“Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” Said Henry Kissinger.
I had thought of these callous words when I copied the food for thought in my last post: “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
As a military daughter, wife, sister, serving officer myself, and descendant of soldiers, I’ve sometimes found myself defending military men, as I did once at a Quaker meeting where everyone is committed to pacifism. And I thought of these stories of profound wisdom by three military men in recent wars.
In 2005, Dan Baum wrote this inspiring tale in the New Yorker: “During the early weeks of the Iraq war, the television set in my office was tuned all day to CNN, with the sound muted. On the morning of April 3rd, as the Army and the Marines were closing in on Baghdad, I happened to look up at what appeared to be a disaster in the making. A small unit of American soldiers was walking along a street in Najaf when hundreds of Iraqis poured out of the buildings on either side. Fists waving, throats taut, they pressed in on the Americans, who glanced at one another in terror.
“I reached for the remote and turned up the sound. The Iraqis were shrieking, frantic with rage. From the way the lens was lurching, the cameraman seemed as frightened as the soldiers. This is it, I thought. A shot will come from somewhere, the Americans will open fire, and the world will witness the My Lai massacre of the Iraq war.
“At that moment, an American officer stepped through the crowd holding his rifle high over his head with the barrel pointed to the ground. Against the backdrop of the seething crowd, it was a striking gesture—almost Biblical. “Take a knee,” the officer said, impassive behind surfer sunglasses.
“The soldiers looked at him as if he were crazy. Then, one after another, swaying in their bulky body armour and gear, they knelt before the boiling crowd and pointed their guns at the ground. The Iraqis fell silent, and their anger subsided. The officer ordered his men to withdraw.”
It took Dan Baum two months to track down Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes to hear his story, and his spontaneous reaction to the peril he and his men were in.
Major Chris Keeble was a British soldier fighting in the Falklands War. During the Battle of Goose Green, he inherited command of the 2nd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment when Lieutenant-Colonel H. Jones was killed in action. Keeble was a devout Christian. The battalion was at a point when its attack upon the Argentine Army position had broken down, having lost one in six of its men; it had almost run out of ammunition, had been without sleep for 40 hours, and was in a debilitated condition in Arctic conditions facing the unknown potential of a counter-attack from the Argentine forces all around.
After kneeling alone in prayer amongst the burning gorse seeking guidance as to what to do, Major Keeble conceived the idea of refraining from more attacks to try a psychological ploy. He released several captured Argentine prisoners of war in the direction of their Goose Green garrison, carrying messages to the commander requiring its surrender or threatening it with a fictitious large-scale assault by the British forces, supported by artillery. The Argentine commander, subsequently surrendered the garrison to the Parachute Regiment without further fighting.
Keeble said later that: “perhaps the most profound factor of all, was that 112 civilians were locked up in the Community Hall in Goose Green! This fact, discovered overnight, re-emphasized the need to use more subtle means than the bayonet! After all, we had not journeyed 8,000 miles merely to destroy the very people we had come to save.
“And so, standing in a small tin shed on the airfield next day, with the Battery Commander, and our two bewildered journalists, Robert Fox and David Norris, we confronted the Argies.” They surrendered their forces which were three times bigger than the British forces.
And these are the spontaneous and noble, almost Shakespearean words of another soldier – the eve-of-battle speech made by Colonel Tim Collins to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq in 2003. Luckily there was a reporter there who took down in shorthand the only record of these inspiring words.
“We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.
“There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.
“Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see – and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.
“You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing. Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.
“If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.
“It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive. But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.
“The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.
“It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.
“If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.
“If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest – for your deeds will follow you down through history.
“We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation. As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now is North. “
No, Mr Kissinger, military men are not just dumb stupid animals, their lives and words and deeds matter. As Rudyard Kipling wrote:
‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
At a little end- of- lockdown soiree, I made these nibbles, which disappeared very fast. Cut parsnips into fingers, slightly thicker than a finger. Dunk them thoroughly in beaten egg, and then roll them in freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Arrange in a baking tin so they don’t touch each other. Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes or so, until cooked. Eat warm or cold.