Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Train hard to make the fighting easy - but care for your men

(Filed: 15/03/2005)

(note from bill: I found this on and I'm afraid I could not find the name of the man who wrote this)

Several horrible incidents stick in the mind from the brief time I spent at Sandhurst when I was 17.

At one point, I was supplied with some wooden planks, rope and oil barrels and told to build a craft to transport myself and a five-man team around a small island in the middle of a lake. We did it, but halfway through the return journey we were hailed by loudspeaker from the shoreline to stop paddling, and to stand up on the rickety craft.

When we pulled this off, we were ordered to jump up and down. Of course the raft sank and we waded ashore to be greeted by an NCO demanding press-ups because we had left some rope in the water.

My low point came when I failed to find a padlock for my cupboard and returned to barracks to find all my personal stuff, including a photograph of my new girlfriend (now wife), stamped into the ground around my bed as punishment. I ran to the loo, sat down, and wept.

But after a few weeks, physical discomfort and humiliation ceased to matter. The hard-wired instinct to protect yourself, to arrive at the finish line first, to press your companion's face into the mud as you seal-crawled over him with a barking NCO on your tail, gave way to an awareness that you were henceforward going to be assessed only in relation to how you acted as a member of a group.

And as camaraderie took over from personal survival, things got easier. A senior NCO whom I approached for help during my stay at Sandhurst used my rugby background as a means of helping me see a point in all the pain.

He told me that the Army was a forward's game, and that its most effective manifestation was the rolling maul where strong men, bound together, hustle the ball towards the try line: "One falls out, and he is bound in again by his mates. Then we all get to walk back from the line kissing and cuddling."

I had been attracted to the officer's life by a promise during the selection process that training would unveil for me unique, hidden individual strengths and qualities I never knew I had.

But everything I was subjected to in my first week appeared to have little to do with personal discovery and everything to do with "breaking down" individuality. We were not allowed to enter or leave barracks without doing push-ups and pull-ups on a climbing frame situated just outside. We never had time to eat. We never really slept, either, because of the extraordinary demands surrounding personal effects - boots, properly made beds, correctly laid-out possessions.

We had to run everywhere and were constantly harassed by the NCOs who, out of respect for our superior rank, appended the title "Sir" to every insult screamed into our faces as we collapsed, vomiting with exhaustion, in a miasma of sweat, tears and tangled webbing.

Clearly, things at Deepcut and other training bases went way beyond my experiences. The pattern of suicides among recruits reveals an unforgivable climate of harassment and bullying that deserves our fullest condemnation.

With recent allegations of misbehaviour on the part of members of Her Majesty's forces in Iraq, the public could be forgiven for thinking that something is seriously awry with military discipline, and that Draconian safeguards need to be introduced.

But it would be very unfortunate if the wave of bad news was allowed to affect training methods and the traditional relationships between officers, NCOs and rank and file so as to undermine the soldier's most basic role: to attack or defend against opposing forces and to be ready to kill while doing so.

The pastoral role played by officers and senior NCOs seems to have broken down at Deepcut and elsewhere. Squaddies and NCOs are hard men, often from underprivileged backgrounds, who can have a one-dimensional way of looking at things. This is why they are good soldiers, because they do not over-analyse or question orders.

Training has to be hard, almost brutal, to bind them to each other and to make sure they obey, but there must always be a way for them, as there was for me at Sandhurst, to call a "time out" and to have access to help and counsel from senior ranks.

This is the "duty of care" referred to by MPs of the defence select committee. It is often unofficial, and it is always open and honest.

If this is not the case, the recruit in difficulty feels he or she has nowhere to go. Too ashamed to be seen wavering in front of the family or regimental "padre", the recruit can face intense psychological pressure if there is no avenue of understanding at NCO level and above.

When, towards the end of my time at Sandhurst, I began to search out such advice, it was always honestly delivered. The last thing my seniors wanted was a semi-convinced soldier in their care, and they knew that, if I wanted, I was to be accorded the chance to withdraw with dignity.

Eventually I did, my mum arriving, chequebook in hand, to buy me out. I did not like my experiences at Sandhurst, but I cannot argue with the training methods.

We should take care not to transform soldiering into a profession in which "rights" are allowed to outstrip "duties". Nor should the focus of recruiting, training and commanding soldiers become dominated by the need to avoid liability.

We pay our soldiers to kill people and they expect to risk their lives for us. Imagine what would happen to this already unequal contract (rank-and-file soldiers earn on average less than £20,000 a year) if they had to factor into split-second decisions the prospect of civil, as well as military, repercussions.

I am open to the notion of a public inquiry into events at Deepcut, not least because it would offer bereaved families a means of coping with their loss. But it would be unfortunate if such an inquiry were to result in measures that might dilute the ferocity of training required to produce our excellent soldiers.

A few years ago, I was told by a senior officer that two things count when engaged in operations: "Training, and the fact that every bastard around you has been through it, and so has been through Hell already.''

(note from bill: kinda makes you think 'band of brothers.' huh?)


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