The Training Ground
The Costs & Profits of the Conflict
‘THOSE AT THE TOP SAY COMRADESHIP
WHEN IT COMES TO MARCHING MANY DO NOT KNOW
Bertolt Brecht - from a series of poems and satires about the German Army,
In 1969 a new version of the British Army’s secret training manual, Land Operations, was produced. This Volume III, called Counter-Revolutionary Operations, drew on what the army had learned in its series of colonial wars from the end of the 2nd World War. By the end of 1969 troops were being deployed out onto the streets of Northern Ireland. A great deal of the counter-revolutionary strategy which lay behind the British Army’s actions in places like Derry and Belfast had first been used in all of Ireland in the past. It was then adapted for use in far off parts of Empire, like Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden, and latterly came full circle to be used once again in the north of Ireland.
After Ulsterisation, most of the casualties among the security forces increasingly came from the RUC and UDR. As the flow-back of body bags of British soldiers from the conflict slowed down, the level of domestic opposition to the war dipped, enabling Westminster to proceed with a war now tailored to their ‘acceptable levels’. Successive British governments also tried to show that progress was being made in Northern Ireland, with the ‘normalisation’ strategy another component of Ulsterisation. Cocooned in a web of compliant media coverage, Westminster then claimed that Northern Ireland was a normal society with only a few problem areas caused by ‘criminal elements’ - which were now under control and being dealt with by the security forces. Republicans, or anyone expressing dissenting views, were censored.
At the start of the conflict, the British Army commanders were adamant that the IRA could, and would, be defeated. By the mid to late seventies this conviction of victory was beginning to fade. In 1977, an officer serving in the British Army in Ireland wrote down his feelings for an Irish paper:
1: Irish Press,
The Army’s Secret View
One year later, in 1978, a secret military intelligence report on the IRA, called Northern Ireland : Future Terrorist Trends, was produced. The New Statesman magazine obtained a copy and Duncan Campbell wrote a summary: ‘The campaign of violence is likely to continue while the British remain in Northern Ireland’. There is ‘no prospect in the next five years of any political change’ which will remove the raison d’étre of the Provisional IRA. With these conclusions the secret military intelligence appreciation of Northern Ireland, Future Terrorist Trends wraps up and buries a thousand speeches of politicians who have promised that the army will wipe out the gunmen.’ Campbell continued:
The report was stating officially the conclusions that many soldiers had come to privately - that while the IRA could be contained by high concentrations of soldiers and police, they could not be defeated.
2: New Statesman,
While later soldiers’ deaths were relegated to a few lines on an inside page, the first soldier fatalities in Northern Ireland had featured prominently on the front pages of British papers. At the end of 1972 the magazine New Society did a survey of the 100 British soldiers killed in the north of Ireland between January and November of that year:
In the recruitment ads these soldiers were called ‘The Professionals’. From the end of the 2nd World War National Service had filled army units with young recruits, but many had not wanted to be there. The military command were also unhappy with conscription - to them it had often meant ‘indiscipline’, ‘a lack of commitment’ and ‘educated agitators stirring things up’. National Service was phased out by 1963, and the army was returned to a non-conscript, elite ‘professional force’. Recruiting from deprived areas - what could be called a de facto economic conscription - now enabled army commanders to target their choice of potential soldiers like Frank Gilchrist:
Anxious to recruit school-leavers with little or no experience of civilian life, the modern recruiting sergeant hooked the potential soldier with themes like ‘Adventure’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Travel’. Chris Byrne, a ex-Royal Marine, said: ‘I joined up because I had no education or qualifications, and where I lived in Essex there wasn’t much work available. I knew others who had joined up, so I decided to follow them. I joined up as a Junior Marine when I was sixteen. I wanted a bit of excitement, a bit of travel, to be tough, to be something - rather than just be nothing outside.’ 
Youths from a low educational background were targeted for recruitment, because they were easier to mould into the type of soldiers the officers required. They were unlikely to question their training or orders, and those who did become disaffected had difficulty articulating their grievances or organising protests. Many recruits had racist and sexist prejudices current in society, which were often encouraged in subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - ways, during training. Some were attracted to the army by the macho image that many regiments like to portray: ‘The image of the services, “disciplined”, “tough and professional”, was very attractive. ... It’s a very masculine atmosphere ... you get a lot of crap about how they are going to separate the men from the boys ... The pressure is on you to stick it out and get through the training because you want to prove yourself to your mates.’ 
Once recruited, ordinary soldiers were tied to binding contracts, which were often many years in length. Basic training, as experienced NCOs hammer the recruits into line, has altered little over the years:
3: New Society,
4: Morning Star,
5: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
6: Ibid - British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
7: All Bull: The National Servicemen,
The Officer Class
While most of the ‘doing and dying’ in Northern Ireland was done by rank and file soldiers, all of the ‘reasoning why’ was done by the officers. In 1990, Gumboots and Pearls, a guide to coping with being an Army officer’s wife, was published. Written by two wives of serving officers the publication, though light-hearted, did give some insights into officers’ lives. A review of the book in the Independent said: ‘The 120-page book warns prospective recruits - brides marrying into the army - that their husbands are likely to find their wedding night a time of great discovery. Army officers, it says, have ‘on the whole lived from the age of six solely in the company of boys, men and dogs’. Indeed, dogs form an enduring part of life in the army.’  The review continued:
Barracks, where troops often live in cramped and spartan blocks, keep the squaddies isolated from the outside population. The distinction between the officers and men is strictly kept. Army officers, who live in much better and separate accommodation, still came predominantly from public school (private education) backgrounds and from the upper and middle classes:
Often, the officers who received an ordinary education at state schools quickly emulated the elitist attitudes of their mentors - the senior officers from public school backgrounds. As an officer serving in Northern Ireland in 1977 stated: ‘More State-educated boys than ever before are being commissioned - though still not into the smartest of regiments, of course. What is so disturbing however, is the way in which all this new blood is so quickly tainted with the social mores and opinions of the past ... most of the new entry take to the rigid distinctions that are left like a duck to water.’  The few who did not conform were often given a hard time by their fellow officers. Sometimes, this included physical violence:
9: Ibid - Independent,
11: Irish Press,
Inferiors and Superiors
Soldiers, who cost the taxpayer a lot of money to recruit and train, were used as servants and often were treated in a feudal-type way by their officers. Frank Gilchrist, who had joined the Scots Guards, said: ‘I enjoyed the barrack-room camaraderie but couldn’t stomach the officers with their public school accents and their elitist mentality.’ Gilchrist, who had left the army after fighting in the Falklands, continued:
Simon Raven wrote Perish by the Sword, about his time as a young officer in the Army. In the 1950s he was at the School of Infantry at Warminster and met a fellow officer, Captain C: ‘C was always very concerned with his men’s welfare, to which he gave genuine consideration (on the face of it, just the kind of competent, thoughtful and public-spirited young officer which a Labour Government would wish to perpetuate in “a democratic Army”).’ Raven continued:
Another ex-officer stated: ‘You simply can’t afford, not if you’re career-minded, to be in the slightest way non-conformist or even be suspected of being that way. You have to accept all their values without exception.’ He continued:
Officers, from the days of flogging, have imposed harsh discipline on their men - but they ensured that punishments were inflicted by other ranks on other ranks. By never doing their own dirty work officers preserved their superior status, power and domination. For today’s troops, while flogging and the firing squad are no longer tenable instruments for officers to maintain their control, the modern British Army retains a harsh and undemocratic punishment system. From squad to company to regiment, fines and other penalties can be dished out by officers presiding as judges. The court-martial is the pinnacle, backed up with brutal army jails.
13: Morning Star,
14: Perish by the Sword,
15: Soldier, Soldier,
With corporal punishment no longer an option for keeping soldiers in line, officers ensured that increasing emphasis was given to the indoctrination of recruits. Training is designed to mould squaddies into the Army’s way of thinking and sense of purpose and to ensure they bond with their fellow soldiers. Surgeon Commander Morgan O’Connell, then a Navy psychiatrist just back from the Falklands War, explained the process to journalist Polly Toynbee: ‘Yes we indoctrinate them in the forces. Otherwise they wouldn’t fight. That’s why we cut their hair the same, make them wear the same uniform, make the same salute, and march together. We indoctrinate them in order to enhance group cohesiveness. That’s how you get people to fight.’ 
A feature of this training is the crude verbal taunts, usually sexual in nature, directed at the newcomers. At first, recruits are intimidated and shocked by the physical training and the bawling out by the NCOs, but later will start to use such terms themselves and giggle when this treatment is dished out to others. Not all recruits take easily to this type of military life, and the first casualties of these methods often occurred inside the training units:
The inquest into the death of private Jeffrey Singh heard allegations of bullying and that he had been called a ‘black bastard’ . Recently, the deaths of four recruits at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey has started a campaign by the families calling for a public inquiry into all deaths like these in the army. The Labour MP, Kevin McNamara, asked questions about Deepcut and also wanted to know the extent of such events in the army? He was told that across the army there were more than 100 deaths a year being caused by non-combatant and natural causes.
Those recruits that passed and survived training were then posted to their regiment. The regimental system binds soldiers to their particular unit and promotes competition within the army structure. It is also used to promote values that encourage ‘loyalty’:
Once in their regiment, recruits were at risk from their fellow soldiers during unofficial initiation ceremonies, called ‘beastings’, to which the officers turned a blind eye:
Beastings are often condoned because these practices are thought to be character forming and helpful in creating bonds between the men. Officers were also known to have indulged in similar activity within their own ranks. Military experts claim that soldiers will fight: 1) For themselves - combative instincts / manly pride / survival; 2) For their mates – bonding / fear of letting the side down; 3) For the regiment - tribal loyalty; 4) For national reasons - Queen and country. Training, as well as building recruits physically and developing combat skills, is also used to strengthen the soldiers’ reasons and will to fight. This is then expanded within the regiment, as the officers try to ensure their soldiers have lost their last vestiges of individuality - and have become cogs in the army machine.
17: Daily Record,
19: A New Model Army,
20: Daily Record,
Anyone considered an outsider could often experience hostility in the regimental system, which glorifies past colonial battles and is steeped in the traditions of Britain’s imperial legacy. Often this included racist feelings towards foreigners, or anyone considered inferior. Even modern regiments exude these attitudes. The history of 45 Commando Royal Marines, which was formed in 1943, stated that at the end of the 2nd World War one of its ‘favourite’ marching songs was ‘Sambo was a Lazy Coon’ .
Black soldiers often suffered high levels of racism and abuse while serving in the British Army. In 1981, the journalist Ian Jack visited an army regiment while writing a series of articles on British youth: ‘The dozen boys I spoke to were all white, from working-class homes in London, the Midlands and the West Country. The Green Jackets, however, do recruit a fair number of black youths. Slowly the conversation drifted through patriotism (“We’re English, aren’t we? I mean, we’re God’s gift”) and the riots of this summer (“daft - just to get yourself noticed”) towards the thorny and ever-present subject of race.’ Jack continued:
Stephen Anderson was a black soldier subjected to abuse and discrimination while serving with the Devon and Dorset Regiment in Berlin and Wiltshire. He was beaten up for refusing to go drinking with white soldiers, and his life was threatened:
After his discharge, Anderson fought for justice with the help of the Commission for Racial Equality. After a four year battle he was awarded just £500 compensation and the black paper, The Voice, reported his ordeal: ‘Stephen Anderson phoned a local radio station while he was wandering about Birmingham city centre last week in a distressed state. Thousands of listeners to BBC Radio WM heard him say: “I can’t cope, I’ve had enough.” He told of the injustices he suffered at the hands of fellow soldiers in the Devon and Dorset Regiment.’ The Voice report continued:
21: FourFive - The Story of 45 Commando Royal Marines 1943-1971,
22: The Sunday Times Magazine,
24: The Voice,
Many army regiments had a history of not wanting black soldiers. But some units, serving tours of duty in Northern Ireland in the early to mid-70s, found soldiers were leaving the army in unprecedented numbers. Desperate to replenish the ranks, a special effort was then made to gain recruits from the ‘ethnic minorities’. Once in the Army, most black soldiers were subject to racism within the ranks. Some, like Lloyd Hayes, became disturbed by the situation in the north of Ireland:
Given the indifference of the officers to the abuse suffered by black recruits at the hands of white fellow soldiers and NCOs, it was hardly surprising that there was a fall-off of recruits from the black communities. In 1989 a secret report into ‘why black and coloured people shun the Armed Forces’ was ‘sending shock waves through the Ministry of Defence. It is said to contain “unpalatable facts” about racial discrimination in all three branches of the Services. Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton admitted last night that a massive marketing campaign was needed in ethnic communities to counter the “alienation” felt by black and Asian groups.’ 
A week after the secret report was presented, journalist Kate Muir visited the Guards as they rehearsed for Trooping the Colour. A guardsman was telling her about a recent posting: ‘He is interrupted by another soldier who has clearly not been invited to speak by the press officer. “We didn’t really like Belize ’cos of all the coloured people”. The others laugh. “Notice that I say coloured, not Pakis and wogs. That’s because the army isn’t racist any more”.’  As racist abuse continued, a succession of stories appeared in papers highlighting the way black soldiers were being mistreated. Like Winston Clay in the Royal Artillery:
26: Daily Mail,
28: Daily Record,
Most recruits who stayed the course and qualified as ‘professionals’ become distanced from their old life and society outside. Prevalent military culture encourages the soldiers to see themselves as ‘real’ men. This macho ideology often leads squaddies into increasingly sexist views, which become a part of their army life:
After a night’s drinking in Aldershot off-duty paras would perform the ‘Dance of the Flaming Arseholes’. A soldier would clamber onto a table and strip off while his mates sang ‘The Zulu Warrior’. When naked, a rolled-up piece of newspaper was thrust into his anus and then lit. A man showed his bottle by allowing the flames to get right up to his anus before removing what was left of the paper. Paras also held ‘grot contests’ that consisted of seeing which soldier could pick up the ‘most nauseatingly ugly girl’. The women would be brought back to a certain pub at a certain time and the ‘grot’ of the evening would be judged: ‘The crowning act of utter obscenity was to obtain a woman’s hand-bag under some pretext and defecate into it.’  Marilyn French, in her book The War Against Women, describes how males are conditioned and their subsequent behaviour:
Lance Corporal Vincent Bramley wrote a book called Excursion To Hell about his experiences with the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands War. Aboard the SS Canberra sailing to the islands he tells about the letters of support the soldiers received: ‘At home, the massive support had produced in hundreds of females a sudden liking for both the Army and Navy and they all wanted penfriends. This amused us very much. The daily sackfuls of letters were dumped in our rooms and we picked out the ones we fancied.’ Bramley continued:
There is probably no stronger ‘real’ men's club in Britain than that of a regiment in the British Army. Marilyn French points out the characteristics of such organisations: ‘Men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they are inferior. They seek a centre in other men, in male solidarity through male cults (in simple societies), priesthoods, military or paramilitary groups, academies, professions, teams, religious brotherhoods, or the new male cults.’ French continued:
29: Express, 11th Oct. 1997,
30: Shoot to Kill - A Soldier ’ s Journey Through Violence,
31: The War Against Women,
32: Excursion To Hell - The Battle for Mount Longdon,
33: The War Against Women,
A Soldier’s Death in Ireland
In April 1977 the official Army magazine, Soldier, showed on its front cover a picture of a paratrooper in full combat kit being kissed by a bikini-clad model. The Dublin review Hibernia, that same month, carried a report about a soldier from the Queen’s Regiment who was charged with assaulting a Derry youth :
Two months later, the leniency shown in that case was matched by the Appeal Court in London. In June 1977 it revoked the jail sentence of a Guardsman who had viciously raped an 18-year-old woman. During his two and a half years in the army the Guardsman had spent six months in Northern Ireland and was said by one of his officers to have ‘an excellent record’. Earlier, in January of the same year, private Roger Surch of the King’s Regiment had admitted raping a woman while on patrol in Strabane the previous summer. He was given a two-year suspended sentence and allowed to return to his regiment, along with two other privates who admitted indecently assaulting the same woman and who received 9-month suspended sentences.
Any squaddies thought effeminate are often subjected to abuse and ill-treatment by their fellow soldiers. In September 1990, Guardsman Alex Ireland was on a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. A bit of a loner, he had difficulty fitting in with the enclosed, macho world of a professional army regiment. Admitting to being a virgin, he was teased unmercifully by his fellow soldiers, who regaled him with graphic details of their own exploits. Even on patrol in the Tyrone countryside, Alex was the victim of abuse. His NCOs were worst. He was ‘useless’, said his sergeant. ‘He’s not cut out for the Guards’ and ‘He walks like a fruit’.
After a ten-hour patrol, through which Alex was incessantly goaded, the soldiers were flown back to barracks by helicopter and settled down to sleep. The next morning the riot gun, which Alex had been responsible for, could not be found. He knew he had brought it back and thought someone had hidden it as a prank. He was summoned before some of his NCOs and told he would be sent to the military prison at Colchester if he did not find it. This was the last straw. Shortly afterwards Alex went to his room and shot himself below the heart with his SA 80 rifle.
Alex Ireland had found the combination of constant abuse from fellow soldiers and a tour of duty in Ireland too much to bear. He left a note, with a special message for his mother: ‘Tell mother I love her, tell mother I need her, tell mother not to cry, my love for her will never die. I could not hack it any longer. Your loving son, Alex.’ 
35: Mail on Sunday,
Any soldier discovered to be gay could expect an even harder time. Homosexuality was thought by many hard-line militarists to be incompatible with the macho ideology that they think the armed forces should imbue. Subsequent anti-gay prejudice often resulted in savage persecution and even suicides:
Until 2000, soldiers who had been convicted for being gay were often sentenced to periods in army prisons. They were then dismissed from the service: ‘A 21-year-old private in the King’s Regiment was convicted and jailed for life after strangling a friend who had threatened to tell the Army about their homosexual affair. Sentences of nine months imprisonment for having a homosexual affair are not unknown. Such conduct would not be punishable under the general law.’ 
While homosexuality was still illegal in the armed forces any service personnel found to be gay were thrown out. An ex-officer who disagreed with this policy said: ‘Another example to me of the outmoded ideas in the Army was the subject of homosexuality. Whisper it quietly, but more than one famous Army figure of the past has been, as we’re now slowly learning from time to time, homosexual. But the official line within the Army in present day terms is that it doesn’t exist.’ The ex-officer continued:
In 1980, Irish journalist Fionnuala O’Connor attended an Army court-martial in Belfast. Two Royal Military Police corporals were charged with gross indecency (i.e. having a gay relationship): ‘On the first day of the case the prosecution discovered that their defence of the indecency charges was that they had fabricated a homosexual relationship to get out of the army in a hurry; because they had become ‘disillusioned’ with service life in Northern Ireland and thought they would be deferred endlessly if they tried to buy themselves out.’ O’Connor continued:
The corporals were found guilty and sentenced to be reduced to the ranks, placed in detention for 56 days, and then dismissed from service.
37: NCCL Report.
38: Soldier, Soldier,
39: The Irish Times,
Getting out proved to be a problem for many soldiers as the army did not readily want to lose experienced men. Obtaining a discharge, especially on conscientious grounds, was a long and hard process. Even for an officer, as ex-captain Mike Biggs discovered: ‘There is a means whereby you can get out of the army on grounds of conscience, but the army doesn’t go parading that around. They never told me I could get out on grounds of conscience, even though I was asking to go out because of Northern Ireland and because of my values.’ Biggs continued:
Ordinary soldiers could expect an even harder time, many just gritted their teeth and soldiered on. There was often a large increase in charges for petty offences before and after a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. Royal Marine Chris Byrne, who was sent to an army prison for being absent without leave, said:
The soldiers who did get out were usually those who had questioned the actions they were asked to carry out. This tended to leave a more hard-core element - the ‘real’ men - who had few qualms about dishing out the aggro. In his book, Shoot To Kill, Michael Asher outlines his experiences in the Parachute Regiment. In graphic detail Asher tells about his training and his tours of duty in Northern Ireland. He describes the tension and the fights that break out between soldiers in this situation. He then describes the extremes that training, conditioning and alienation can bring out in some soldiers:
With British troops currently deployed in Iraq, we should remember that at the time Asher described Westminster politicians were always talking about the ‘peacekeeping role’ of the army - and the British media were saying ‘what a jolly good job our boys are doing’ in Northern Ireland.
40: BRM Radio, Birmingham.
41: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
42: Shoot to Kill - A soldier ’ s journey through violence,
Preparing for a Tour of Duty
When it became clear that the British Army was going to be in Northern Ireland for a considerable time, the generals began preparing their troops for a prolonged conflict. Special training areas were built in England and other serving areas like Germany: ‘My Tour with the British Army in Northern Ireland began three months before the RAF transport aircraft touched down on the glistening tarmac at Aldergrove Airport outside Belfast. For those months, the unit had been in Germany on a mock-up council estate. There was a pub full of faceless people, soldiers dressed up in Civ. Pop. (Civilian Population) clothing, a corner of County Down and a riot torn street.’  A similar ‘mock-up’ training area was even constructed inside the rock on Gibraltar.
Many soldiers have vivid memories of this training: ‘It was reminiscent of childhood scenarios in which we were the hunter or the hunted. I enjoyed being the hunted, outwitting and outmanoeuvring, and eventually triumphing over the forces of authority. But I instinctively felt those games were abstractions that bore little relation to what Ireland would really be like.’  In elite units, like the Royal Marine Commandos, the training could be extreme:
This type of training had two objects, first to train the soldiers physically for urban warfare on the streets, secondly to condition them mentally for such conflict. An ‘us versus them’ mentality was created, differing little from training for conventional war, except for the terrain and circumstances over which it would be fought:
44: Ibid - Guardian,
45: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
46: Irish Press,
The Conditioning of Soldiers
Another ex-soldier, Brian Ashton, described how his ‘riot-drill’ was combined with indoctrination, just before a tour of duty: ‘The training I experienced created an impression that the Catholic minority were in fact the violent section in Northern Ireland. I’ll quote one instance. We were told to become a funeral march, a Protestant funeral march, and the rest of the troops were told to be Catholics and attack us, and steal the coffin, and we were led to believe this was common practice...’ 
Soldiers were also given verbal briefings before a tour of duty. These were often a mixture of counter-insurgency and cold war rhetoric: ‘We were also given lectures on the situation out there at the time. Even though we were going to be deployed in a part of Belfast that consists mostly of Protestants - with one small Catholic area - the enemy was firmly defined as being the IRA, and their sympathisers (which meant all Catholics). The republican political arguments were dismissed as being communist, and we were given a lecture on the “Russian threat”.’ 
The Army became reluctant to divulge the information it gave to its young soldiers. In 1989, journalist Dennis Campbell visited the Queen’s Regiment at Bassingbourn Barracks in Hertfordshire and talked to a recruit: ‘During our conversation about Northern Ireland, which he started, Simon referred several times to “fighting the enemy” and “beating the terrorists”. But when I asked who he meant, and what recruits are taught to prepare them about the situation, one of his two officer “minders” stopped him replying and asked me not to discuss matters of “operational secrecy”.’ 
Army captain Mike Biggs experienced the training for Northern Ireland, and the effect it had on the soldiers once they were on a tour of duty:
47: BRM Radio, 12th Aug. 1979,
48: British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland,
50: Northern Ireland - Looking Through the Violence,
Intimidation and Crime
The training and indoctrination, coupled with the hostile environment, turned some soldiers into unfeeling, aggressive warriors who wanted to engage in ‘aggro’ with the locals. Army units, continually sent into the midst of hostile areas, wanted to show who was boss over a population the soldiers were taught to regard as enemies of the state:
On house raids, soldiers were often asked to bring back photos of ‘players’ - suspect members of the raided family. That, in effect, meant stealing the picture. Soldiers often took this as carte blanche to take other items that caught their eye. In 1990, the Troops Out Movement organised a meeting of ex-soldiers in London and the next day the Irish Times reported what the veterans had said about their tours of duty:
Other soldiers in Derry had sought out opportunities to steal goods from houses during their tours of duty: ‘Five soldiers from the 1st. Batt. Queens Regiment all pleaded guilty in a Derry court recently to a total of 12 charges of theft, burglary and receiving, involving items like tape-recorders, cassettes, perfume and tools which were taken from houses in the city last year...’
It became a regular thing for soldiers to take goods from bombed-out buildings they were sent to guard. Some took this a step further and broke into buildings when on patrol:
51: Irish News,
52: Irish Times,
54: Irish Times,
Óglaigh na hHowards
Ironically, the young soldiers inside the army forts and the people in the nationalist areas outside had much in common. Often they watched the same TV programmes, listened to the same pop songs and cheered on the same football teams. The soldiers came from urban or country areas back in Britain, not unlike the territory they now patrolled and tried to dominate.
During and after the H-block prison hunger strike in 1981, republican wall paintings appeared all over nationalist areas - often painted by local youths with the support and encouragement of the community. In Britain people often live in areas where large advertisements sell various products. Sometimes, someone sneaks out at night and alters the message because they find it offensive. In Northern Ireland soldiers and policemen on night patrol often carried paint or acid ‘bombs’ or other devices to try to destroy the republican murals under the cover of darkness. This gives a clue to the true balance of forces in these areas. While the sheer concentration of soldiers and police could physically dominate any area, the security forces were non-starters in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’.
As public manifestations of cultural resistance, the wall paintings obviously had an effect on soldiers. In 1988, men from the Green Howards were serving in the Creggan area of Derry. First raised to support King William in 1688, the Green Howards then travelled with him to Ulster and fought for him at the battle of the Boyne. In 1988, 300 years later, units from this regiment were still doing tours of duty in the north of Ireland and some of these soldiers painted their own mural inside the gates of their fort. Republican wall paintings are often dedicated to Óglaigh na hÉireann - which means Army of Ireland or the IRA in English. The Green Howards’ mural was captioned: ‘Óglaigh na hHowards’.
In nationalist areas over the past thirty years, young men and women had grown up knowing nothing else but armed soldiers and police on their streets, ‘wriggly-tin’ military forts close by, army lookout posts on every high building and helicopters constantly in the sky. The harassment and repression they suffered did not defeat them, and in the end only fuelled their resistance. Some soldiers, on the other hand, found that the contradictions inherent in their situation – and the claustrophobic atmosphere inside their forts – were too much to bear.
On 25th February 1979, Trooper Edward Maggs was shot dead in West Belfast. At the time, his death was front page news, different from the usual couple of sentences, ‘... last night another soldier ...’, printed at the bottom of page five. According to military sources Maggs had been drinking inside the Woodburn Army base when he had suddenly started firing at other soldiers, killing Corporal John Tucker and seriously injuring Lance Corporal David Mellor, before he himself was shot dead by fellow soldiers. His father, retired bank official Douglas Maggs, said:
His mother, Pamela Maggs, added: ‘We adopted Eddie when he was six. Before he came to us his life had been rotten. We gave him all the love we could. He was always crazy about being a soldier, but he was desperately scared of returning to Northern Ireland’ .
55: Daily Mirror - front page,
56: Daily Mirror,
Problems in Civvy Street
The early years of the conflict in Northern Ireland coincided with the latter years of the Vietnam War. 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 USA found that over fifteen per cent of Vietnam veterans were still suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (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. Since 1969 many thousands of young soldiers from Britain have served tours of duty in Northern Ireland, faced varying degrees of hostility and taken part in violent confrontations. While the scale of the conflict was undoubtedly greater in Vietnam, there is increasing evidence that a significant number of ex-soldiers who served in Northern Ireland have experienced rehabilitation difficulties, which parallel those of the Vietnam veterans.
In the US, in 1991, a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless stated that ‘One- third of single men who are homeless are ex-service veterans’ and that ‘One-half of veterans who are homeless have drug/alcohol problems.’ Three 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. Forty-one per cent of them had spent time in prison. Some veterans have committed violent acts against family members or strangers, subsequently creating more victims of the conflict. Like the Vietnam veterans, for British ex-soldiers the aftermath of strife has often meant -Suicide / Alcoholism / Divorce / Homelessness / Prison - and this is happening on a much larger scale than is generally known.
In my book Hidden Wounds I showed how the MoD and successive British governments have turned a blind eye to the plight of their Northern Ireland veterans and offered little help to those ex-soldiers who had difficulty settling back into Civvy Street.  Over the past three decades thousands of Northern Ireland veterans have served time in British jails and there are many hundreds still in the prison system, a much higher percentage than the average for any other profession. Dr Morgan O’Connell is an ex-armed forces 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:
As a consequence of not receiving any help for their rehabilitation back into Civvy Street, or treatment for conditions like PTSD, many ex-soldiers have found themselves without a job, homeless and often drinking to excess and/or taking drugs. A course that frequently leads to trouble - often violence against family members or strangers - and jail. Intensively trained to use brute force to impose a military solution on the streets of Belfast and Derry, some Northern Ireland veterans have brought their violence home. Since 1969, probably more deaths and injuries have been inflicted on the civilian population in Britain by returning soldiers than by IRA bombings.
57: Hidden Wounds - the problems of Northern Ireland veterans in Civvy Street,
58: Belfast Telegraph,
The ‘Harmless’ Killers
After the series of counter-revolutionary operations in the early 70s, the army top brass could see that the more direct methods used in far off places were proving counter-productive in the north of Ireland - a message reinforced by the spate of world wide protests after Bloody Sunday in Derry. The army quickly realised that it required a technology for limited war in a European industrialised environment, coupled with a strategy for application.
In 1969, British soldiers on the streets only had a few items of ‘riot-control’ equipment, but by the mid-70s a whole apparatus of repressive items were in stock. When first used in the north of Ireland, it was claimed that many of these new weapons were ‘humane’ because they did not inflict physical damage or death. In fact, agents like CS gas brought ill health to many who suffered its use. In 1970, rubber bullets were introduced in north of Ireland:
The people of Hong Kong, who had suffered the use of the original weapon, were not laughing. Neither were the people in nationalist areas, who now had to face soldiers armed with rubber bullets. Soon this weapon with the ‘slightly humorous’ image was to claim one of its first victims:
Local residents, who had tuned in their radios to the Army wavelength, heard a soldier say on his walkie-talkie ‘I hope we killed the cunt.’ Rubber and then plastic bullets, fired by soldiers or policemen, went on to kill seventeen people, eight of whom were children. Many more people, like Emma Groves, were maimed. The true use of ‘riot control’ equipment was as weapons of intimidation, used to clear local people from their own streets, in circumstances where the use of real bullets would have been counter-productive:
59: They Shoot Children - The Use of Rubber and Plastic Bullets
60: Ibid - They Shoot Children - The Use of Rubber and Plastic Bullets
61: The Technology of Political Control,
Weapons of Social Control
Northern Ireland became a testing ground for the production of systems and weapons for social control. In 1978, the Irish Times reported on the profits to be made from these developments: ‘Earlier this year (April 5th) over £200 millions worth of defence communications equipment was sold by British firms to Saudi Arabia. The systems will be mainly for use in internal security and the installation will be monitored by the British Ministry of Defence. The system absorbs refinements developed “on the ground” in Northern Ireland.’ The report continued:
Much of this equipment was related to the task of intelligence gathering. Soldiers manning the concrete towers, built along the border in the late 80s, have a vast array of devices to protect them and enable them to provide information:
Even during the peace process soldiers were still being issued with new equipment for testing on their tours of duty. In 1996, during the first IRA ceasefire, it was reported that: ‘Soldiers from the Prince of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment are testing a new night vision system on the streets of Northern Ireland ... They patrol wearing a high-tech goggle strapped over one eye, which relays views of the surrounding area via a sophisticated electronic array mounted on their rifles. “This is a new generation of night-vision equipment”, said an army spokesman, saying that the trials were proving to be very successful.’ 
In 2001 a new plastic bullet was issued to soldiers and policemen in Northern Ireland. The bullet, the L21A1, was described as being ‘lighter, faster, aerodynamically shaped and manufactured from a stiffer material’. An MoD report admitted that ‘The severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater with the L21A1, due to higher pressures on the brain, and the greater penetration of the projectile.’ 
62: Irish Times,
63: The Phoenix,
64: Morning Star,
Profits and Costs
Every year the British Government’s Defence Export Services Organisation holds a week-long Royal Navy and British Army Equipment Exhibition. While scores of British companies display their wares, the exhibition is closed to the British public. It is open, however, to a long, but secret, list of prospective buyers from overseas governments - including many who have an abysmal human rights record. The ‘Arms Trade’ is one of the few world markets where Britain can claim to be a leading seller. In 1993, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement Jonathan Aitken told the House of Commons: ‘Britain’s defence exports for 1992 were £4.5 billion, representing 20% of the world market. Those were record figures. In the month of January 1993, British companies won orders in the middle and far east with a value approaching that of our world-wide defence exports for the whole of 1992, so we now expect that 1993 will be another record-breaking year. We regard this as a satisfactory contribution to the economy.’  These levels of arms sales have continued under New Labour.
While firms and individuals made huge profits from the new technology of repression, it was British taxpayers who paid for the on-going conflict. In 1992-93, the subvention to Northern Ireland was £3.3 billion (this was the figure for public spending in NI over and above what NI raised itself in taxes). This figure included the costs of the police and prisons, but did not include the costs of the Army. The cost of the Northern Ireland commitment for the British Army was estimated for 1993 to be £405.6 million. In 1992 and 1993 two IRA bombs in the City of London caused damage estimated to be approaching £1.8 billion. In 1993, Tony Benn MP issued this statement: ‘I asked the House of Commons research department to calculate the total cost of the emergency and, at current prices, the cost of the war has been £14.5 billion.’ 
After its secret report, Northern Ireland - Future Terrorist Trends, most Army commanders agreed that the IRA could not be defeated. The Army top brass, however, were not slow to realise that soldiers continually involved in a real, if limited, war would become some of the ‘best trained’ in the world. Cynically, many senior officers began to look upon Northern Ireland as a training ground:
Similar claims are now being made for the British troops deployed in Iraq.
68: The Times,
The Continuing Tragedy
Since 1969, under the control of extreme right-wing officers, armed British soldiers were continually sent out onto the streets and countryside in the north of Ireland. 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 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:
Over decades the army had became firmly entrenched in Northern Ireland, with the troops facing a continuous cycle of tours of duty. In a typical army unit’s ‘patch’ soldiers could find themselves guarding RUC posts and protecting police on patrol, raiding nationalist homes in the early morning and sometimes engaging in gun battles with ‘terrorists’. The squaddie’s main tasks usually consisted of manning the extensive ‘security network’ of bases and observation posts, and patrolling hostile territory:
Unfortunately, the tragedy continued for both the soldiers and the Irish people - as exemplified by a few days in May 1981. This was a very tense time on the Twinbrook estate in West Belfast. A former resident, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, republican prisoner and MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, had died after sixty-six days on hunger strike. Huge crowds had followed his funeral cortege from Twinbrook to Milltown cemetery.
Ten days later a patrol of four army landrovers were moving around the estate, just after reports had been received that five other soldiers had just been killed in an IRA ambush in South Armagh. They had been travelling in a six-wheeled Saracen armoured car when a 1,000 lb culvert bomb had exploded beneath them. The massive explosion had ripped the ten-ton Saracen apart, leaving an 8-metre-wide crater in the road. The five soldiers killed were 19-year-olds Andrew Gavin and Paul Bulman, John King, 20, Michael Bagshaw, 25, and Grenville Winstone, 27. The explosion occurred less than a mile from the home of Raymond McCreesh, 24, who himself was to die two days later, after 61 days on hunger-strike.
The soldiers on the landrovers travelling around Twinbrook looked tense, and were clearly agitated. Some shouted abuse at the locals, suggesting they wanted revenge ‘for our five mates’. Twelve-year-old Carol Ann Kelly was returning home after buying a carton of milk at the local shop. Outside her next door neighbour’s house, she was shot in the head by a plastic bullet, fired by a soldier in a passing landrover. The five ounces of hard plastic left the soldier’s riot gun at 180 mph. Carol Ann cried out for help, then slowly collapsed. She died two days later in hospital. Carol Ann was the fifth child to be killed by plastic bullets - most died from shots fired to the head at close range.
That series of incidents contains within it many of the contradictions inherent in Britain’s military involvement in Ireland:
Partition had created an unjust, sectarian and unstable Northern Ireland - which was always liable to implode. Westminster, by turning a blind eye to its abnormalities, only increased the underlying tensions. During the conflict even the Army top brass, with their 1978 secret report Northern Ireland, Future Terrorist Trends, were admitting that they could not win. It was clear that a stalemate existed, which only a political solution could unlock - but it would be almost two more decades before Westminster politicians would consider implementing a process of conflict resolution. Meanwhile, as the Army perfected its techniques and polished its expertise in Northern Ireland, manufacturers made huge profits from security equipment tested in this training ground. Compliant media coverage ensured that few critical voices were raised, while British taxpayers footed the massive bill for the decades of conflict - and British soldiers and Irish people paid with their lives.
69: Soldier Magazine,
......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................
Now read chapter eleven of Oliver’s Army