At Large

I’m All Right, Jack

The behavior of the British sailors taken hostage in Iran raises a larger question: What has happened to the British armed forces?

By 4.17.07

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During one of Britain's 19th century wars with China a British soldier in a force under Lord Elgin was captured by the Chinese and beheaded for refusing to Kow-Tow. The incident inspired what was for a time a famous poem:

Last night, among his fellow roughs,
He jested, quaffed, and swore;
A drunken private of the Buffs,
Who never looked before.
To-day, beneath the foeman's frown,
He stands in Elgin's place,
Ambassador from Britain's crown,
And type of all her race.

Poor, reckless, rude, low-born, untaught,
Bewildered, and alone,
A heart, with English instinct fraught,
He yet can call his own.
Ay, tear his body limb from limb,
Bring cord or axe or flame,
He only knows that not through him
Shall England come to shame...


It concludes:
Vain mightiest fleets of iron framed,
Vain those all-shattering guns,
Unless proud England keep untamed
The strong heart of her sons;
So let his name through Europe ring,--
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta's king,
Because his soul was great.

The incident was in quite a contrast to the story of the British sailors and marines captured by Iran, admitting everything, and released flourishing gifts from Mr. Ahmadinejad.

One of them told a press conference that he had cried himself to sleep after his captors cruelly called him "Mr. Bean" and took away the iPod which he had carried on a combat mission. The sailor said he also cried when he was reunited with the only female captive, Faye Turney. He further complained about the quality of the presents which the Iranians gave them when they were released.

I don't think that it's for me, who has never experienced such an ordeal, to blame him or any of them for being terrified. Possibly there were visions of years in an Iranian prison, lynching by fanatical mobs or videotaped beheadings in their minds.

Further, we don't know what instructions they had been given on how to behave in such a situation -- possibly to co-operate with their captors and not provoke them or do anything to make the situation worse.

But to talk this way after release -- as well as two of them rushing to sell their stories to the media (the Ministry of Defense later changed its mind about permitting this, but that it was considered at all suggests the Government knows nothing about the ethos of the fighting services) -- seems a bit much to stomach. Surely even in a modern, politically correct Navy there is still dignity.

Anyway, one of Britain's most respected senior officers, General Sir Michael Rose, who led the UN force in Bosnia, is someone qualified by personal experience to comment. And he has claimed the incident has shown that the Royal Navy is no longer fit for modern warfare. The sailors failed to fight back, and behaved as though they were on a Mediterranean cruise, he said. The entire ethos of the military had been undermined:

"Nelson said that no captain could ever be criticized for laying his ship along the enemy and engaging him. We didn't quite get that here. There were junior soldiers in the Second World War who resisted heroically, in far worse circumstances, or in the Falkland Islands. What made young men in the Scots Guards or the Paras. charge with bayonets in the middle of the night when they had run out of ammunition, against enemy machine guns?"

General Rose appears to blame the Iraq war, and in this I disagree with him. Things started much earlier than that. Since before the Blair government took office -- and despite that government's willingness to commit the armed forces for war service -- there have been reports of a stream of initiatives forcing Political Correctness on the forces (combined with shortcomings in equipment, pay, housing and other support) that can only damage or destroy their traditions and morale.

Here are a few examples: In 2004 it was reported that a Royal Navy ship, HMS Cumberland, in deference to the political correctness of Blair's Britain, had installed a Satanist chapel on board for the benefit of a Satanist crewman, a spokesman claiming: "The Royal Navy is an equal employer organization."

The Army set up a special school at Lichfield to teach drill-sergeants to be nicer to recruits. Shouting at recruits was banned, leading one 17-year-old to ask: "If Army recruits can't handle being shouted at by drill sergeants, how are they going to cope with the noise of gunfire or the screams of casualties?"

In 2001 women in the British armed forces were receiving breast implants at taxpayers' expense (costing about US $8,000 a pair) at make them "happier soldiers." If they were taken prisoner it might well make their captors happier soldiers too. Other service personnel had liposuction rather than route-marches to remove excess fat. Colonel Bob Stewart, DSO, former commander of the British forces in Bosnia, after pointing out that money needed to be spent on things like better guns and radios, said:

"Anyone who is so fixated about their breast size or so emotionally troubled about their gender has absolutely no place in a fighting army....The ideal soldier is physically tough and mentally balanced, so a serviceman who needs liposuction or a sex-change is in the wrong job. And, dare I ask, how a female soldier, who is so distressed by remarks about her appearance that she had to resort to implants, would cope under fire?"

At the Pirbright Depot, training-ground of the Guards Brigade and famous for producing some of the finest soldiers in the world, trainees were issued with red and yellow cards. Should they pull out a yellow card, it would show their drill sergeants they were upset and should be left alone for 15 minutes while their delicate nerves recovered from the shock of being shouted at. Should they be really upset and pull a red card, the drill sergeant would have to explain his behavior to a superior officer.

It was forecast that soldiers would be allowed to sue officers for giving the wrong orders, in accord with the European Convention on Human Rights. Eight other countries, from Russia to Liechtenstein, had asked for their armed forces to be exempt. General Sir Peter de la Billiere said that this was almost impossible to believe and that he could think of no decision that would do more to damage morale and discipline.

General Sir Charles Guthrie said the "creeping advance" of health and safety legislation in the armed forces might be creating a climate of "risk aversion" and future soldiers might be able to sue the army for putting them in risky situations.

A "task force" was reported to be investigating whether anti-discrimination legislation would mean disabled people would be taken into the forces -- leading to one cynical observation that blind paratroops would know to pull the ripcord when their guide dogs' leads went slack.

One serviceman who quit the Royal Marines in disgust wrote:

"The government's obsession with political correctness has been applied to the military with such relish that at times it seems almost insane. I have lost count of the number of forms I have had to fill in giving details of my ethnic origin. These forms used to be anonymous, but the last one I had to complete carried my name, rank and service number. Perhaps this was a reaction to an earlier (anonymous) form, which had revealed that in our all-male unit there was a huge number of Bangladeshi single mothers. There was always a great reluctance to fill in these forms, the fear being that anonymity had been removed so that the government could check how many members of ethnic minorities were being promoted. In response, the military chain of command offered soldiers an inducement: if they did not complete the forms correctly, without jokes, on a Friday afternoon, they would remain in barracks for the weekend and fill them in at their leisure. No doubt that's what New Labour means when it talks about being 'investors in people'.... I would have felt a lot more 'invested in' had I been sent on operations with a gun that worked properly."

He continued, regarding the application of health-and-safety standards to training:
"The steep ravines worn into the slopes that recruits had to run up and down at various points on the seven-mile course were also contrary to all sorts of well-meaning legislation. The recommendation was for proper steps and handrails to be installed -- just like the ones you find in the mountains of Afghanistan or the wadis of Iraq."

Possibly the British sailors taken prisoner by Iran were simply following orders. It may have been just one of those things, and will be soon forgotten: all wars are full of SNAFUs and aberrant incidents. During World War II a British Admiral and former head of Naval Intelligence, Sir Barry Domville, was imprisoned as a security risk, but that did not mean the Royal Navy's traditions were crumbling. But the whole thing at present looks like political correctness coming home to roost. I doubt the sailors can be blamed: the fault is at a much higher level.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.