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A Shout From The Attic: About This Army Thing

...I freely confess that the initial impact the army had on me was more than a little terrifying. I had heard tales and seen moving pictures of soldiers at war, noted the deep camaraderie between service men, thrilled at the glory and glamour of brave deeds done under conditions of ambuscade and bombardment, and thought I might enjoy that kind of thing. Reality was nothing like the picture of worthy soldiers and appreciative NCOs and officers that my feeble mind had created...

Ronnie Bray muses on the nature of Army life.

The Army was interesting, never boring, continuously challenging, often confusing, at times uproarious, and full of fascinating characters, many of whom made significant contributions to my developing philosophy of life, men, and manners.

The demanding routine and submission to discipline I found difficult, but it was a case of adapt or die, and sometimes adapt and die! I discovered that one could be oneself and survive, even in the face of both obvious and veiled hostility. I only noticed the obvious kind, but it was never very great, and such as it was it was always easily disposed of.

I freely confess that the initial impact the army had on me was more than a little terrifying. I had heard tales and seen moving pictures of soldiers at war, noted the deep camaraderie between service men, thrilled at the glory and glamour of brave deeds done under conditions of ambuscade and bombardment, and thought I might enjoy that kind of thing. Reality was nothing like the picture of worthy soldiers and appreciative NCOs and officers that my feeble mind had created. It was a shock, and it shocked me into all manners of paroxysms.

However, I decided that whatever must be will be even if it never happens and so I settled down to become a soldier worthy of the Queen’s shilling – long since spent – and get through my contractual three years as a highly skilled technical craftsman who occasionally shouldered a rifle and shot at armed and dangerous enemies.

The first enemies I encountered were wearing the Queen’s uniform, and spoke English – that is, they spoke a version of it. They were the Drill Instructors. Some recruits referred to them as Drill Pigs, but I didn’t discover why.

My initial impression was that there was not one of them that would not have benefited from an anger management course. Everything was said and done at the top of their voices. It was as if their normal mechanism of utterance had been surgically eliminated and been replaced by eloquent foghorns.

How, I wondered, did they communicate with wives and children? The general consensus was that they could not be married and could not have children, or they would be more mellow, kind, considerate, careful of our tender feelings, and understand and make generous allowances when we didn’t meet their impossibly high standards of dress, drill, and everything else.

However, once I got my head around militaristicism I understood that an undisciplined army was an unconscionable thing, especially when it was conceivable that some day we might be all that stood between the Motherland and an armed and aggressive opponent. Once my mates and I had gripped that, life was easier for everyone.

To understand all is to forgive all, and although we were regularly regaled with such sentiments as, “You are the worst shower I have ever seen in my life!” a sea-change overtook these khaki nasties when it was time for us to leave, and they used words like, “Terrific improvement … Brilliant squad … Proud of you all …” and other oral signs of insanity.

It is usual for Americans to regale their serving soldiers as ‘heroes,’ especially those serving abroad in war zones. I have to disagree with that use of the term. There is nothing heroic about a soldier being where he is sent or doing what he must to discharge his duty and accomplish whatever mission his political masters have laid across his back.

I served in two active theatres, but I was not a hero. Heroes are few and far between. They distinguish themselves by doing more than required either to accomplish a particular task or to rescue a fallen comrade. Most soldiers do not get into such situations. They stand and fight in inglorious places, unknown, unhonoured, and unsung, until they take a bullet or a piece of shrapnel, and then they achieve some brief and quickly passing eminence. The rest of the time we are just ordinary people doing an extraordinary and dangerous job.

Soldiering does do something to the soldier. It inures those it does not destroy. Most soldiers have lost comrades-in-arms as the result of hostile activities. Those we know, and often like very much become our friends. No friendship is deeper than that developed between individuals who rely for their lives on each other. Their loss changes those left behind.

The years pass fast or slow but the memories of lost friends keeps us sorrowing and asking hard questions. It is no different for heroes. But I was not a hero; I am not made of the stuff of heroism. I didn’t meet anyone during my military service that was a hero, except those who cheerfully got on with the job uncomplainingly under difficult circumstances.

That does not diminish those who are heroes, nor does it diminish the contributions of those with whom I served. Each soldier is an integral and necessary part of an organisation that the world will always need to have in place, for “Men must fight and women must weep.”

So my time passed, and exciting vistas and situations offered themselves, and I made the best of them as well as I could. There were some nasty moments including a bomb lobbed over the fence of the REME Workshops at Dhekelia the night I was blessed to be able to walk the fence on guard duty. The bomb failed to detonate. Well, nobody’s perfect, not even terrorists, thanks be to God!

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