Monday, September 28, 2009
New recruits at the Army Training Centre at Pirbright, Surrey undertake a 14-week training course Photo: Julian Simmonds
The death toll in Afghanistan has reached 217 and the funerals have become ever more poignant – but the bestselling SAS author Andy McNab says Army recruits do not want our pity.
I have just returned from giving a talk on the benefits of Army education to new recruits at the Army Training Centre at Pirbright, Surrey. A red-brick facility with its own parade ground, it delivers the 14-week training course undertaken by all adult recruits when they first join the Army.
On completion of the Common Military Syllabus, these Soldiers Under Training (SUTs) go on to learn their chosen trade, which covers a host of military professions ranging from anti-aircraft radar operator and artillery gunner to Army musician. Pirbright trains more than 4,000 men and women a year, and as such is a good melting pot for almost every kind of soldier.
But chatting to the SUTs at Pirbright that afternoon, one thing became very clear: there is a lot of anger in the air. It has nothing to do with Army pay, conditions, or even the war in Afghanistan; rather, their anger stems from the way they feel they are perceived by "pencilnecks", one of the nicer terms the Army uses to describe civilians.
I hear the same complaint time and time again when I talk with soldiers. What angers these young men and women – and me – greatly, is the belief held by some that recruits only join the Army because they are too thick to do anything else; that soldiers are somehow little lost souls to be pitied; the dregs of society too hopeless to help themselves.
Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to back up their anger. At last year's National Union of Teachers' annual conference, for instance, troops were described as "cannon-fodder for the profits of oil companies", the implication being that soldiers are led like sheep to the slaughter, rather than soldiering being the profession they have chosen for themselves.
Plaid Cymru has called for a ban on Army recruitment in schools. They claim the Army is unfairly targeting schools in the poorest areas of Wales. Again, this furthers the view that new recruits chose the Army only because they have no choice but to sign up.
Judging by those I spoke to at Pirbright, nothing could be further from the truth. Scott Probert, a 21-year-old SUT from Wolverhampton, is joining the Adjutant General's Corps and certainly doesn't believe he and his mates are simply being sent out to Afghanistan as cannon fodder.
"I'm p----- off that the number of people killed in Afghanistan isn't put into perspective," he tells me. "Of course, I understand that troops get killed [in combat]. I understand that one of them might be me. I'm not stupid."
The actual casualty rate in Afghanistan is remarkably low given the intensity of the operations going on. During the Falklands War, the British Army lost 255 men in just two months. As of September 13, a total of 214 British forces personnel or MoD civilians have died serving in Afghanistan since the start of operations in October 2001. Of these, 183 were killed as a result of hostile action.
A hard-nosed calculation like this may seem harsh, and, of course, of no comfort to grieving families and friends, myself included. I lost another friend in action earlier this month who had been killed in action. But war is harsh, and the SUTs at Pirbright understand this better than the pencilnecks ever will. War is about fighting, and that means risking your life. It's what soldiers do.
For the full article on the Telegraph website click here