When openDemocracy started serialising Skinback Fusiliers, the editors’ introduction and my own article about the book made a few very important things quite clear. First that I was not a soldier, second that it was not an attack on soldiers, third that it was the product of an enormous amount of time talking to soldiers. I should perhaps have made it clearer that I wrote it because I was approached by these young men, all of whom were serving or had served. We worked together for many months, I wrote several drafts, and I altered anything they disagreed with. All of them, including a lesbian ex-soldier who made contact later, thought it was an authentic portrayal of what they had experienced.
I also explained that it is a novel. Its structure is far too linear to be mistaken for anything else, and the mindset of some protagonists could only have been presented as “literal truth” by an army of psychologists. Its language, also, is representative – a construction by me of the way these young men talked. Some of the criticisms published by openDemocracy since have got quite hung up on this. In particular some commenters seem to think the use of racist language makes the soldiers portrayed inevitably racist. The black protagonist, for instance, is called a nigger – by both his best friends. They call the Asian Paki, the white boy merely a white cunt, or twat from Blackburn —because English seems pretty short on punchy race-based epithets that target whites.
My informants — the former soldiers — pulled me up on quite a lot of language points in early drafts; they recognised me for a silly old fart when I tried to talk their talk. But by the end of the process, they got it to their satisfaction. They think it’s right, the “racist talk” and all.
In fact, the protagonists are not racist at all (despite the fact that Shahid says they are). From the very first chapter it is made clear that race is quite the wrong word. The lance corporal is from Liverpool, that’s why they (claim to) hate him. (One of my sons is a Man U fan, while his brother-in-law supports Liverpool with a passion. If you want “race hate” listen to them on a big match day. It’s part of the game; they are, of course, the very best of friends.)
One of the book’s characters is an African, whom they are all rather wary of. Not because they hate his race, but because he is quite clearly their social, and probably intellectual, superior. Others in the team are drunks, or slaves to sex, or can’t stop playing with their testicles. They get mocked for it, but they are a team. It’s the others who are apparently despised – the Scots, the Yorkshiremen, the officers, the other. You have to identify the other if you are a soldier, otherwise what is the point? In a battle situation the Scots, the Scousers, the Yorkies become your team, they are no longer the other – it’s the lot of you against the rest.
That there are racists in the army is a point hardly worth making. But the point I was trying to make is more subtle, I hope. My most constant detractor, a man who calls himself PaulLibertarian on this website and Trooper on the army talkfest ARRSE seems quite hung up on the racism question, insisting that it is part of an attack on men whom he deeply admires.
One of his posts says “The book is pretty dreadful towards soldiers, portraying them as drug-taking, racist bullies led by lazy bigots.” He picks up on an officer using racial epithets about non-whites, which he says would lead to instant dismissal, and complains that the soldiers engage in “Paki bashing, theft, general bullying and now in Chapter three have started on the ‘pikeys’.”
He also denies even the possibility of a soldier having excrement rubbed into his face during training, or officers using racist language. I have said that I know it to be true; he will not believe me. But can’t he grasp the truism that all these things are possible/probable/actual – and not a pressing issue in terms of a fighting force?
One of my detractors on ARRSE says I wouldn’t insult Fijian soldiers because they are said to be noted for their violence. I’m meant to be the racist, by the way! But in fact, I wouldn’t insult any soldier on grounds of violence. Sadly, it’s what they’re there for. A good officer is paid to channel and control it. A punch-up on a Friday night is neither here nor there. When they are in a war situation they are undoubtedly brilliant. Courageous, comradely, fully to be trusted. I won’t even sneakily mention Baha Mousa. Any situation can turn up disasters.
Let’s turn to the people who shouldn’t be in the army in the first place. At least one of my protagonists joined because he felt there was nothing for him outside. He went to the recruiting offices, he read the literature, he was told that he would end up with at least a useful trade, like bricklaying or plumbing. He might also get an HGV licence. Unfortunately for him, they had no need of brickies or plumbers where he was, at that time (if ever). Ditto HGV. He got to drive a Warrior (which has little value outside the army!) and every other avenue he tried was closed to him. In his view, it was a con job, pure and simple. He was taught to march, to fire an SA80, and that, he reckons, was about it. The reason the army claims not to be short of recruits is almost certainly for similar reasons. Above all, it’s a job.
To some young men, let’s face it, the idea is romantic, and the thoughts of weaponry perennially enticing, as is the recruiting spiel. Do you remember “Join the Professionals”? The professional whats? one had to wonder. Well, killers, presumably; more convincing ideas on a postcard, please. The younger you are, the stronger the appeal. Britain remains the only EU country to regularly recruit at the age of sixteen, and they have to serve for a minimum of six years. Eighteen year olds, however, have only to serve for four. As Michael Bartlet, Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for Quakers in Britain, points out, “At sixteen you are old enough to join the army yet too young to vote, and still legally a child. The current law should respect their unconditional right to leave.”
Quakers and Unitarians are supporting an Amendment to the Armed Forces Bill to give those joining at sixteen the right to leave at any time before their eighteenth birthday. According to the Government’s own figures, that would affect 580 sixteen year olds and 1,970 aged seventeen. Incidentally, cuts of more than 15,000 are being mooted for the forces as a whole. The words logic and madhouse spring to mind.
Last word to PaulLibertarian, writing as Trooper on the ARRSE site: “What I find insulting is that the author uses the moniker 'unknown soldier' yet has now admitted he has never served.” As I have pointed out to him several times before, there’s no “now” in it, I have never claimed I had. There must be many heroes, and heroes’ wives and mothers, who wish their menfolk had not, either.
Thank you, service personnel, for fighting and dying for us. You deserve better.