Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Universal Soldier

I today read in The Times something that made me very sad.
"The lure of Afghanistan is too much to resist for Captain Doug Beattie, the decorated veteran, who plans to return to Helmand as a reservist less than two years after quitting the Army.

The officer and author told The Times he believed that the success or failure of the campaign would be decided in the next 12 months and that he wanted to play a part, much to the displeasure of his wife. She had hoped her husband would give up his frontline aspirations once he retired.

"Afghanistan gets under your skin, the people get under your skin," said Captain Beattie, 44, who served in Helmand province with the Royal Irish Regiment in 2006 and again in 2008. On the second tour, he and four other British soldiers were sent with only 95 Afghan troops on a deadly and ultimately doomed mission to secure the town of Marja, the focus of a big offensive earlier this year involving thousands of US and Afghan forces."
Don't stop reading this right now but make a note to read an abstract from his book 'An ordinary Soldier' to get a flavour of the man.

I felt that I knew quite a bit about Beattie. He was the RSM to Lt Colonel Tim Collins when that officer made his 'Henry V at Agincourt' speech prior to advancing to battle in Iraq. Only once in my own military career did my role and task approach that of an Infantry RSM and I had immediate doubts about the Irishman's oratory.The RSM later detailed his thoughts in his book but these were rejected by his former CO.

This preamble is intended to show my respect and admiration for Beattie as a soldier. In the Times he is quoted "Then after six months of heavy fighting you just want to leave the place (Afghanistan) alive with your men. When someone says to you do you want to go back? your natural response is 'I'm never going back to that place. And I have said that many times. But a couple of monmths later, when things calm down, it's in your blood. You can see the good you've done when you were there and you start to consider "Well, could I have done more? Could I help more? Am I needed? And that's why I am going back"

In that abstract along is the core of my sadness. I recognise what he is saying. I got through being in Northern Ireland by using the mantra 'your Mother did not raise you to die in Ireland' and it maybe a time or two saved me from doing something the reckless side of unwise. Yet - you know - I would return this instant to the very bloody days of 70-72 were I able. Because I have in the past recognised this as irrational I spent some time examining myself and think I have an answer.

A major part of a soldier's basic and ongoing training is conditioning. Most of the population deeply resists killing another human.

Modern military training allegedly overrides this instinct, by: using man-shaped targets instead of bulls-eye targets, practicing and drilling how soldiers would actually fight, dispersing responsibility for the killing throughout the group and displacing responsibility for the killing onto an authority figure, i.e. the commanding officer and the military hierarchy. (See the Milgram experiment)

This initial preparation of men who will be required to pull some form of trigger and to kill another human being does not always take deep route in the psyche of man. It may be dissipated following actual battle-field conditions. This lays the soldier open to another known physical and mental condition. 'Survivor Guilt' is recognised as a constituent of PTSD. This syndrome is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives himself or herself to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics, among the friends and family of those who have committed suicide, and in non-mortal situations among those whose colleagues are laid off. It gets those whose bravery is beyond doubt -
World War II Medal of Honour recipient, and actor, Audie Murphy is said to have suffered survivor's guilt during the years after his return to the United States after the injury that put him out of the Army. He is said to have slept with a gun under his pillow for nearly 25 years, and talked frequently about those that had died in his unit, even though there was nothing he could have done to prevent their deaths.

That is what makes me sad. Beattie is beyond doubt a brave man and has nothing to prove to us. He was most definitely a survivor of incidents where men under his command were killed in sudden and traumatic circumstances. I do suspect that he has that guilt and will continue to carry it even when he gets back to Afghanistan - it may even make him more liable to do something that will increase his personal risk.

y feelings about Afghanistan are clear - there is nothing there that is worth one more single drop of English - or, indeed any foreign - blood. There is much more the gallant RSM could do here in this country.

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