Archives for category: War

This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.


This paper is loosely based on a talk given at the Heritage Open Days in September 2013 for the Dean Heritage Centre.

In all the euphoria that came with the liberation of the suppressed people of the Eastern Bloc, it is easy to overlook that when the Cold War ended, the threat of nuclear war did not.

Today there remain some 12,000 active nuclear warheads in the arsenals of just 9 countries [a]. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that it is the United States and Russia who harbour over 90% of these [b], shared roughly equally as it was during the Cold War.

The battle of ideology might have come to an end with the dissolution of the USSR, yet the destructive armaments which made the abstract of political and economic doctrines a terrible, threatening reality remains.

But of what importance is this to the people of the Forest of Dean, then or now?

Firstly, our incumbent MP for the Forest, Conservative Mark Harper, is a strong supporter of nuclear weapons [c]. Secondly, it probably less well known that in the early 1980’s, our county – Gloucestershire – was THE most targeted rural county in the UK.

Why? The answer is simple, but chillingly as relevant today as it was in 1980: GCHQ.

2013 saw Cheltenham’s Government Communication HQ feature regularly in newspaper headlines thanks to the revelations of US intelligence whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. He uncovered GCHQ’s pervasive role in an array of scandals over internet privacy. GCHQ was implicated in covert deals with internet service providers and the developers of computer operating systems to guarantee ‘back-doors’ into everyone’s private data. Their success in this work saw them re-sell their services to the US government. GCHQ has of course been at the forefront of intelligence, surveillance and code-breaking for over half a century and it is for this reason it undoubtedly has always been and remains a very high-value target.

Back in the 1980’s British Civil Defence and NATO-wide exercises predicted a range of nuclear attack scenarios to make their war games theoretically more relevant to how war might actually play out. These games were influenced by the strategic thinking of the British Government who at the time believed that a nuclear war was both survivable and ultimately winnable. This philosophy was based on the idea that there existed such a thing as ‘limited nuclear war’. But the Soviets rejected this concept entirely. They believed that once nuclear weapons were used in the theatre of war, there would be an unstoppable cycle of retaliation and escalation. Indeed, their systems were automated based on that very premise as to ensure a retaliatory strike would occur even after receiving a surprise attack.

At this time Brezhnev was ending his term as Soviet leader and nearing the end of his life. He was thus easily influenced by his paranoiac head of KGB, Yuri Andropov. Together they launched a secret international surveillance project called ‘Operation Ryan’ to find out when and under what auspice the West was to launch their surprise attack on the USSR.

The world will never know how close we were to an automatic nuclear war when the West ploughed on with their exercise ‘Able Archer’ in 1983, but the Soviets were certain that the exercise was the very cover they had suspected would be the trigger for that surprise launch by NATO forces. And this was also the year US cruise missiles was went ‘live’ in the UK.

It is with this polarisation of the British strategic view compared to the Soviet stance which lead a team of British academics (Openshaw, Steadman and Greene [d]) to build a body of evidence to counter the British idea that the ‘Protect and Survive’ attitude meant we’d prevail in a nuclear war.

Together the academics built a computer program to collate all the grossly over-optimistic British attack scenarios and compare them to US war games and planning and all available Soviet data on the subject. They’d supplemented this with analysis of strike impacts from peer papers from the likes of the British Medical Association in order to build a more realistic view of what might really happen.

They had no need to exaggerate their claims. The 11 attack scenarios they built from this deeper review of the data spoke for themselves: the picture was far less optimistic than the Thatcher government would have us believe. And it was for those of us living in Gloucestershire, Openshaw et al predicted that in even in the most limited attack our county would endure a predicted casualty rate of 70%.

Even when putting aside their concerns for Russian rejection of the British notion of a limited nuclear war, their scenarios ranged from the lowest probable strike to a massive, total attack. Over half of the 11 attack scenarios posed by Openshaw et al saw Gloucestershire shoulder a 97% or higher casualty rate.

Other rural counties only saw that level of destruction at the total-war end of the spectrum. On the other hand, Cornwall never had more than 17% in all scenarios. Somerset peaked at less than 30%. These figures were based only the initial blast and immediate radioactive fallout casualties. Wider fallout would of course travel with the wind so even Cornwall and Somerset would not have been safe.

At this point the idea of a ‘nuclear winter’ was only just being more widely accepted as a probable outcome of a sizeable nuclear exchange. This foresees a prolonged winter lasting years where sunlight would diminish but skin cancer rates rocket through the destruction of the ozone layer. A nuclear winter would devastate the environment with the obvious impact of our food supply and agriculture. Perhaps the blinding flash of the 97% wasn’t so bad after all.

But there’s more to Gloucestershire than GCHQ. There’s also the USAF base at Fairford (you may recall Stealth Bombers left Fairford bound for Iraq in the 2003 war), plus the secondary targets of 2 civil nuclear power stations on the Severn. One of these is still being decommissioned today while at the same time being re-developed to 3-4 times the size. Back in the 80’s though there was also a National Grid Strategic Reserve Depot in Cirencester and our Civil Defence Sub-Regional HQ bunker at Ullenwood which had the extra role of being the national Anti-Aircraft Operations Room.

In 1966/67 the Joint Intelligence Committee drew up a revised list of probable Soviet targets, which included GCHQ [e]. They expected it to receive two 1MT bombs (a direct ground strike) plus two 500KT bombs (air-bursts). Air bursts are used to knock-out electronic, communication and radar devices. So 4 nuclear strikes on GCHQ alone, but for comparsion please remember that the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in WW2 was only 12.5KT. Our county was predicted by the optimistic British to receive almost 3,000 times the destructive power.

Yet incredibly, another exercise conducted in the same late 60’s period, ‘Grass Seeds’, saw Civil Defence and Council planners consider Gloucestershire as the ideal place to receive nuclear war refugees from Birmingham and London. Both the attack scenario papers and what is presumed to be the Chief Executive’s review of the exercise written months later are available for review at the Gloucestershire Archives. This demonstrates that Openshaw et al were right to question the logic of British defence planning. On one hand Gloucestershire was being played as a safe haven for refugees (although there is some pretty grim reading in the document, with the docks used as a makeshift prison camp, and the old market as a rest area) on the other hand central government were writing us off with 4 nuclear warheads.

The possible targets on the Soviet list doesn’t stop there. Our county is literally surrounded by high-level targets. The highest of these has to be the national Seat of Central Government at Corsham (only 30 miles from the Speech House as the crow flies) where the Prime Minister would retreat to at the time of war.

Then there was a Cardiff branch of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and even closer there was the huge US weapons store at Caerwent.

Nevertheless having painted such a depressing picture of our assured destruction, not all levels of British government embraced Conservative optimism and bravado. Our neighbouring council, Gwent County Council were one such example.

Gwent CC refused to do anything more than the absolute minimum when it came to new civil defence and emergency planning laws. There was no money for massive civil bunkers so the Government insisted that Local Authorities educated their citizens in ‘Protect and Survive’ and conduct civil defence exercises and prepare for council continuity. But Gwent CC exploited the ambiguity of the new law and issued a pamphlet to the public in 1983 which ‘declared its opposition to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ [f].

They went further stating that Gwent CC ‘will not hide its view that war planning can be used to persuade other nations of Britain’s readiness for nuclear war.’ [g] And even more candidly sought to answer the difficult question of survivability and limited nuclear war: ‘There could be survivors but the Council fears that any nuclear exchange would escalate to all out nuclear war. In that event, Home Defence measures could not prevent the end of civilisation as we know it.’ [h] Certainly not the normal council circular one might expect to find in your local library. Gwent’s position, you will note, is remarkably similar to both Soviet views on the folly of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, and in keeping with Openshaw et al on the topic of optimism. Gwent predicted a 500KT bomb for Caerwent and also cited concerns over the civil nuclear power stations on the Severn [i].

Like much of history, the facts reveal a massive topic. Even on a local level the documents available and wider literature, as well as the testament of Royal Observer Corps or peace veterans form the body of a time we think is entirely behind us. But returning to my opening words, those warheads remain or have been replaced with more accurate equivalents. And so does the most appealing target in GCHQ. Let us hope this is one of those rare occasions where humanity might learn from history. One might say that this time our lives depend upon it.


[a] ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

[b] ibid.

[c] Mark Harper was previously listed as a supporter of the ‘Freedom Association’, a conservative group which believes in strong defence, including the nuclear deterrent. And, of course, this is also current and former Conservative government policy. But Harper’s own interest goes beyond this, calling and hosting his own public debate on Trident Renewal in Highnam in 2007 in which he invited specialists from RUSI (the Royal United Services Institute) to speak in support of nuclear weapons, NATO and the British deterrent. Over 200 of his constituents at his public meeting overwhelmingly voted against Harper’s support, but when the vote came in Parliament, Mr. Harper still voted for Trident.

[d] ‘Doomsday: Britain after Nuclear Attack’ by Openshaw, Steadman & Greene (Basil Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1983)

[e] cited in ‘Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers: the passive defence of the Western World during the Cold War’ by N. McCamley (Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2002 (2009 edition)).

[f] ‘Gwent and Emergency Planning’ (Gwent County Council, 1983)

[g] ibid.

[h] ibid.

[i] ibid.

A personal expression of the value of truth vs the machismo of the military

Wikileaks has changed the world. But it has done so in a terribly depressing way.

Its revelations have uncovered a world in which the truth rides second to the bitter aftertaste it has left in the mouths of our leaders.

In a Panorama special in February 2010 much attention was given to the Assange sex scandal (or CIA honey-trap if you are a conspiracy theorist), his authoritarian management style over the organisation he founded and, most ridiculously,  the fact that Bradley Manning listened to Lady Gaga as he downloaded the Iraq War Files before, allegedly, passing them on to Wikileaks. The truth as shown in the actual content itself – the murder of innocents – was hardly explored at all.

Indeed, Hilary Clinton and President Obama have themselves spent more time lambasting whistle-blowers as traitors than they have addressing the content of the leaks itself, let alone its moral implications.

The fact that the US Government has a dedicated anti-Wikileaks office operating from the Pentagon suggests there are even more uncomfortable truths yet to be learned.

For his part, the young US Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning – in his early 20’s – faces 52 years of prison for leaking the Iraq war files and collateral damage video.

But this is nothing new – the US government has always struggled with the truth. Take Vietnam, for example.

Originally reported in Stars & Stripes with General Westmoreland’s proud declaration that “U.S. infantrymen had killed 128 Communists in a bloody day-long battle,” it was Seymour Hersh who eventually broke the story of what really happened, some 18 months later. In November 1969’s expose the event become known as the My Lai massacre – the systematic rape and murder of hundreds of un-armed Vietnamese civilians, including many women, children and babies by US troops in March 1968.

But that is reporting, we say, not whistle-blowing. And here the story, rightly, earns Hersh a Pulitzer Prize. Yet Bradley Manning gets 52 years. I contest that the truth is the important factor here, unpalatable as it may be.

You might say, however, that that’s like comparing apples and oranges. True; the scale is different, but I ask this: when it comes to purposely killing civilians, what’s the watershed? What number is deemed acceptable?

For sure, My Lai has become the most infamous single incident of the entire Vietnam War…

Captain Medina called Charlie Company together one evening in March 1968 and told them that the next day they would be taking a village that was a Viet Cong stronghold. He ordered them to kill everybody in the village, My Lai.

Varnado Simpson was a rifleman in C Company. He was 19…he shot a woman. Years later, he remembered…

“I went to turn her over and there was a little baby with her that I had also killed. The baby’s face was half gone. My mind just went. The training came to me and I just started killing. Old men, women, children, water buffaloes, everything. We were told to leave nothing standing. We did what we were told, regardless of whether they were civilians. They was the enemy. Period. Kill. If you don’t follow a direct order you can be shot yourself. Now what am I supposed to do? I cut throats, cut off their hands, cut out their tongue, their hair, scalped them. I did it. A lot of people were doing it and I just followed.”

Simpson personally killed 25 people. Lt. Calley, the officer in charge on the day, shot over 100. Rape and killing went together…

“Do you realize what it was like killing 500 people in a matter of hours? It’s just like the gas chambers…” [1]

And if you think this a one-off, the falling of a few bad apples, then you’d be wrong. In fact, the unpalatable truth of My Lai perhaps offers us a reason why the longest-running US army war-crimes investigation into atrocities committed in Vietnam drew little attention and resulted in no arrests.

In this case – the investigations into the 327th Infantry ‘Tiger Force’ unit under Operation Wheeler – the atrocities took place over a period of many months, not a single day, as in My Lai. The numbers of innocent victims rose into the many hundreds and, what’s more, it seems that the killing was endorsed from the top-down.

But after My Lai, though, there just wasn’t the stomach for any more truth.

Contributing to this however would have been the wider cultural shift which turned American opinion against the war. The photography of Don McCullin, Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows, Nick Ut and North Wales’ Philip Jones Griffiths played out in Life and Time magazine or in The Observer and The Sunday Times. In 1974 Peter Davis’ Academy award-winning ground-breaking documentary ‘Hearts and Minds’ gave everyone an insight into the history of the war, its stumbling gung-ho passing from one administration to another as well as the tragic consequences for the ordinary people of Vietnam and, no less, the disenfranchised youth of America sent there. The truth was out and few could deny the war was wrong. There was no appetite for the Tiger Force story and the investigation amounted to nought.

Building on their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism, Sallah & Weiss argued in their 2006 book ‘Tiger Force: the shocking true story of American solder out of control in Vietnam’, something had gone wrong with US troop morality.

My Lai wasn’t a unique event. It wasn’t a case of a few ‘bad apples’. Their book uncovered the fruitless investigation into Tiger Force which detailed some seven months of atrocities.

They argue “The Army wanted Tiger Force to terrorize the Vietnamese.” [2], to fight without morals; to bring terror not just the NVA/Vietcong but to the people of Vietnam itself, in case they oppose the US intervention. And the order came from the top-down. Not explicitly, but implicitly enough.

Of course, the tactic was doomed. A fundamental of guerrilla warfare is winning the support of the local people. But when you’re forcibly relocating if not, as in this case, murdering those people then the enemy has already won: the oppressor who terrorises will never win the hearts and minds of the people it terrorises.

With the possible exception of Private Sam Ybarra who drank himself to death after the war had ended, probably haunted at how inhuman he had become, all those listed have having played a part in the carnage described in the Tiger Force book, have never paid for their crimes.

For the sake of garnering the widest possible readership of this case, I offer here a full list of atrocities detailed in the Tiger Force book as well as references to implicit authority given to the killings [3]…

Pg.43: armed man + unarmed woman and her baby killed whilst hiding in hut.

Pg. 63/64: unarmed NVA soldier, beaten unconscious then throat slit.

Pg. 65: soldier with explosives (poss. Chinese) captured and beaten over two days, then told to run while being shot in the back.

Pg. 77: two unarmed villagers approaching US troops waving leaflets ordering them out of the area are shot on their approach. No weapons or ammunition found.

Pg. 96: unarmed elderly man, clubbed with back of rifle to head despite clasping his hands as if praying for mercy or help. Following the elderly man’s moans while on the ground, he is shot in the head by Platoon Leader, James Hawkins.

Pg. 99: two unarmed elderly women openly approaching US position, shot at by Hawkins – one injured; objections by Lt. Donald Wood (d.1983) prevent further atrocity.

Pg. 100/101: Man in his 20’s shot in leg causing serious wound while approaching group of US soldiers during overnight stop – no notes as to whether he is armed or not, the nature of the encounter implies not. US Medic Bowman seeks to treat the victim and request medevac, but Sergeant H. Trout overrules and executes the injured man with three shots to the head and chest.

Pg. 108/109: two blind men aided by a sighted boy of about 12 years of age and who walked openly to US troops and were unarmed, ambushed by the troops with both men shot instantly. A debate ensued as to the fate of the boy but was interrupted by US air relief. The text implies that some favoured also executing the boy.

Pg. 110: Protesting the ransacking of his village, an old man dressed in the robes of a Buddhist worshipper raises vocal objections to the Tiger Force squad. The man is shot in the head and chest at point-blank range. With village witnesses having seen the killing, along with South Vietnamese translators, the US troops plant a grenade on the man to make him look like VC, even though he is clearly a holy man, probably the village elder.

Pg. 111: Two unarmed peasants are captured – one in some distress from an earlier shrapnel wound to the leg – confesses to a translator that he is VC, but the other is not and is just his 13-year old brother. Radio contact to HQ asking what is to be done with the prisoners to which the response is “What do you do with a horse with a broken leg?” Despite one soldier’s attempt to guard the prisoners to ensure they are not harmed, they are later summarily executed in the field where the squad has taken camp.

Pg.111: Private Sam Ybarra brags about torturing then cutting the throat of another prisoner caught on the same day as the 2 mentioned earlier on the same page.

Pg.111: Another solider had boasted over his ability to knock-out a prisoner with a single punch, but when the hit fails to cause unconsciousness in the prisoner, Sergeant Robin Varney kills him by pushing his head onto another soldier’s rifle bayonet.

Pg. 123: A group of mostly elderly villagers working in a rice paddy are observed and then ambushed, despite being unarmed and about half being women. Some of the US troops refused Lt. James Hawkins’ order to fire as it was clearly killing in cold blood. The actual number murdered is not recorded, but all were unarmed. A number appeared to be from the same family, and some were left dying in the mud.

Pg. 144: Unarmed man found hiding from US troops behind a tree, is captured and summarily executed on the explicit command of Sergeant H. Trout.

Pg. 150/151: 4 grenades dropped into improvised civilian shelter killing all villagers sheltered there including their children. No weapons were found.

Pg. 155/156: Vietnamese male shot trying to flee a search although no weapons are found. This is followed by the execution of an elderly man who is shot by .45 handgun into the mouth after being captured from his hiding place. Sergeant H. Trout ordered the killing which was to be executed by 19-year old rookie Private J. Cogan but as he failed to follow-through, another trooper had to finish the job.

Pg. 162: Two un-armed Vietnamese men captured while US troops camped in the field. The two are wrapped in detonating chord and watch as another chord is attached to a tree and detonated. The detainees are then beaten with fists, kicks and even shovels. A South Vietnamese interpreter questions the detainees about a NVA camp, but the prisoners  insist they know nothing. The beatings continue. One falls unconscious and is dying at their feet while the other is un-tied and told he may run away. This man is then shot dead in the back as he runs.

Pg. 167: A willing informant wants his family to be secured in a US relocation camp before he will talk, but the deal is refused. In front of his wife and children, the informant is then struck in the head by Sergeant William Doyle’s rifle butt. Despite the pleas of the man’s wife, Sergeant Doyle then shoots the informant in the arm. Another shot fails as Sergeant Doyle’s gun jams. Doyle orders other troops to shoot the man and three Tigers oblige with numerous rounds of fire. The dead man’s teenage brother is then thrown to the ground alongside his murdered kin, one of the Tiger’s holding a .45 to his head. Sergeant Gerald Bruner, however, intervenes by aiming his M16 in the face of the offending Tiger and threatens to fire if he shoots the teenager. The stand-off ends with no further shootings.

Pg. 197: Enemy engagement. As the fire fight comes to an end Private Sam Ybarra and others take out their knives to cut ears from their dead enemy counterparts for trophies.

Pg. 199: 7 Vietnamese villagers remain in their hamlet after leaflets dropped would have ordered their forced relocation from the area. Confirmation from a Team Leader over the radio implies the un-armed villagers are to be killed. All 7 non-combatants murdered.

Pg. 202: A woman holding her baby assails US troops while they burn her home. Her screaming pleas are ignored by anger Sergeant H. Trout who orders a Medic to give her a sedative. An elderly woman takes the baby from the woman’s arms and two US troops force Darvon pills into her mouth. But the woman remains conscious and stumbles about to the annoyance of Sergeant H. Trout who drags her into a hut for several minutes (implying rape) and then emerges with the order to “Grease her,”. The order is reluctantly carried out by Sergeant James Barnett who in his actions has not only murdered an innocent civilian but created an orphan too.

Pg. 208: Reaching a village, Captain Harold McGaha orders a M60 and M16 surprise assault on a hut. Villagers come running out only to get mowed down in a hail of bullets,. Sixteen are counted dead, including women and children, but no weapons are found.

Pg. 209: The command over the radio comes “You’re the 327th Infantry, we want 327 kills.” This was Operation Wheeler.

Pg. 212: verbatim – “The magic number of 327 kills was reached on November 19 when a Tiger shot a villager running from a hut, according to the records. No weapon was found.”

Pg. 213: Enemy engagement in village. Fire returned. On clearing the village, from one hut can be heard the cries of a child. Verbatim – “In the corner was the lifeless body of a young mother shredded with bullets. Next to her was an infant, still alive and crying. Shortly after Private Sam Ybarra ran into the hut, the crying stopped.

Although Tiger Force continues as a US Army unit today, operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am not suggesting for one moment that the volume of killing depicted above occurred or is occurring in either theatre today. But as I argued earlier volume is irrelevant to morality when it comes to the execution of civilians.

When thinking of the Collateral Murder video, Abu Ghraib or, closer to home, Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, these events give us no reason to believe that, when their forebears operated with virtual impunity, today’s generation of hotheads should be any different from their Vietnam-era equivalent.

This brings me to consider the kind of mindset it takes to commit such atrocity, whichever theatre we’re discussing and whatever the numbers.

Of course, war is a bloody business. But my own short time in the Parachute Regiment alerted me to a certain mentality among my fellow trainee soldiers. In fact, it was this realisation which gave me my first inklings that, contrary to my naivety thus far; perhaps military life was not for me. I noticed, however, that this personality type was actively encouraged in training.

Three things struck me. 1. That our superiors aimed to instill in us an almost maniacal elevation of machismo – of the self, the regiment and the nation; 2. We were to abide by an un-questioning subservience to rank on absolutely all issues, irrespective of logic, strategic gain and, indeed, morality; 3. There was a total absence of moral guidance or preparedness for the reality of war, – including its consequences not only to ourselves, our family and fellow soldiers, but also to our enemy, their families and the ordinary people caught in between.

OK, for sure the context and depth at which this occurred, I’m certain, is almost incomparable when considering Vietnam and today, but I am equally certain these themes repeat throughout the training in all modern warfare.

Put frankly, basic training included no sphere of tuition in dealing with civilians, despite this having been the remit of all modern warfare for the UK in my time – from Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan*; the goal was to win ‘hearts and minds’ even if basis training taught otherwise.  The reality is that military service requires one to de-humanise an enemy.

But in wars where enemy combatants are difficult to distinguish from their civilian counterparts or where one is considered an invading force, then the distinction between combatant and civilian becomes blurred. Morality fades. Indeed, this point is corroborated by the Tiger Force book where troops are taught that both VC soldiers and civilians were to be considered ‘gooks’; one and the same and with it sub-human.

This outlook will always be a problem where the defence of the nation depends on what stand-up comedian Bill Hicks called ‘hired killers’. Those words may shock, but a war without moral authority can easily become a war without moral conduct and, in essence, what is a paid solider of a nation state?

Putting aside Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima for one moment, WW2 was overwhelmingly a call to arms against an invading fascist Nazi Party and its allies. Vietnam and Afghanistan, however, were and are different kinds of war. They are wars in attrition of influence: political ideology or theological ideology vs the dominant economic ideology. These conflicts lack that same moral fibre which made WW2 easily to package in history as a ‘righteous war’. The Holocaust alone argues that case.

It is my opinion that we can only change the way we see and use the military when it becomes, firstly, disconnected from the machismo of the nation state. That is, an army for true defence under the world flag of the United Nations. An army of true defence used to maintain security against real ‘rogue states’ whoever they may be**; but also to keep international order and to assist with international emergencies such as Sudan or the Boxing Day Tsunami etc. And, of course, I don’t mean the UN as we know it today – an impotent force – but a revitalised, re-institutionalised and reinvigorated organisation operating for the good of the majority world, by the world and throughout the world.

It is that idea which leads me to surmise a second suggestion and this is an attempt to humanise the military by removing the machismo of violence by promoting instead the quality of saving lives , thus giving us the means to act in confidence with an innate moral authority. Take the Fire Brigade, for example. Here are some of the most daily heroic individuals in society. They rarely receive the accolade of the military we currently see in the British media. And yet they also have a macho image (not completely, of course – but on the whole) – not for taking lives, but for saving them with both physical and moral strength. And that machismo is de-sexualised. It is normal to have women serve in the Fire service at the frontline, saving lives. And I contest that that is the model that should shape a new world army under the United Nations. Fantasy, I’m sure – but tragic problems require radical solutions, else the problems perpetuate as we have endured through millennia.

We live in a time when the media parades all servicemen as heroes. I don’t share that enthusiasm – heroic conduct is not something to be attributed en masse, it needs to be individually earned else the word becomes meaningless.

And what of the likes of Bradley Manning? I wouldn’t call him a hero either. Naïve, idealistic and well-intentioned, yes – but not a hero. Though I support his case as a whistle-blower and actively have written to the authorities on it.

What about those US soldiers who found it in themselves to write to congress and Nixon on My Lai only later to be publicised Seymour Hersh; or Peter Davis for his remarkable film which really teaches us about wars for ‘Hearts and Minds’ – are they heroes? And finally what about the un-recognised war crimes investigator who worked tirelessly on the Tiger Force atrocities, Warrant Officer Gustav Aspey and those whom he interviewed and came forth with their terrible secrets, only to have the investigation frankly shelved? Haven’t they demonstrated great moral courage for revealing the truth as it is?

The truth in itself is the truth itself. The media and, most importantly, our leaders should be held to account for it.


* with the notable exception of the Falklands War, which was a war out of time.
** and I’m not sure there are any today – I mean ones who pose an actual threat of invasion. I’ve put aside Al Qaeda here in fear of starting a whole separate article.


[1] ‘The American War: Vietnam 1960-1975’ by J. Neale (Bookmarks, 2001)

[2] ‘Tiger Force: the shocking true story of American soldiers out of control in Vietnam’ by M. Sallah & M. Weiss (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)

[3] ibid.

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solider had boasted about be able to knock-out a prisoner out with a single punch