I was well aware when openDemocracy started to serialise The Skinback Fusiliers ten weeks ago that there would be more brickbats than plaudits coming our way. The publishing world had already made it clear that I would wait a long time before it saw the light of day through “the normal channels,” despite the fact that I have had about forty books published, some of which had been nominated for awards. Being a television writer as well, I am used to the reality of auto-censorship (for want of a better phrase) but one lives in hopes that print publishers are a little less afraid of kicking over the traces. Maybe it’s a matter of luck? Maybe not.
One of the great things about openDemocracy/Our Kingdom is the opportunity for engagement it presents. From the first episode there was feedback, and much of it was pretty predictable. A group of military-minded critics – James Parker 797, Sceptical, Ex “Corp” wtf – apparently decided that Unknown Soldier was a sham, and that openDemocracy was spuriously presenting him as a soldier or ex-soldier. In fact, it had been made clear from the outset that the book was a fictionalised account based on hundreds of hours of interviews and contact with soldiers. I had also written an article on how the book had come to be written which clearly stated I was not a military man, although I come from a military family, but that the information I had based the book on came from young men who had served until very recently and who – of course – had experienced everything that went into the work.
None of this, unfortunately, proved satisfactory to my detractors, as anyone can check on the Skinback Fusiliers page with a few clicks of a mouse. Most of them confined themselves to mild abuse, but the most frequent poster, PaulLibertarian, appeared to have an unchanging method (which I commented on in several replies). He would make a statement about my accuracy and my provenance, more or less ignore the response, then repeat his statement it as if it were a given. Although insisting that no serving soldiers had responded positively to the novel, or defended the points that he disagreed with, as soon as one did he brushed it off. To be specific: a poster called No Surrender stated in unpleasant detail how recruits would have excrement rubbed into their faces, which PaulL had repeatedly denied could happen. Ah yes, came his reply, but that was normal good-hearted “hazing” as part of initiation. It did not count.
There were other posts defending the book as well, from Salamah Mahdi, for instance, or Lft Sean, or Grizzly. One man, Peter Thomson, movingly revealed that he had suffered from PTSD for many years after a Falklands posting, ending: “There is a whole underside to our glorious armed forces that few except those involved ever see.” For some reason this was considered as “currently not relative” to the discussion. The serialisation also provoked lively debate on the unofficial army website ARRSE which was unsurprisingly anti in the main. There were positive posts, but such dissenting voices were airily dismissed. At least on openDemocracy the language was not so consistently vile and sexist!
Should I have been astonished at the House of Commons to hear similar airy complacencies? I attended a meeting organised by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers on May 23, and listened in growing amazement to veteran Tory MP Patrick Mercer’s take on the fact that Britain is the only European country that still recruits at the age of sixteen. Mr Mercer is a tall and elegant man, who seemed to my slightly biased eyes to be the essence of aristocratic insouciance (although admittedly, I sprang originally from the envious heartlands of the working classes), and he positively glowed with his admiration for the army he served for 25 years. He told one of the female politicians present that “ladies” would not understand the dedication and love of the harsh and dangerous military life (“we are there to kill people”), and insisted that none of the men he had served with had ever thought the recruiting age was in any way misguided. As Hugh Muir recorded in the Guardian diary, I lost it a little at this point and said I thought the MP was talking “complete bollocks,” to which he did not reply. He did go red, though, and maybe he even thought about it afterwards. That is, of course, why I wrote the book; to make people question the limits of their comfort zone.
All in all, over the weeks, I’ve concluded that’s where my detractors get their fuel from. I can’t believe they really think I’m attacking soldiers for the work they do, or that I’m being “unpatriotic” in telling unpalatable truths (as I see them) while men and women are putting their lives at risk. They admire soldiers and the military, who they think are serving Britain (and me) in “doing their duty.” Because “our boys” are so admired, they cannot include the frankly nasty, frankly racist, frankly brutal people I have portrayed. That’s where we diverge. My detractors see them as brave people, in deadly danger – and therefore not to be criticised. I see them as brave people, in deadly danger – and as available as any other person to be criticised.
Strangely enough, from many of PaulLibertarian’s comments, we quite clearly agree on one thing: the government treats its soldiers appallingly. Some soldiers are great blokes, some are total arseholes. They all deserve a great deal better from the state.
And thanks again, openDemocracy, for helping me get that out into the open.
Visit the Skinback Fusiliers page for the complete serialisation, comments and debate, and articles by the author.
The book is also available on Kindle and through Amazon here.