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Artillery Row

Can British veterans ever vote Tory again?

There’s only so much defilement you can take of the principles you fought to defend

The government’s mishandling of Covid-19 and lockdowns had already put British veterans in a tough spot.

A year plus of witnessing the ideals and values that inspired us to sign up for military service — as well as the dignity, stature and rights of our fellow countrymen that we once sought to protect — being continually trampled on and degraded by the same government we once served has not been easy to bear. It’s been the sort of stuff to “put me right off my fresh fried lobster”, in the immortal words of Hawkeye Pierce in the 1970s iconic war comedy-drama television series M*A*S*H.

And now there is the hanging out to dry of British Army veterans who served in Northern Ireland for realpolitik expediency’s sake to appease Sinn Féin during Northern Ireland’s ongoing political machinations. I don’t know what Johnny Mercer’s thoughts on the government’s handling of Covid-19 are, but its conduct toward veterans in general, but especially toward those who served in Northern Ireland, has proved the final straw for the now former Veteran’s Affairs minister, who himself served three tours in Afghanistan.

“Politics always was a means to change how this country treats her military veterans, and I remain genuinely appalled by the experiences of some of the Nation’s finest people who have served in the Armed Forces,” Mercer wrote in his 21 April resignation letter to the prime minister. “Perhaps nothing embodies this more than what we are making our Veterans in their seventies and eighties relive, through endless reinvestigations and inquests, into events often more than fifty years ago in Northern Ireland.”

It’s hard to envisage how a British veteran can morally justify voting for this Tory government

Among Mercer’s overall concerns about the government neglecting veterans — including the prime minister failing to stand by the Veterans Pledge he signed up to while running as a candidate in 2019 — his main bone of contention is the Overseas Operations Bill being considered by parliament, which would help protect veterans like Mercer and myself from being prosecuted for our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, not being extended to include Northern Ireland veterans. The bill proposes restrictions on bringing proceedings against current and former members of the armed forces, including a “presumption against prosecution” for alleged crimes after five years.

The government has argued that the recent power-sharing deal struck in Northern Ireland achieves a balance between supporting British veterans and enabling victims of the Troubles to seek justice. Mercer clearly doesn’t agree, though his critics note that only six former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are currently facing prosecution. Furthermore, in 2019 the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland said that of 32 “legacy cases” it had ruled on since 2012, only five were connected to the Army.

Those figures don’t sound like a Salem witch hunt, admittedly, and Mercer clearly has an axe to grind with Boris Johnson and the government — describing it as a “cesspit” and “the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in”. But he is entirely right when he describes Northern Ireland veterans being treated like “second-class veterans”. They have never been given enough credit or sympathy — neither by the British government nor by the British public — a disregard not helped by what little attention and sympathy that ekes out for military veterans, gets soaked up by those, like me, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This gives me pause on a number of accounts. My 78-year-old father, as well as the now deceased father of my best friend who joined the army with me, served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Even after all these years, a spoon dropped on the kitchen tiles or equivalent unexpected sudden noise can trigger an even noisier exultation from my father in response.

According to government figures, a total of 1,441 soldiers died during Operation Banner — 722 as a result of paramilitary attacks — the operational name for the British Armed Forces’ operation in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007. In Iraq, a total of 179 British Armed Forces personnel or MOD civilians died serving on Operation TELIC from March 2003 to May 2011; of these, 136 were killed as a result of hostile action. In Afghanistan, a total of 454 British forces personnel or MOD civilians died during Operation HERRICK from October 2001 to December 2014, with 405 killed as a result of hostile action.

Veterans shouldn’t take a second shafting, especially not in their own country

Op Banner clearly lasted a lot longer than operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, hence the higher number of deaths. But the sheer intensity of fighting that occurred in Northern Ireland, which is little appreciated, is made abundantly clear by the casualty rate in 1972 — the worst year for fatalities during the Troubles — with 130 British soldiers among the 479 people killed that year.  In his scolding account about the British Army since 9/11 in The Changing of the Guard, Simon Akam provides a rare recognition of this dynamic by highlighting the enormous levels of British Army presence committed to Northern Ireland due to the scale of the challenge, in contrast to the meagre numbers sent out to wrestle with Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In Iraq the deadliest year was 2003 with 40 deaths. During Op HERRICK, 2009 — when I did my tour with the Welsh Guards Battle Group, during which its commanding officer, Rupert Thorneloe, was killed, the first commanding officer to die in combat since the Falklands War — proved the deadliest year with 108 soldiers killed.

Far less is known about the number of additional deaths through subsequent illness or suicide during post-military life as a veteran, as alluded to by Mercer:

While endless plans are pronounced and solutions mused, veterans are being sectioned, drinking themselves to death and dying well before their time — simply because the UK government cannot find the moral strength or courage we asked of them in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, in finding a political solution to stop these appalling injustices.

Mercer’s critics have questioned his connecting veterans’ mental health problems and alcohol addictions to criminal investigations over Northern Ireland — the number of which, as already stated, is very low — rather than to the likes of the obvious trauma of war or to government underfunding of mental health services. They’ve got a point. But I’m still with Johnny on this one. There is typically more moral strength and integrity displayed by the average British Army corporal — a relatively low rank just two stages above the humblest private but whose elevation reflects recognition of leadership potential — than by Boris Johnson and various members of his cabinet whose cynical opportunism, cold careerism and power hunger has taken us from the maelstrom of Brexit to Covid-19 being allowed to reshape society (the likes of Thorneloe had more leadership qualities in his little finger). Yes, Johnson is under much more pressure, and I’ll grant that on a good day he perhaps manages to match or even exceed a corporal’s virtues. It’s a damn shame it can’t happen more often.

Such stunning vacuums of overall leadership and associated values — and the havoc that entails as a result — is beyond galling for anyone ex-military and steeped in the vital role of Serve to Lead, the motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst that trains the army’s officer corps, and which sums up how the men and women you are responsible for are your first priority.

While the number of Northern Ireland-related investigations involving veterans is indeed low, the Sword-of-Damocles threat of investigation is debilitating. So too is the fact that the very existence of the investigations and the constant negative media coverage that goes with them serve to act as a constant reminder of the Troubles along with implied culpability for those who served there.

It all serves to undermine what previously could have been viewed as an achievement by those that served in Northern Ireland — that their blood, sweat and tears contributed to the establishment of something good: peace — which can have a profound psychological and moral impact. As with the never-ending turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan offering never-ending condemnation for those of us who served there, the resulting sense of futility that can come from failed military endeavours, and which Northern Ireland veterans may well be starting to feel now, combined with a sense that society at large just doesn’t care or consider any of this important, has been shown by research in America to exacerbate PTSD and its debilitating cousins such as moral injury.

Research into moral injury, described as a wound to the soul, has also shown how a perception that leaders — military and political — failed or deceived veterans and their fallen comrades can exacerbate any sense of violation about military service, thereby further fuelling any lingering crisis of conscience and spirit, deepening the moral injury.

“Betrayal wrecks trust, profoundly disrupts identity, and destroys relationships,” says Rita Brock, co-author of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. “It is also suspected of causing or aggravating post-traumatic stress symptoms — nightmares, intrusive memories, hypervigilance, irrational angers, and depression.”

Given all the above, it’s hard to envisage how a British veteran can morally justify voting for this Tory government — especially with Boris Johnson still at the helm. Unfortunately, it’s not just the prime minister and the government that have been found wanting. So many ordinary Brits have put fear before love during the past year, turning their backs on family and friends, as well as on the whole concept of individual liberties, in the name of public health and because of the appearance of a new virus whose level of threat never justified the extreme measures taken.

“It is important to appreciate that the military culture fosters an intensely moral and ethical code of conduct,” notes a 2009 paper in the Clinical Psychology Review called “Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy”. As a result, the ability of veterans to “assimilate most of what they do and see in war” is affected by numerous factors, but a key one, especially in relation to the discussion here about veterans, Northern Ireland and Covid-19, is “the message and behaviour of peers and leaders and the acceptance (and recognition of sacrifices) by families and the culture at large”.

Thus veterans can be hit with a destabilising double whammy when dealing with the aftermath of their military service and their endeavour to assimilate: not only can society at large defer from providing recognition and instead send negative messages making assimilation harder if not impossible, at the same time the behaviour of some of the public goes entirely against that “intensely moral and ethical code” that veterans are steeped in. Dissonance and despair can easily ensue.

We are now experiencing the desecration of the the hallowed social contract

“I don’t know how I can ever vote for either of the mainstream parties again; everything I valued and thought I knew about my country has just been turned upside down this past year.” Those words didn’t come from a veteran, rather from a mild-mannered English man I met in a Portuguese hostel during my Camino pilgrimage across the Iberian Peninsula. In his mid-thirties, initially he kept to himself and barely said a word to me during the first few days we shared a dormitory before he opened up. He’d been travelling around Central Asia teaching English before getting stuck in the UK during the first lockdown. His quiet demeanour was quite at odds with that of many of the bold men and women I served with in the army. But his words captured perfectly how I, and I dare say many other veterans, feel looking on at yet another government-induced shambles.

British veterans have been here before too often. We’ve experienced the military covenant being defiled; we are now experiencing the hallowed social contract being similarly desecrated. After being betrayed — “shafted”, in British squaddie speak — by the British government over Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans shouldn’t take a second shafting, especially not in their own country, that land we love and sought to defend, populated by people we love.

There is a sad but hopeful postscript to all this discussion about British politics and the state of moral strength and courage in the country, given a recent tragic event: the death of 20-year-old Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole after he jumped into the River Thames at night to help a woman who had fallen in. That young man — whose conduct has seized the attention of the nation in these highly uncourageous and fear-soaked times, and who reminds me of many of the soldiers I served with — his selfless courage and compassion and everything he appears to have stood for gets my vote. One can only hope and pray that more of his ilk enter British politics.

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