Troops are coming home to a battle weary Britain.
Tuesday Mar 24
Troops are coming home, but to a wounded, battle weary Britain
Hannah Simpson, the six-year-old sister of Private Luke Daniel Simpson, follows the procession away from his funeral service in at Howden Minster, East Yorkshire
After six years of fighting in Iraq, the last soldiers are coming home: but “home” is a very different place. Britain has changed, through the experience of that war, in ways both subtle and profound, positive and painful, transitory and permanent. We are not the same people that we were six years ago: the war has changed us too.
Britain today is more sceptical of politicians, divided and paranoid than it was in 2003. We are subject to closer surveillance, more cautious, and perhaps more suspicious. Security looms, for many, as a greater concern than defence of civil liberties. We are, as a direct consequence of the “War on Terror” and war in Iraq, less free, and less carefree.
The Iraq war, its potential physical and psychological trauma as well as its political ramifications, echoes into every corner of our culture, from books, cinema and plays to poetry and art. War has even penetrated the language.
Britain kept the home fires burning, but they do not burn as brightly as they once did. Returning soldiers face a very different reception from the one that welcomed veterans of the Gulf War and the Falklands conflict, let alone the homecoming victors of the Second World War. And the soldiers themselves have been changed by war - often war of the most brutal sort. The effect on society of reabsorbing thousands of war veterans is hard to predict, but certain to be profound and long-lasting.
More than 100,000 British men and women have been deployed to the battlefields of Iraq in the past six years. For some, the experience will have been enriching and life-enhancing. But others will return hollowed out in mind and crippled in body. The social after-effects will still be felt in Britain decades from now.
How these former soldiers are treated will speak volumes about the state of what is often referred to as the “military covenant”, the unofficial but enduring notion that British society has a special bond with, and obligation towards, its soldiers.
The war has permeated our culture, from high to low. Theatre, in particular, has embraced the politics and reality of war with fascination and fury, from Black Watch, Gregory Burke's play about Scottish soldiers serving in Iraq, which won four Olivier Awards this month, to David Hare's Stuff Happens, reconstructing the events that preceded the war.
Writers have grappled with the issues of war in fact and fiction: Ian McEwan's Saturday ruminated on the pending war, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City vividly portrayed life in the Baghdad green zone.
The sensitive, angry poetry of the First World War has found a latter-day counterpart in the “milblog”, an entirely new literary genre: blogs written by soldiers in real time, an unfiltered and violent sort of poetry from the front line. The war has also produced more traditional forms of poetry, including Simon Armitage's deeply moving poems of soldiers returning to a changed society. Pop music has joined the chorus. In Middle Eastern Holiday Hard-Fi lamented the fate of the squaddie, dispatched to the alien Iraqi desert: “I've got to go, but what a prize to give/ Package deal to the sun, everything is inclusive/ where bullet holes scar the minarets/ smoke on the horizon a beautiful sunset.”
Colonel Tim Collins's exhortation to the troops of The Royal Irish Regiment - “We go to liberate, not to conquer ...” - is now more widely known and quoted than any battlefield oration since Churchill's promise to “fight them on the beaches”. At the same time, the terminology of war has permanently entered the language: “shock and awe”, “collateral damage”, “extraordinary rendition”.
British politics has been transformed by the Iraq war. The so-called dodgy dossier, the death of David Kelly, the debate over Guantánamo Bay and the allegations of torture have changed the political landscape. The perception, whether justified or not, that the British Government went to war under false pretences has seeped into public consciousness, and poisoned politics. Tony Blair's reputation will be judged on the Iraq war. The next election will be fought, in large part, on the issue of political trust, with the war as a backdrop.
More than half of British voters supported the war in 2003, earnestly believing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. When that turned out to be untrue, the nature of British politics was changed for ever, increasing political mistrust in Britain to a level that may be higher than it has ever been. It is hard to imagine what level of justification will be necessary, in the future, to persuade the British people to back a “just war”.
On a broader plane, the war helped to foment a culture of anti-Americanism that is only now beginning to abate. Among the British intelligentsia, it became fashionable to condemn all things American, to see the US as a nation of warmongering polluters and religious fanatics.
The extreme language of anti-Americanism on the intellectual Left reached a peak with the late Harold Pinter's Nobel prize acceptance speech in 2005, in which he declared: “The invasion of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism ... The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless ...” The war has left deep divisions within British society, and race relations have undoubtedly suffered. A minority of British Muslims regard the war as illegal, racist and brutal. That cleavage was dramatically demonstrated this month when protesters jeered at soldiers of The Royal Anglian Regiment at a homecoming parade in Luton, waving placards denouncing them as “butchers of Basra”, “murderers” and “baby- killers”. People who had come to cheer the soldiers returning from a tour of duty in Iraq reacted with fury, shouting “scum” at the demonstrators and waving Union Jacks.
Britain might well have faced terrorist attack without the Iraq war, yet the argument that there is no link between the invasion and the increased threat of domestic terrorism is hard to sustain. The consequences of the increased security are visible in ways large and small: lengthy queues at airports, increased surveillance, security cameras on every corner.
Britain has long prided itself on its military traditions, yet the war has raised important questions about the relationship between civilians and the military. The number of parades has increased in recent months, yet many soldiers face a chilly homecoming.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, refers to the “unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility” between Britain and its Armed Forces, but a long, unpleasant and unpopular war has put that bond under unprecedented strain.
There have been well-publicised incidents in which soldiers have been abused or insulted, including the episode when local people objected to injured servicemen using a swimming pool at a leisure centre in Surrey. Last year personnel at RAF Wittering were told not to wear their uniforms in Peterborough, as they might be subjected to verbal abuse.
Beyond these isolated incidents, military leaders fear that soldiers are regarded by the public with something far more dangerous and intractable: shrugging indifference. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, has spoken of the “growing gulf between the Army and the nation”.
That sense of isolation is just one of the possible psychological strains facing returning soldiers. It is hard to quantify the after-effects of combat, but statistics appear to indicate that the worst effects of post-traumatic stress disorder do not emerge until 13 years after active deployment.
Many soldiers will slip easily back into British and then civilian life. Some thrive on the demands of war, and will find the experience gained on the battlefield valuable in later life. But some experts warn that Britain could face substantial problems with divorce, depression, alcohol and drug abuse among ex-servicemen. Combat Stress, the welfare society for former servicemen, has reported a 53 per cent increase in the number of veterans with mental health problems in the past three years. In five years, the number of former soldiers in prison is reported to have doubled.
Many of the effects of the Iraq war will fade with time. Anti-Americanism is waning with the arrival of a new president; writers and artists are turning to new subject matter; with British soldiers no longer occupying Iraq, the anger of some British Muslims may fade; as soldiers return, and their experiences are absorbed into the national memory, perhaps the military covenant will strengthen.
But Britain is not the same place that it was when the country marched to war. Six years later, like the soldiers themselves, this is a nation toughened and more realistic perhaps, but also conflict-weary and battle-scarred.
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