Your chance to repay the fallen

by MAX HASTINGS, Daily Mail

Ten years ago, I met a man whom I last saw in the Falklands war. In May 1982, he was a fit, keen, bright-eyed 19-year-old troop commander in the Royal Marines. When I encountered him for the first time an hour or two before we boarded the landing craft to head through the darkness towards San Carlos, I found myself succumbing to a familiar cliché at my own ripe old age of 36: I thought how ridiculously young this lieutenant looked, to be leading a storming party in the South Atlantic.

For me, a mere spectator, the Falklands was a wonderful experience. After the war was over, my life moved on. Like many others who came home unscathed, I thought little about the past, and got on with the future.

Yet in 1993, as I sat in the bar of a London hotel with this young man whom I had briefly known on a battlefield, I felt a deepening chill.

As we talked, I realised more and more clearly that what for me had been merely an adventure, for him had been a trauma from which he had never recovered.

On the last day of the war, after the soldier guiding his troop made a tragic blunder, my young acquaintance stepped on an Argentine mine. His right foot was blown off by the explosion. He came home.

At the age of 20, this passionate rugby player was discharged from the Royal Marines, which had been his life.

Everything possible was done to ease his path into the civilian world. He was given a course of flying lessons. He was sent to university. Yet he found it hard, indeed impossible, to come to terms with life among young civilian students whose experience was light years away from his own.

He abandoned his studies. Over the years that followed, he drifted from job to job. His family and friends were very supportive, and did everything possible to help and guide him. None of it really worked.

Naively, I had supposed that losing a foot represented a relatively limited disability. But I now understood that this young man's life had been irreversibly blighted by the consequences of his physical loss.

Almost certainly, until the day he dies, he will continue to pay the price for service to his country in war.

Many people perceive November 11, Remembrance Day, simply in terms of the two world wars.

It is true, of course, that "Hitler's war" accounts for a huge proportion of the 12 million people who are today eligible for help from Britain's principal veterans' organisation, the British Legion.

The pressure on the Legion's resources grows each year, as the survivors of 1939-45 become old and infirm.

War after 1945

Yet, in addition, there is a host of war victims like the Falklands veteran I have described, who is still barely 40 years old. He is among hundreds of thousands of former British servicemen alive today, who experienced war after 1945.

They suffered and died in Korea, Suez, Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya, Borneo, Aden, Northern Ireland and, of course, the South Atlantic and the two recent Gulf conflicts.

Every year of the 20th century except 1968, British soldiers, sailors or airmen lost their lives on active service.

It was easier for veterans of the two world wars to make people understand what they had endured, because all their contemporaries had participated in the experience.

Today, it is much harder for men traumatised or maimed by

IRA bombs and bullets, crippled on a battlefield in Borneo or Aden, to share the burden of their memories in the civilian world of 2003. Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, that British soldiers fought and died in such far-flung places.

In the 1980s, everybody was aware that Britain had been at war in the Falklands. But the Royal Marine officer I mentioned above, who was maimed there, found that many of his young civilian contemporaries regarded the Falklands conflict, "Thatcher's war", with indifference, if not hostility.

It is much easier to bear pain and sacrifice for your country if your country appreciates them. If not, as American veterans of Vietnam discovered, a terrible frustration and bitterness can overtake the soul.

When I was writing a book about Bomber Command in World War II, I interviewed a former pilot who lived in York. He had a brilliant record, and had won two DFCs. As he drove me to the station after our meeting, however, he suddenly said: "Has anyone else mentioned having nightmares about it?"


For years after the war, he said, he never thought about his experiences. He became a teacher. Then a new generation of young colleagues began to quiz him in the common room. They asked how he could have gone out night after night in his bomber, to kill innocent women and children.

Memories began to haunt him. He became a remedial teacher of handicapped children - in a deliberate gesture of atonement.

Whatever the follies and misjudgments of the bomber offensive and those who ordered it, by any standards this man who flew his Halifax over Germany was a hero.

I was shocked that, 40 years on, he should have been reduced to such emotional straits. And yet men who survive conflict are vulnerable to such a fate, in every age.

No one who has not known a war can fully grasp what the experience is like, and what it does to those who partake of it. Innumerable books have been written about conflict, over thousands of years. Much of the Bible is blood-curdling military history. Modern films such as Saving Private Ryan present vivid images of combat.

But even the most brilliant creations of Hollywood cannot explain the impact of war upon the human mind.

All our upbringing and conditioning in peacetime are founded upon a fundamental faith: that the intentions of other human beings among whom we live are benign.

They are not trying to harm each other, or us. We drive serenely along the motorway, confident that the man in the next car will not try to swerve into us. We listen to the airliners roaring over our heads, instinctively assured that the pilots will not seek to crash them into our homes.

Ordinary life depends upon such trust. We take it for granted.

Mad world

War overturns all such things. The moment a man steps on to a battlefield, he enters a wholly unfamiliar, mad world in which other people are using all their ingenuity, day and night, to maim or kill him.

He himself is expected to do his utmost to kill people, and risk his own life in order to do so. Unless a man is a psychopath, destroying others can make a terrible impact upon him.

A Vietnam veteran once described his bewilderment about his own feelings after killing a man with a knife: "I felt sorry. I don't know why I felt sorry. John Wayne never felt sorry."

The truth, of course, is that if a man did not feel regret, he would have abandoned the very values for which democracies suppose themselves to be fighting. He would have become brutalised in the fashion of Hitler's SS, or the modern Serb army in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Every man who has known war is in some degree marked by the experience. Some suffer traumas that do not reveal themselves until decades after the event. Some are spiritually as well as physically maimed by the memory of man's deliberate, wilful inhumanity to other men.

Wilfred Owen's lines from World War I speak for soldiers throughout history:

"These are men whose minds the dead have ravaged,

Memory fingers in their hair of murders,

Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.

Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous

Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.

Thus their hands are plucking at each others;

Picking at the rope-knots of their scourging:

Snatching after us who smote their brother,

Pawing after us who dealt them war and madness.

The generations that lived through the two world wars did not need to strive to remember the dead. Every family in Europe carried the burden of its bereavements.

Wheelchairs were to be seen at any social gathering. Every High Street possessed its little group of musicians, campaign medals on their breasts, empty sleeves or trouser legs telling their own stories.

A nurse I interviewed for a World War II book told me that she had never forgotten the memory of a handsome young paratrooper who lay on his bed in her hospital, exulting: "I'm going home! I'm going home!" - even though he had left behind him on the battlefield all four of his own limbs.

Today, the men of the Kaiser's war are nearly all dead. The survivors of those disabled in Hitler's war are being cared for in residential homes. Every day the victims of modern conflicts feature on our television screens, but they are banished from our intimate acquaintance.

Remembrance Day

Thus, we need to make a conscious effort to think of Remembrance Day and what it means, of those who have bled and died for Britain during our lifetimes.

In our age, young men are no longer conscripted to fight whether they like it or not, as they were in the two world wars. The era of the nation in arms has passed, to be replaced by that of the professional volunteer forces.

The rest of us are no longer required to join Dad's Army, or man air raid posts every night. Our only functions are to serve as potential victims of terrorism.

Most people under 40 have never even met a soldier, sailor or airman, now that the Government has sold off the services' city barracks, and quarantined the Armed Forces in wired compounds miles from any human habitation.

So what are they like, these new-age British warriors, upon whom we depend for the security of our society as much as did our forefathers over the centuries?

The answer is: pretty much like they always used to be. They make the same jokes, swear with the same mechanical obscenity, suffer the same fears and frustrations as British soldiers since time immemorial.

And when they have to, as they did this spring on the bridges before Basra, or in the streetfighting against Saddam's militias, they display the same courage and acceptance of sacrifice as their ancestors.

Britain's armed forces retain the admiration of the world. Without jingoism, we can say that, man for man, they are vastly more impressive than their American counterparts, never mind their European ones.

Today, there is a much greater understanding than there was a generation ago, of the strains that war imposes, even on those who come home physically uninjured.

"In battle," says Hugh McManners, a Falklands veteran who later wrote Scars Of War, a notable study of the human cost of conflict, "servicemen and women give their all, trusting that if anything goes wrong, they will be looked after properly by the services... if [society] does not wholeheartedly respect this trust... there is the danger that it may disappear.

"The effect of this would be far more damaging to the security of the nation than any defence cut."

It is so easy for politicians, and for the public, to take Britain's armed forces for granted.

Tony Blair's enthusiasm for moral crusades has caused him to commit British soldiers to battle more often than any other prime minister in modern memory.

Yet service budgets remain under relentless pressure. There is hardly a unit in the services not suffering chronic "overstretch". That means that the men and women who today serve Britain in uniform find more and more being asked of them every year.

In offering homage to those who died before their time in this season of Remembrance, we also have a chance to acknowledge what we owe to all those men and women who are fighting for us still.

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