Scandal at Deepcut barracks
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.
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.
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.
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
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.