Tag Archives: Defence

Forgetting the War

I’ve just seen the trailer below for a new documentary called Almost Sunrise about two US veterans and their attempts to move on from their experiences in Iraq as they attempt to readjust to being civilians

 

The film’s website tells us that Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson served in Iraq, and since their return home have both struggled with depression, to the extent that they contemplated suicide. In order to try and master their fates, the two embark on a massive 2,700 mile walk across the country from Wisconsin to California, “in order to reflect on their haunting experiences of war and to ultimately, save themselves.”

Military personnel struggling on their return from conflict is not new, and their battles with reconciling what they did when in action with the moral code of a society removed from war have been studied before. But it can never be highlighted enough. This, like anything else, takes time to heal. And sometimes time alone is not enough.

The subject of transition into civilian life from the military is something I’ve worked on and highlighted before here, but it does seem to attract far more attention in the US than in the UK. Why is this? Certainly one major part of it is the cultural difference between the US and the UK, and the place the veteran has in our societies – and the questions about what we as civilians owe them, if anything, in return for their service.

Also,  I can’t help but notice that this seems to add to the latest trend in film-making when it comes to war films; that the focus is now more on the legacy of the war at home after the conflict for those who endured it, rather than the war itself.

It looks like an amazingly powerful film, and I’ll certainly try and track this film down from the UK.

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Thatcher and the British Military: A Champion of the Armed Forces?

Watching the funeral of Baroness Thatcher on Wednesday, I was struck not just by the pomp and pageantry of the event, but also the close connection consciously exhibited between the former Prime Minister and the military.

Each of the pallbearers represented the military units that had fought in the South Atlantic in the Falklands War of 1982, a conflict many have termed “Thatcher’s War” in recent years. There were also Falklands War veterans present at St Paul’s, both in the funeral party and the congregation.

One of the most recognisable veterans of that conflict, Simon Weston, was interviewed on Sky News shortly after the ceremony, he stressed that, for the veterans of the Falklands, even though people didn’t agree with her policies they respected her determination and commitment to the idea of sovereignty of the Islanders. As he said to Dermot Murnaghan, “She really did believe in what she was doing, it wasn’t just a political stunt.” Such action and decisiveness endeared her to the military, along with her long-standing committment to veterans in the 30 years since the war.

Does the modern military share the same affection and trust in the modern political governance? I suspect not. Indeed, there has been an almost complete shift away from political links as the public have once again embraced the military directly, with the charity Help for Heroes being the most visible spearhead of a new wave of popular support for the armed forces. Partly this is due to the long, drawn-out, politically and strategically ambiguous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that have drawn public ire, with Britain’s political leadership, regardless of orientation to the Left or Right, being the main target for hostility.

It could certainly be argued that not since Thatcher has a British Prime Minister shared such an affinity with the armed forces, despite active attempts to emulate her and court the armed forces vote. Such behaviour is another legacy of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.

This post is not going to enter into the debate about the impact of the Falklands War on Thatcher’s re-election in 1983 (this author is of the opinion that while it certainly helped, macroeconomic factors and the weakness of a divided opposition had a far more significant influence!). However, what it will explore is the nature of the relationship between Thatcher and the military that has characterised the years since the Falklands War, culminating in Wednesday’s ceremony and the accepted assumption.

The Iranian embassy siege of 1980 had already helped create an image of Thatcher as decisive and willing to act, but it was the Falklands War that was to ensure that this would be enshrined on the world stage.

While the deployment of British military might to the Falklands certainly helped seal Thatcher’s reputation as the Iron Lady, she did not view the military as being ring-fenced from public spending cuts. Indeed, she oversaw the 1981 Strategic Defence Review, which was explicitly about saving money and made several recommendations that would severely undercut the fighting strength of the Royal Navy and the conventional warfare capability of the armed forces in general. It did this by placing the emphasis firmly on a European and North Atlantic theatre, and with NATO-specific roles, an understandable strategic decision giving the international context, but a strategically limited choice nonetheless. This Soviet-centric thinking dominated naval policy and resulted in submarines, including Britain’s nuclear deterrent, anti-submarine operations, mine-sweeping being prioritised over a more flexible and expensive force across the armed forces.

Aircraft carriers and amphibious landing ships, the two types of vessel in particular that were essential in the campaign the recapture and liberate the Falkland Islands, were targeted for scrap. In 1982 the carrier Hermes was old and small, and it had been agreed that it would be sold to the Indian Navy. Invincible was similarly small, and primarily an anti-submarine carrier. It was due to be sold to the Australian Navy. The withdrawal of larger aircraft carriers also meant that the Navy could no longer launce and airborne early warning, hindering carrier operations further. There was also a massive reduction in Britain’s amphibious assault capability. Intrepid was to be de-commissioned and sold, and Fearless was to be mothballed. These decision were made as it was assumed that air cover for any conflict in Northern Europe could be supplied by the RAF from UK bases, therefore removing the need to generate organic air power at sea, and that any landing of troops on the continent could be done in friendly, fully developed harbour facilities.

Of course, the events of April 1982 transformed these plans and expectations of what the British armed forces could and should be able to do. One veteran of the conflict, Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward, described Thatcher’s decision to meet force with force over the Falklands as ‘a brave and an honest decision.’ Yet it was only the personal intervention of Sir Henry Leech that ensured a Task Force would even be sent, as he provided Thatcher with the necessary confidence and assurances that the operation was possible, counter to the prevailing opinion of the Cabinet. What followed is well documented.

Of course, after the Falklands War many of the planned cuts were reversed, which in itself points to Thatcher’s pragmatic political approach and led to the idea of her being the champion of the armed forces. However, had the Argentines delayed their invasion by even a year, it is highly unlikely Britain would have had the military capability, and therefore the political will, to respond militarily, and thus Thatcher’s reputation would have been very different. Thatcher’s respect for the armed forces is certainly not a myth, it is well documented, but for historical events such an aspect of her premiership may not have come to define her in the way it does today. Had it not been for the Falklands War, Thatcher would merely have continued the long process of military decline.

One final thought; cutting back on conventional military capability in order to prioritise Special Forces and smaller, cheaper alternatives is a debate currently being waged in today’s austerity agenda. In that regard, the current Prime Minister David Cameron continues in his desire to emulate Thatcher, though his cuts threaten to go much further. Thatcher’s cuts were based on a strategic choice, evaluating the then-threat of the Soviet Union. Cameron’s seem far more driven by financial constraints than strategic ones.

The question, however, remains; will he have her courage and convictions to reverse any mistakes when presented with need to do so? Perhaps then he too may be seen as a political champion of the armed forces, as Baroness Thatcher is today.

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PTSD on the Rise

On Friday it was headline news. After analysing 13,856 randomly selected, serving and ex-serving UK military personnel with national criminal records stored on the Ministry of Justice Police National Computer database, The Lancet had discovered that younger members of the armed forces returning from duty are more likely to commit violent offences than the rest of the population. The cause of such violent offences was instantly linked by the media to military service, and the possibility of having developed PTSD or suffered a traumatic brain injury.

The statistics need to be analysed in full before any such accusation or assertion can be made with absolute confidence. The fact remains that 94% of veterans returning from combat zones will not offend. Indeed, the report shows that overall criminal activity was slightly lower in military personnel than in people of the same age in the wider population. It is, however, a useful exercise in charting those who are at more risk within the wider military group, and the report found that those who were under 30, who had served in the junior ranks in a combat role, and experienced traumatic events, such as being shot at, were all linked to an increased risk of violence once returned from duty.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to an increased interest in issues surrounding military mental health, and on Monday it statistics released by the Ministry of Defence showed that up to 11,000 serving members of the military have been diagnosed with mental conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression since 2007. As ever, the question remains why? Why has there been such an upsurge in psychological casualties?

Here are a few of my observations, based on my experience of researching this phenomena, as to why this might be the case:
Greater Support: There is undoubtedly a far greater and more rigorous programme of support for military mental health now than at any time previously in British military history. Now that the MoD is expecting and actively looking for psychological casualties, it should come as no suprise that they are finding them. In addition, the very public campaign of support, and the fantastic work being done by military charities such as Combat Stress and Help for Heroes, means fewer service personnel are ashamed of coming forward and admiting they need help. While some elements of stigma certainly remain, they are being eroded.

Shared Experience: As the size of the armed forces declines, the proportion of the population with military experience is likewise declining. Thus, when veterans return from combat, or more crucially leave the military, there is a much smaller pool of shared experience on which they can call for support. This undoubtedly creates a sense of physical and more importantly mental isolation that will allow mental problems such as depression to develop.

Combat Intensity and Type: The regularity of tours, and the intensity of operations, that a smaller armed force is being called on to do, along with the highly stressful counter-insurgency operations themselves, is undoubtedly a factor. PTSD rates between those veterans who were engaged in conventional war, and those who conducted counter-insurgency operations, are markedly different.

The Nature of the Problem: PTSD does not develop overnight. It is a cumulative process that builds and feeds off other negative events. Those being diagnosed now may well have picked up their mental scars decades ago. Indeed, Combat Stress reports that it is still diagnosing Falklands veterans, testament to both the long-term germination of issues and the greater awareness that exists which encourages veterans to seek help. Given that operations are still ongoing in Afghanistan, these figures are not going to fall any time soon.

Economic Difficulties: As the UK economy stagnates, and the armed forces are faced with drastic cuts, the economic uncertainty is undoubtedly affecting veterans’ mental health. Work provides a sense of balance and self-esteem. When that is removed, or if a veteran struggles to find work, it can often prove the catalyst for mental problems that would otherwise be dormant to break forth uncontrolled.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse: Young UK service personnel are the products of the UK’s culture. Like many young people, problematic relationships exist with alcohol and other substances, which remain easily available. Alcohol, in particular, is in abundance within the armed forces where it can be bought for a heavily subsidised price. When abuse of these is combined with repressed emotions and memories, it can have disasterous consequences. Such situations are magnified by veterans attempting to self-medicating using drugs or alcohol, which only exacerbates any developing mental problems.

That is a very brief outline of an extremely complex issue, but hopefully sheds a little more light on why such developments appear to be occuring in greater numbers than ever before. The fact that those veterans who are struggling are getting the help they need is a major plus, and the widespread publication of the issue will help erode stigma and encourage those who are experiencing difficulties to come forward and seek help.

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