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No more heroes

Inquests into military deaths away from the battlefield provide important opportunities for removing the carefully constructed veneer of PR that casts all soldiers as heroes.

While the killing of soldiers in war can convey powerful and fiercely contradictory messages about the politics and morality of any given conflict, the deaths of soldiers in situations remote from the combat zone may reveal the psychological and physical costs of working in military institutions. These episodes tell us more about everyday militarism than gritty, realistic accounts of life ‘on the front line’ might do.

On December 4, London’s free daily broadsheet, Metro, contained three separate stories about soldiers who had died in very different circumstances. Travelling on the tube that morning it was hard to miss the front page headline: ‘Soldier dies after drinking 16 shots’. The story concerned an inquest into the death of Andrew Murgatroyd, 21, who was subjected to a drinking ritual known as ‘top shelf’ as part of celebrations to mark his new posting. 

The inquest established that the young man had been made to drink two glasses of spirits, each consisting of 8 different shots, during a party held at the barracks in Hullavington, Wiltshire. He had also been forced to stand on a chair and down two cans of lager. His wife attempted to intervene but Murgatroyd passed out and died later that night.

Swindon and Wiltshire coroner Ian Singleton was reported as saying that he was concerned that ‘a culture appears to exist to ply someone with alcohol and I am concerned that culture is not isolated to Buckley Barracks.’

What was interesting about this example was its prominence relative to the two other stories dealing with fatalities. Page five ran a report of the previous day’s proceedings in the Lee Rigby murder trial. On the facing page, in a round up of news snippets, there was a small picture of a flag-draped coffin borne by soldiers. A brief caption noted: ‘Sombre: the coffin of WO2 Ian Fisher, who died in a bombing in Afghanistan, is carried out of Lichfield Cathedral’. Compared to these two items, the chance to amuse commuters with an eye-catching pun about a soldier killed by shots must have been too hard to pass up. 

Nevertheless the inquest into Murgatroyd’s death is significant. It reveals a dimension of a macho, coercive institutional culture which stubbornly refuses to die, no matter how much the outward appearance of the profession is sanitised or airbrushed by PR. But we tend only to hear about these cases when there is an inquest that falls under the media spotlight. And it is when these inquiries are considered together that a more ominous picture begins to emerge.

Duty to protect

The trial of Alexander Blackman (or Marine A as he was initially known) received massive publicity partly because he was the first member of the British armed forces in recent history to be found guilty of committing murder during an overseas operation. Passionate debates about mitigating factors and ethical principles that erupted during the trial and sentencing have dramatised the inevitable process of brutalization that occurs in war. But those less conspicuous inquests that deal with deaths occurring inside the armed forces can tell their own story about cruelty, trauma and the abuse of human rights. 

In November, for example, an inquest into the suicide of senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Shaw, heard that he had shot himself after ‘struggling to cope with staff cuts and the "completely unfair and totally unreasonable" demands of his commanding officer’. His wife had found him dead in his car with a gun and a bible in his lap. 

The inquest was told that Shaw’s experiences in the first Gulf War and Kosovo had led to him being traumatised and he had since been deemed unsuitable for front line duties.

Recording a verdict of suicide, Gloucestershire's acting coroner, David Dooley, said ‘Events on the front line in war, perhaps unsuitability for an administrative job requiring talents in excess of his abilities in that particular field, heavy work pressure and problems in personal relationships all appear to have chipped away at his confidence.’ 

While this case might have been overlooked as a tragic example of individual distress, the new year will see two more inquests that are likely to be far more damaging to the army’s reputation as an employer. 

One of these will examine the case of three reservists who died in the course of SAS training in the unusually hot weather of July 2013. Lawyers will interview more than 90 soldiers who took part in the same exercise, together with emergency services and other witnesses. The inquest is likely to examine all the circumstances that led to these apparently experienced men being pushed beyond their limits. 

It has been established that they will take Article Two of the Human Rights Act into account, which as well as protecting the right to life of a person also requires a ‘positive duty to protect life’ in certain circumstances. 

The second inquest will possibly have a longer term impact on the institution. It relates to the death of Anne-Marie Ellement, a corporal in the Royal Military Police (RMP), who committed suicide in October 2011. Ellement was found hanged after her allegations that she was raped by two colleagues were dismissed following an internal investigation. The MoD subsequently maintained that the investigation was held to ‘service standards’. An initial inquest in March 2012 recorded a verdict of suicide, but the family were not represented and it failed to examine all the circumstances surrounding her death. 

Ellement’s sisters, represented by Liberty, successfully applied for judicial review, claiming that the trauma of the rape allegation left her suffering with depression. There were concerns that she received little or no support from the army. Relying on Article 2, the right to life, Liberty argued that a fresh, fuller inquest was necessary to examine the context of her death properly. A full inquiry has been set for early 2014, and it has since been confirmed that the Royal Air Force (RAF) Police would co-operate with civilian officers from Bedfordshire Police in conducting a new investigation into Anne-Marie’s alleged rape.  

A closed book

Liberty’s advocacy of this case is part of their campaign for military justice based on the belief that the human rights of servicemen and women are just as important as those of civilians. While bullying, victimisation and sexual abuse are rife in many corporate settings and public institutions, there are particular problems in the armed forces which are exacerbated by the notoriously opaque and unfair internal complaints system.

The House of Commons Defence Committee has recently urged the MoD to appoint an external Ombudsman to monitor the way that service complaints are handled. But so far the MoD has refused to do more than promise ‘an open mind’ in reforming current procedures, regardless of the overwhelming evidence that individuals report feeling powerless and ineffective, and the system is clearly dysfunctional. 

The deaths of soldiers away from the battlefield often reveal a profound crisis of meaning associated with military work. The more sensational news reports of trials, inquests and tribunals can provide shocking glimpses, not only into what happens when things go wrong, but also how the entire military edifice – including the MoD - habitually responds. In particular, these cases can illuminate the systemic failings of hierarchical authority which deters individuals from speaking out and punishes them when they do.

Monitoring the media reporting of inquests provides a way to challenge conventional ideas about soldiering as an exceptional form of labour that often entails the suspension of human rights – either for victims or perpetrators of crimes. Knowing about the conditions of work inside the institution teaches us yet more of the human costs of maintaining a military workforce in permanent readiness for war. 

About the author

Vron Ware is professor of sociology and gender studies at Kingston University and author of Military Migrants: Fighting for YOUR country.


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