly ever speaks to their partner, or family. The veteran does not seem to care or worry about the running of the family home, they don’t seem interested.
  • WORK: The veteran after a few weeks back home manages to get a job, then, only after a few days or weeks later they pack the job in. There seems no reason for this – and the veteran can offer no explanation.
  • HORRORS: The veteran suffering from combat-related PTSD brings home ‘new’ sleeping habits – nightmares. They may also experience ‘flashbacks’ to traumatic incidents experienced during combat and suddenly thrash around in bed – forcing their partner to sleep separately.
  • DRINK & DRUGS: The veteran suffering combat-related PTSD starts drinking alcohol or taking drugs. This can be an attempt at self-medication – to take away the memory and pain.
  • GOT to be ALONE: The veteran may have a good job and working as normal – then suddenly they disappear, away from everyone.
  • WRONG INFORMATION: The veteran suffering from combat-related PTSD will at times feel very nervous for no apparent reason.
  • SOUNDS / NOISES: The veteran feels threatened if they hear sounds or sudden loud noises they cannot recognise (especially at home).
  • PANIC: A veteran will not stay inside a small room when other strangers are present – they will leave.
  • MOOD SWINGS / DEPRESSION: The veteran has very bad mood swings and suffers from bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide.
  • RAGE & VIOLENCE: The veteran will fly into a rage at small trivial things, which can easily explode into fury and violence. AND the VETERAN MAY WELL END UP IN PRISON.

For many veterans the aftermath of serving, training and conflict can often lead to ALCOHOLISM, DRUG ADDICTION, DIVORCE, HOMELESSNESS, PRISON or SUICIDE. And this happens on a much larger scale than is generally known.

Postscript: Help Make the UK a Neutral Country

Veterans For Peace UK is a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organisation of men and women who have served in conflicts from WW2 through to Afghanistan. As a result of our collective experiences we firmly believe that: ‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’.

We are not a pacifist organisation, however, as we accept the inherent right of self-defence in response to an armed attack. So, VFP works to influence the foreign and defence policy of the UK, for the larger purpose of world peace. We are working to restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations. In order to achieve this goal, we are seeking support, across the political spectrum, for the UK to become a permanently neutral country.

In this video you can see some VFP members and hear their voices:


Information compiled and written by VFP member, Aly Renwick, who joined-up at 16 and served for 8 years in the British Army from 1960-8. His books are available from the VFP Shop:

One of Aly’s books ‘HIDDEN WOUNDS: The problems of Northern Ireland Veterans in Civvy Street’ was written about the violence that veterans were bringing home after tours-of-duty in Northern Ireland. By the end of the conflict around 300,000 soldiers had served tours-of-duty and, like the Vietnam veterans in the USA, many British soldiers experienced psychological and/or other rehabilitation problems on their return to Civvy Street. Hidden Wounds, while examining the long history of combat-related PTSD, takes a detailed look at what happened to some of the Northern Ireland veterans and shows how many of them ended up serving time in HM prisons.

This is the Guardian article from 2010 about Jimmy Johnson and the number of veterans in the UK prison system:

‘Leaving or Left the Armed Forces’ by Chris Paling, an ex-navy VFP member, who offers some thoughts on the struggles service personnel face after leaving the Army, Navy or Airforce:

To understand how members of the forces are subjected to propaganda and then switched-on to violence before combat read:

Any veteran, or family members, who want to understand how and why their training and service life might have affected them should watch ‘You are not in the Forces Now’ by psychologist and Aussie Vietnam veteran Nic Fothergill. This video, of a one hour lecture he gave to Australian Vietnam veterans and their families, is a good starting point:

The film ‘War School’ reveals the ways in which the British government and armed forces are using a series of coherent and targeted strategies to promote military values to the British public and entice its children into joining the forces. This is the trailer:

Regeneration is a film based on Pat Barker’s novel of the same name, which was based around the Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, set up to treat ‘shell-shocked’ officers during WW1. This is the trailer:

During the Vietnam War African Americans made up about 12% of the US population, but those drafted for Vietnam were often assigned to combat units and made up around 23% of such troops. In some airborne combat units African Americans composed 45-60% of the troops. Many black soldiers suffered from discrimination and alienation during and after tours-of-duty and this is another version of the John Prime song ‘Sam Stone’, performed by Swamp Dogg:

In the US, VFP member Dennis Stout was the first infantryman during the war in Vietnam to report war crimes. In spite of signed confessions from eleven members of his unit the US Army took no action. In 2018 Dennis spoke at a Public Conference during our VFP UK Annual Gathering in London and he revealed the brutal reality of the war in Vietnam:


  1. Neil Kelly says:

    A very good article which reminds me once again of the bullet I personally dodged by avoiding service in Northern Ireland – I was supposed to be posted out there for a 2-year tour, but another bloke in my unit was so eager to go that we asked if he could go in my place and it was accepted. Two years later I was serving with an infantry regiment in West Germany, but I was posted out just before they started their Northern Ireland tour.
    I remember seeing a warrant officer in my unit have a breakdown. As far as I knew he had not been in combat (if he had been in Northern Ireland it would have been as technical support in REME – although of course I’m sure people working in ancillary roles have also suffered trauma). He was coming up to his 22 years’ service – actually nearer 24, as he had been recruited as a 16-year old junior leader, but we know that the army likes them young and malleable – so the army had been his entire adult life. He seemed to be in complete denial that it was all coming to an end, ignoring all communications about his resettlement training, relocating his family back to the UK etc., and actually getting involved in things that would run on long after he was supposed to have left. Eventually the day came when his time was up and he just broke down and started crying, before being taken away to the psych unit.

  2. David Marchesi says:

    A comprehensive account of the long-established underside of military training and its results for many. We should all wonder, for example, what has become of the apparently world-record-holder marksman , a Royal Marine, whose “score” was 173 killed mostly in Afghanistan in 2006/7. Few adults could tolerate such a burden, yet, of course, the man is a hero for the tabloids,and possibly for his family and friends- an example of red-blooded patriotism and a top member of the greatest force for freedom known in history [ well, that is/was the US armed forces, acc/to Dubya Bush, but the UK and Oz forces dance to the tune of the White House] The general public seems to be afraid to consider the cost to ex-servicemen/women in psychological terms, the recent publicity in the Telegraph no doubt already forgotten.
    Professional soldiers and youngsters considering a military career need to be aware of the dangers of a brainwashing process which insists that killing people is good and heroic if done for the glory of their leaders [ e.g., the Queen -“send her victorious”] In today’s UK, the knee-jerk reactions of, say , a Sir Nick Carter are beyond belief- he seems to think “we” [“the West”] must be ready to take action against a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, presumably by armed intervention !!!! Is he totally crazy, totally regardless of the human side to “conflict” ?? Politicians, of course,also want to egg on public hysteria and/or lack of concern both towards all designated enemies with their wives, grand-parents, children etc and similarly towards “frontline” troops from the UK. Meanwhile, as technology develops, e.g.even better sniper rifles, fewer human beings and more drones etc will ensure an enhanced kill-rate. “Push-button war” is already with us, with the hope among war-mongers that the button-pushers, like the bomb-aimers, will include none who consider the implications of such inhuman procedures.
    See also Ann Jones ,They Were Soldiers

  3. Marc says:

    The talk is always about vets, but I disagree, the discussion should be about all service people in general, who are accepted by the DOD at a young age, broken down, fed their daily ration of BS and believe everything that is thrown at them. I am one of those, I joined the RAN before my 16th birthday, when the Vietnam war was still in progress, I wanted to serve my country and rid the world of the yellow peril that my government said it was our duty to stop the spread of. I went through the various bullying rituals and after 1 year of training joined a ship as an Ordinary Seaman, where further degradation and bullying ensued, but hey we were men in a mans culture, to speak out was treason.

    I never went to Vietnam, but I spent 4 years learning how to fight and drink and wearing a uniform made us more bold. Then I paid off, joined civvy street and returned home. My parents were both ex WWII service people or vets if you want to use that terminology, My farther had risen through the ranks to Captain and we never spoke about my life in the RAN, he was proud that I served but didn’t want to know the crap that we went through, after all 1970 compared to 1937 must have been a doddle.

    I went through about 20 jobs in 6 months, I couldn’t assimilate after 4 years of service, I had been reconfigured and never rebuilt, I tried to join the Australian Merchant Navy but they didn’t want ex navy men, the MOD paid for me to be retrained, I chose a 2 year Hotel Management course, which entailed learning cooking, waitering, accounting etc, there were 4 ex-servicemen on the course, me, 2 army & 1 RAAF the rest were 16 & 17 year olds, the youngsters learnt to cook Chateaubriand for the restaurant and we cleaned pots and pans and rubbish bins, they waited and we cleaned the tables & floors, in 7 months we learnt nothing and one by one we left.

    Then I was offered a position on a Danish Merchant ship, I travelled to countries that I was told were our enemies and found them to be the opposite of what I had been fed in the RAN.

    In 1976 I joined the Royal Engineers, got fed my daily ration of BS, but because I had travelled in the Merch I ignored pretty well all that was being fed, I joined to get a trade, and was lucky that in 9 years I spent 80% of it doing my trade as a a so called electrician though in reality we were genset operators, I spent the majority of my time in BAOR and because we supplied electrical services to most regiments spent 90% of my time on exercise away from my family. I spent 7 months in the Falklands and was posted 1 week after my 2nd son was born, there was no allowance made.

    In 1986 I paid off and the DOD sent me on a course to adapt into civilian life, and the choices were limited so I chose the best of the lot and did a 1 week course on repairing household appliances.

    Both the Aussie and Brit governments did nothing to help me transform into civilian life or offer reasonable courses for retraining and though I have done well for myself through my own fortitude, companies I have worked for like the disciplined way I work and achieve their outcomes, but they do want the military dedication in their business long term, they only want their immediate problem resolved.

    A friend of mine spent 26 years in the ADF (RAN & RAAF) and paid off as a WO1, aircraft technician managing aircraft maintenance, similarly could not get employment in civvy street in the aircraft industry, went through many jobs one of which was a council worker. lollypop man at road works.

    I like many of my ex-services friends can drink & fight, find it hard to keep jobs and marriages, find it had talking with people who have never entered the service and yes many of us suffer depression.

    It is not our choice not to be posted to a war zone, but why should we be treated differently by our countries when we all joined to serve. Ex-service people carry as much luggage in life as those who went to a war zone but without government support

  4. I joined VfP for this very reason. For 35 years I spoke to no one about experiences that were manipulating my behaviour, the first time I raised the subject I started to realise just how much I was being driven by memories. Each time I’ve talked about it the control has been eased.
    My main reason for joining VfP was to help veterans struggling with PTSD. How do we set up a group who want to focus on helping these veterans?

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s