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Scandal at Deepcut barracks

Andy Newman


Exposure that the Daily Mirror's photographs of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were fake has led to a 5% drop in opposition to the war in the opinion polls.

 

On the same day these polls were published Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces Minister and former member of a protestant supremacist organisation in Scotland, announced that there would be no public inquiry into the scandalous deaths of young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks. I have no doubt that this decision was influenced by the war in Iraq, and the desire to avoid further scandal about the thuggish reality of the British Army.

 

Four young soldiers, some hardly more than children, died of gunshot wounds at the training camp in Surrey between 1995 and 2002. The families of Sean Benton, 20, Cheryl James, 18, Geoff Gray, 17, and James Collinson, 17, do not accept the official explanation that they killed themselves. Indeed the explanation of suicide is hard to reconcile with the known facts of the cases.

 

But even if these deaths were suicide, then this must have been because bullying at the camp was so uncontrolled that these youngsters were driven to take their own lives. The Surrey Police investigation said there were repeated examples of serious bullying and a failure to learn past lessons by the army. The police themselves called for a wider inquiry.

 

Nor should we imagine that bullying was a confined to dormitory pranks. The truth about Deepcut discovered by the police is truly shocking. They arrested former lance corporal Leslie Skinner who had been a training instructor at the camp. Skinner (46) was charged with one count of male rape and five counts of indecent assault against other soldiers between 1996 and 1997. The victims were aged between 17 and 21. The police stressed that there was no connection between Skinner and the dead soldiers, so he was probably not the only sadistic tyrant terrorising the young people who had been put into his care.

 

Indeed, close attention to press reports about the British army reveals a steady stream of almost neglected deaths, rapes, instances of aggravated racial abuse, assaults, etc. Indymedia carried a report of Paul Cochrane who committed suicide at the Royal Irish Regiment's Drummad barracks in 2001. Paul's family received an army report admitting there had been sexual abuse, harassment and bullying of male recruits. On the night of Paul's funeral, RIR officer Richard Vance was charged with attempted buggery and sexual assault of a soldier in the same regiment as Paul.

 

So why is life so brutal? Why don't the officers care?


If you talk to squadies there is a perverse pride in the tough conditions they endure. I was on an engineering course a while ago with two RAF sergeants, who told me when they were on exercise in Turkey the Americans had a swimming pool, a gym and a cafeteria. The British had an old caravan with a football and a game of scrabble, and no toilets. The routine debasement of the other ranks was also revealed in a story they told of an aircraftman whose wife was having a baby. The Medical Officer knew that the baby had died, but couldn't be bothered to tell him for two days. When the father was told the news he was put on a charge for shouting at the MO.

 

Psychologically the British armed forces are dehumanized and made to feel as if they don't exist as human beings, only as part of a bigger machine. The regimental system reinforces this. When the shooting starts soldiers don't fight for Queen and Country or the flag, they fight for their mates around them, and to keep alive. The regiment is a mythologised wider group of mates who mustn't be let down. Regimental tradition doesn't matter to every soldier, but it matters to the cadre who carry through the day to day leadership. The bravery of soldiers in the Gloucesters at Alexandria in 1801 or at Imjin in 1951 matters to the officers and NCOs in the Royal Glosters Berks & Wilts today.

 

To a certain extent the British Army is suffering because Britain has changed. The traditional institutions are held in low regard by most young people, and in contrast to the American armed forces, black and Asian communities are noticeably under represented in the British Army. Battle honours won in colonial wars are especially offensive to the descendants of those conquered! The armed services are finding recruitment difficult.

 

Nevertheless, the regimental tradition endures, and the Army still inculcates the culture that the institution matters more then the individual. There has been no doubt that the British army has been more disciplined than the Americans in Iraq. That is not to minimize the murders, abuses and torture that have occurred, but generally the British Army would rather endure casualties than behave so as to endanger their mission.

 

Of course the British Army are still colonial occupiers. Of course, institutional and hardly concealed racism is expressed in contempt for the Iraqis. Of course the British army is prepared to commit atrocities, such as the Amritsar massacre, or Bloody Sunday. Historically, such atrocities have often been pursuant of official policy. But, in Iraq today the swagger of the colonial oppressor is tempered by an awareness that they are outnumbered, politically isolated, and do not have support at home. In contrast, the doctrine of force protection is official US military policy. Frankly illegal under the Geneva Conventions, the American soldiers are encouraged to regard protecting their own lives as more important than avoiding civilian casualties. This is losing them the war.

 

So Deepcut is not an isolated scandal. It is sadly typical of life in the British Army: a professional killing machine born out of imperialism. Today a staggeringly high proportion of Army recruits come from the North East of England and Glasgow, areas where there is still economic deprivation. A significant number leave the army with mental illness and live on the streets. There is nothing to be proud of.


 

 

May 2004

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