Line of fire: what it is to be a man in today’s British army
The military’s changing role has laid bare the need for its culture of masculinity to evolve too
February 19, 2021 6:03 am by Simon Akam
When the British soldiers came back from Iraq in late spring 2003, Wolfgang Heer hung a banner over the road. Heer owned the Casanova Club, a brothel in the north German town of Walsrode that, because of its exterior, was known as the “Pink House” to the troops of 7th Armoured Brigade billeted in the nearby garrison of Fallingbostel.
Back then, roughly half the fighting power of the British army was still based in Germany, a legacy of the cold war. In the run-up to the Iraq war, German public opinion opposed the conflict, while in the communities around the austere British bases there was a sense of pity towards the britische Soldaten, sent overseas on questionable grounds. Heer, a thickset Hells Angel, took a different approach. He commissioned a metre-high banner that read, in English, “Welcome back our brave heroes”.
Even in peacetime, large numbers of soldiers visited the Pink House. Nadine, an east German woman who worked there, had learnt British military slang and, from the Scottish units at Fallingbostel, terms such as “aye” and “och”. She also knew the madness of army payday, when soldiers appeared en masse and she would have sex with eight or 10 a night. (A 2001 law regulated sex work in Germany, making it a legally recognised occupation. While some say it has improved conditions for women, others disagree. Wolfgang Fink from the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) of Baden-Württemberg has described the sex trade as a “battery cage”.)https://ce7cea2aa8de38cd3a4ec65861fb7e65.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
But that was nothing compared to when the troops returned from Iraq. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, then a tank regiment equipped with hulking Challenger 2 battlewagons, arrived back in Fallingbostel in the early hours of May 16. They had been in theatre for some 10 weeks, engaged in the invasion of Iraq and occupation of the southern city of Basra.
In the guardroom at Fallingbostel, Billy Gilchrist, a non-commissioned officer in the regiment’s headquarters squadron, fielded a call from the brothel asking if the army could slow down the influx of soldiers; the Pink House’s women were struggling to cope. Men were emerging from the brothel and rejoining the queue. Meanwhile, Heer pulled in extra women from his other establishments until there were 40 in Walsrode. The atmosphere was mad, a collective release: payday times a hundred.
To some, the military is the last bastion of unreformed masculinity. I have spent the past five years writing The Changing of the Guard, a book about how the British army has evolved since 9/11. Although it is a study of a military institution, it is also about contemporary Britain: how we view ourselves, our place in the world and, ultimately, what it is to be a man here today.
I found myself investigating a paradox. We have soldiers to enact violence on other people. That is not all they do, but it is the extreme expression of their trade. Should we be surprised, therefore, if they act badly on or off the field of battle? “In my experience, there was a sort of tolerance to violent offences, provided they were not hate-driven. Soldiers brawling with soldiers was usually ignored, although altercations with civilians were taken more seriously,” says one former officer.
My interest in all this began in earnest in 2003-04, when I took part in a programme the army ran called a “gap year commission”, for those taking a year off between school and university. In retrospect, the military was my teenage rebellion. I’d grown up in Cambridge, my parents were academics and cutting my hair and joining the army was a revolt against that milieu. At school we had a cadet force led by an inspirational history teacher, and I, along with many of my contemporaries, signed up.
Looking back, I am still astonished at how acutely the military knew how to push buttons in teenage boys. The effect on the 17-year-old imagination of a large envelope arriving, marked “On Her Majesty’s Service”, should not be underestimated. On the gap year programme there was a short course at Sandhurst officer training academy, similar to that undertaken by army lawyers and doctors, followed by a stint in a regular unit, though you could not be sent on operations. Entry to the programme was competitive; the idea was to create a cadre of individuals who might not return to the army but would take an understanding of it into their civilian careers.
I was steered towards the Royal Artillery, a large body with multiple constituent regiments, which was well geared up to take on scantily trained gap-year officers. At the last moment, though, I swerved to a cavalry regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (SCOTS DG in the army’s abbreviation). I was drawn by the prospect of glamour, smart uniforms and horses. Its antecedent unit, the Royal Scots Greys, had mechanised in 1941, but its history goes back to the 17th century; the current regiment maintained equestrian ambitions.
Seeing any institution at close quarters dissolves one’s preconceptions of it, but the distinction between ideal and reality with the British cavalry, circa 2003, was striking. On the October day I arrived, five months after the regiment returned from Iraq, an officer tried to kill himself. The culture I saw was in some ways shaped by the brief invasion campaign the regiment had taken part in; the tanks were still painted a fading yellow and some had dark smudges on the turrets from rocket-propelled grenade blasts. But in a wider sense it was a reflection of the long period of peacetime that had preceded this.
Soldiering is one of few jobs you can train for over a working lifetime and never do for real
The SCOTS DG had been based in Germany since 1995, but that was just the most recent stint — it had been there on and off since 1945. Those decades waiting for the Russians had left their mark. In the 30 years before 9/11, Northern Ireland was the focus for much of the army. But most of the cavalry was not directly involved in the province after the crisis years of the 1970s. The 1990s were more active — the SCOTS DG deployed on Operation Granby, the first Gulf war in 1991, and went to the Balkans later in the decade. But beyond the waiting and fear in the Gulf, that conflict lasted only 100 hours. And while the Balkans had its “crunchy” moments, few soldiers thought of it as “real war”.
Soldiering is one of few jobs you can train for over a working lifetime and never do for real. The result of this long period in Germany was an ossified culture. The SCOTS DG was a “smart regiment”, socially, meaning many of its officers came from grand public schools and families with long traditions of service. In this environment, I was a fraud — I was neither an aristocrat nor had been to boarding school. The same applied to perhaps 30 per cent of the other officers. The cavalry, with its fondness for pinstriped suits and bowler hats, attracted many people who wanted to manifest a culture that was not their own. This was not uncommon. The former officer quoted above says: “I know of officers who suddenly double-barrelled their names between postings.”
Affected snootiness emerged in elaborate disdain towards the SCOTS DG’s neighbours in barracks, the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, which had identical tanks and the same wartime role, yet had never had horses and could trace its history back only as far as the first world war. There was also an astonishing level of boozing — alcohol was an activity in its own right in the SCOTS DG. For the rank-and-file soldiers, that meant tax-free beer in the squadron bars. For the officers, it often meant champagne. (The regiment had an association with Pol Roger, the French champagne house; a crack team regularly drove to Épernay for supplies.)
Originally I had thought of this bizarre culture as a function of its time and place, but it has occurred throughout history. It is what happens when armies have little to do. Robert Graves, poet and author of first world war memoir Goodbye to All That, recorded the same phenomenon, as he was tormented by his seniors and deemed a “wart” in a “peacetime survival” mess in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
What I saw in Germany was dramatic, but why it was happening was more interesting. The whole system — the rule of not going to bed until everyone longer-serving than you had retired, the tick-tock of the promotion cycles — reflected a worship of seniority. Yet because the army had not been to “real” war for a long time, seniority had ceased to correlate effectively with experience. Instead, after the invasion of Iraq, experience of combat would seep up from the bottom.
Even in 2003, the SCOTS DG was atypical in its formality, rigidity and adherence to cavalry traditions. Much of the army was not like that. But the generational divide the Iraq and Afghan wars were to engender was very real.
Much of what I found in my reporting for the book was how military culture — and the army’s notion of masculinity — evolved as the institution went to war. There were those who had been profoundly traumatised by this. I came to identify the physical tells — the overly bright eyes, the slightly too fast speech.
But it was also striking to see others respond positively to their experiences. For many of the 260 individuals I spoke to, going to war was the most emotionally significant moment of their life. It could be frightening and potentially damaging but also exciting and, at some atavistic level, an enactment of what some people think it is to be a man.© Dionne Kitching
Crucially, it also swept away many of the military cobwebs. The transition from game-playing to reality was ragged and did not happen at once. But when faced with a real enemy, everyone — officers and soldiers, senior and junior — was now on the same team. Old tensions melted away and that unity could be intoxicating. The debate about women in combat roles, so pronounced before, was also overtaken by events.
While there were still formally no women in infantry or armoured units (the British army lifted its ban on women serving in combat units in 2018), the nature of the conflicts meant there were women at the front of combat — as attached medics, signallers or engineers. They experienced the same hazards. Gay soldiers were accepted to an extent unimaginable in 2003, when the armed forces had only recently lifted their formal ban on homosexuality.
At Brecon, the Infantry Battle School in Wales — which for years, when there was no fighting to be done, served as a “man test” with pointlessly unpleasant training — there was no longer any need to make people crawl up streams for the sake of it. “Nobody didn’t have a war story at Brecon, and as a result of that, there was no bullshit about it,” says Stuart Nicholson, an infantry officer who ran the platoon sergeants’ course there in 2012.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t a pecking order. Another former officer says: “Whereas in peacetime, a measure of your status would simply be the regiment you were part of and your rank, in wartime it became about whether or not you had deployed. Once nearly everyone had deployed at least once, it became about how many times and how ‘punchy’ your tours were.”
It was also noticeable how the streamlining effects of war could be felt away from the front line. Far-reaching military reforms encompassed not just equipment and training but also doctrine: the institution’s theory for how it should conduct itself in the world. Although the reformers’ bureaucratic battles were conducted in offices and academic institutions, and in the great underground bunker at Permanent Joint Headquarters near London, rather than on a battlefield, they were meaningful too.
Much of what these older officers had to do as well was rein in a culture in which violence was not only the pinnacle of the military profession but also something considered extremely manly and cool. Alex Alderson, a colonel who rewrote the army’s counter-insurgency doctrine, recalls giving a lecture to 16 Air Assault Brigade, the elite formation that commands parachute units, in October 2010, before it deployed to Afghanistan under Brigadier James Chiswell.
The so-called warrior culture, a hyper-masculine, macho archetype, may have begun with the US military in 2003 but was gladly taken up by the British
Alderson talked about counter-insurgency, the campaign and different approaches. Afterwards, some senior NCOs and captains in the audience collared him. “That’s just crap,” they told him. “We’re going to go in there, kick doors in, have some quality trigger time.” Chiswell, who won a Military Cross in Sierra Leone as a major, and also came from the macho paratrooper tribe, interrupted his men. “I’m sorry, you’ve got this completely wrong,” he said. “The way we’re going to do this is the way Colonel Alderson’s described.”
That cultural transition was difficult to complete. A year later, in 2011, Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman shot a wounded insurgent in Nad-e Ali in Helmand. “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,” he remarked. “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention.” Unbeknown to Blackman, another marine was wearing a helmet camera. When the video emerged, a huge scandal developed. Blackman was convicted of murder, later reduced to manslaughter.
The Royal Marines and wider Royal Navy authorities (the marines are part of the navy rather than the army) tried to portray the incident as a “lone bad apple” situation. In reality, it was much more complicated; it was linked to the intrinsically different ways that 42 Commando, Blackman’s unit, and 45 Commando, the adjacent one, approached the 2011 tour. The latter wanted to perform delicate, population-centred counterinsurgency. The former wanted to “go toe to toe with the Taliban” and “blunt” them.
“Is this about masculinity?” remarks the former officer who commented on the changing nature of military status. “To me it is indicative of a lack of cohesive strategy, resulting in differing tactics from brigade to brigade, tour to tour.” Yet arguably it was about manhood as well as tactics. The latest obsession with so-called warrior culture, a hyper-masculine, macho archetype, may have begun with its formal inculcation by the US military in 2003 but was gladly taken up by the British and others.
Last year’s Brereton report into the activities of Australian special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016 — which mentioned the murder of 39 Afghan citizens, the “blooding” of new recruits by making them kill prisoners and “throwdowns”, weapons left with bodies post hoc to create photographic justification for killing them — is about rogue or even toxic masculinity as well as command and control.
As the report says, no one spoke up because they had worked hard to get into special forces and the patrol leaders were regarded as “demigods”.
For the majority of the British army, the wars are over now. The main flag-lowering in Basra took place in April 2009. Five years later, in late 2014, the army pulled out of Helmand. Before it left, officers toured the guard towers at Camp Bastion to make sure there was no pornography on the walls to offend the Afghans they were handing the base over to.
It is possible, as has happened many times before, that the army will find itself back in a scrap in a hurry. But over the past five years, cadets have not gone to Sandhurst knowing they would fight, as was the case for the generation before them. Nor do they join to go skiing and get “shit-faced”, as a generation before that did in the 1990s. Funding for adventure training has been reduced as the army shrinks, and the system has finally, to an extent, cracked down on institutionalised drinking.© Dionne Kitching
Will things revert to how they used to be? The army says not; internally there is now a spirit of “constant competition” and no longer a clear distinction between peace and war. Training teams overseas or providing Covid-19 support in the UK is, according to the army, as important as combat. That is both a sensible leadership promulgation and a cunning stance for an institution that arguably has haemorrhaged the trust of politicians after two failed campaigns.
Perhaps most interesting is the extent to which the army has learnt to talk about its feelings. In 2016, when I met Heer, he showed me round his establishment, with its bizarre murals of topless women and female figurines, and explained his vision for the place: like a nightclub where, through some rearrangement of the cosmos, all the women would want to sleep with you. Besides Nadine, I also spoke to a younger Polish woman on his staff.
I have no doubt Heer directed me to those employees with the sunniest dispositions. They talked about the realities of sex work in the same way the soldiers I spoke to liked to talk about how to conduct a vehicle checkpoint. They also knew a lot about men. While soldiers had paid them for sex, they also often wanted to talk. In those gaudy rooms in Germany some wept about what they had seen and done in combat.
This was an older British army; a high-ranking officer speaking publicly about his post-tour depression, as General Patrick Sanders did earlier this month, would have been unthinkable then. Even so, there was still a need for someone to put in the emotional labour.
Simon Akam is the author of ‘The Changing of the Guard: the British Army Since 9/11’ (Scribe)
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