openDemocracy is serialising the novel The Skinback Fusiliers over the next two months. Here, the anonymous author, 'Unknown Soldier', gives an insight into the creation of this fast, funny and deeply disturbing novel about life in the British army.
The first thing I need to say about this book is that it was not written as an attack on British soldiers. My family has a long tradition of providing fighting men (and women who joined but did not fight as such). One of my uncles was a decorated hero during World War II, several others fought, and my father always resented the fact that as an engineer he was not allowed to go.
Two of my cousins, long after that huge war, joined up and served for many years, also seeing active service. Incidentally, they taught me most of the filthy songs I know, including the one that provided the title of the book. It was later taken up by Arsenal fans, which we all found very strange.
The question as to why young men join nowadays is not as simple as it might seem. I wrote this book through long friendships and conversation with young people, many of whom had hankered after a military career for years for reasons best described as idealistic. They saw it as a noble thing to do; the chance to fight, and even die, for their country and their birthright. One should be very cautious before one mocks. Look at Wootton Bassett.
It is also true, however, that for the mass of Britain’s soldiers, the reasons are heartlessly mundane. The three I got closest to, the bearers of this story, joined because they felt they had no real alternative, and because they had been lied to, which they learned over a period of a few short months.
Andy had blown his chance of proper schooling skyhigh, and thought the army would give him a civvie street career. Ashton, a young black man skating around the fringes of criminality, joined to escape that yawning chasm. Shahid had inchoate fears based in his religion and community; he wanted to explore the idea of brotherhood. They were all sure, at first, that they had done the right thing. And they were all insistent, when they left, that for other men it was no problem, no big deal.
In that, sadly, they are almost certainly wrong. The stats for crime and homelessness, drunkenness and marital breakdown among ex-servicemen are truly horrendous. The government, inevitably, lies and fudges endlessly – because it has to. At the very least, if the truth were known, their supply of cannon fodder might dry up. Most lately, the Press Association reported that the Ministry of Defence was wasting millions on recruiting “child soldiers” who very quickly drop out, and jailing under18’s for going AWOL.
As ex-soldier Ross Williams put it after serving time for being absent without leave from the Iraq war “The army uses up and spits out young working class men in pursuit of their bloody, illegal wars.” Williams, incidentally, shared a cell at Colchester with Lance Corporal Joe Glenton, who now addresses anti-war meetings, and who said of this book: “Reading it was like being back in the mob.”
The more I talked to my friends and contacts, the more my own anger grew. I wanted to present what I saw as the realities to people who would not normally have access, or indeed much interest, in them. I wanted to get under the skin of people who would not normally even read a book, people who might think joining the army is a reasonable way out of poverty, or is generally “a good thing.” It's not. It’s not even a necessary evil, if one believes the magnificent Simon Jenkins. He argued in June 2010 that the whole of the armed forces should be scrapped because “We are safer than at any time since the Norman conquest. Yet £45bn is spent defending Britain against fantasy enemies.”
Because I wanted this book read, then, I wrote it in the terms and language of the people I knew and liked and admired in the military. Whether they all believe me or not, I want to show them that they are the victims of a vile and cynical deal, which serves nobody’s interests but the government’s. Our soldiers are paid, pro-rata, far less than the minimum wage – you don’t go home for your tea at the end of a shift if you happen to be in Helmand and your wife and children live in Catterick.
If soldiers do get shipped back injured they have to compete for civilian hospital places. Any special treatment ends as soon as they reach minimum standards of recovery. Mental health problems are disregarded and robustly lied about, which is one reason why so many ex servicemen live on the streets, and partner and child abuse is terrifyingly high. They risk everything for their masters, and receive a vanishing minimum in return. After ten years of prevaricating the government still sends them out in snatch Land Rovers to be killed by IEDs, and now actually boasts that replacements will be available – by the end of 2011. It’s hard to believe that they aren’t completely mad.
I call this book a novel because I can’t think of any other designation, and because I am a much-published novelist, as well as being a playwright and TV and radio script writer. I tried hard to get it published through the normal channels, but it was not the sort of thing publishers seem to want. But every thing and every person in it, every attitude and every conversation, is grounded solidly in truth, sourced from hundreds of hours of conversations, and piles of notes and letters and scraps of paper. None of the boys is dead, none of them is still in the army. My hope for this book would be that it could help persuade some others to achieve the same result. Does that sound unpatriotic?
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