independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Kevin Myers: However we view war, let's wish our lads a safe return

The largest deployment of Irish soldiers to a foreign war since 1945 took place over the last few weeks. Two Irish battalions of the British army -- the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards -- are now serving in a single battle-group in Helmand Province.

And though neither regiment is totally Irish, they both contain enough Irish soldiers to merit our real concern -- and that's before we consider the Irish Army Ordnance Officers, who are a vital part of NATO's Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.

We have therefore every parochial reason to be interested in the Afghan war, never mind its greater global consequences.

The mathematics of infantry battalion fighting in Afghanistan can be sobering. In any British army battalion of about 650 men serving in the war, some five men can be expected to be killed, and 100 wounded -- 20 of them with life-changing injuries: one limb or an eye lost, and maybe multiples thereof.

The primary threat is the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). One Belfast lad who served with the Royal Irish on their last tour to Afghanistan lost two legs and most of his sight to an IED, and an officer of a non-Irish regiment recently lost both legs and a testicle.

All this actuarially means that we could get several of our boys killed, and three times as many with life-changing injuries from this Afghan deployment.

So this is a terrible war, and nothing that follows is intended to cause any young man to join an infantry regiment and put himself in harm's way.

My friend and colleague Christopher Hitchens once wrote an article that helped convince a young man named Mark Jennings Daily to enlist in the US army: and Lt Daily was later killed in action in Iraq.

I don't want anything like that on my conscience, and I'm definitely not urging anyone to enlist in any army. All I'm saying is that the war is real and it is now Ireland's turn (albeit largely in the service of the British crown) to see our young men join the firing line, just as it has been Denmark's and Canada's and France's and Germany's.

And lest any of you start the normal Hibernian whinge about "neutrality", this is a UN-authorised war that has the constant technical support of our own Army.

Patrick Bury -- formerly a captain in the Royal Irish Regiment and now an ex-soldier back in Wicklow -- served in Afghanistan. His utterly riveting account of his time in Sangin, 'Callsign Hades', has recently been published by Simon & Schuster.

It's easily the best account of the Afghan war that I've read: of the shocking heat of the Afghan day, as soldiers are borne down by thirst and the huge weights that they must carry into action.

Then there is the action, of heavily burdened soldiers fighting fleet-footed insurgents, and all of them focusing on the abominable threat of the IED.

Some of the finest volumes of the Great War -- 'The Burgoyne Diaries', Lucey's 'There's a Devil in the Drum', Hitchcock's 'Stand To', Feildings's 'War Letters to a Wife' and Patrick McGill's fictional 'Red Tide' were about Irish troops serving in the British army.

Patrick Bury's 'Callsign Hades' joins that elite band of great war books. It is a quite enthralling account of Irish soldiers at war, by a gallant Irish officer and a superb writer.

Patrick was lucky -- he's alive -- and unlucky: he didn't get decorated. Combat awards tend to reflect the culture of a regiment. Had a Para officer gone to the aid of a mortally wounded soldier, as Patrick went to a dying Para warrant officer, and carried him to safety under fire, he would have got a medal.

That's a simple fact. But Patrick got nothing. However, he's A) alive, and B) the author of the best book by an Irish soldier about Irish soldiers fighting in a real war (as opposed to peace-keeping) in many decades.

The Irish battle group now deployed in Afghanistan is not in Sangin District, where Patrick served. This has since been taken over by the US Marine Corps (USMC), and the withdrawal from there of the British army was, in effect, a tactical defeat.

This follows a similar outcome in Basra, in Iraq, where the British army was also replaced by the USMC.

Thus two different Muslim fundamentalist militias, one Shia, the other Sunni, have now seen off the British army from two battlefields. Their substitution in both theatres by the USMC clearly establishes the position of each in the military hierarchy.

But despite this hand-over, the Irish Guards/Royal Irish are still in harm's way, as they mentor Afghan forces in what has become an apparently endless counter-insurgency war.

No doubt the Romans felt much the same about their decades of conflict in the German provinces: the name "Cologne", after all, comes from the Latin for "colony".

But that is the world in which we now live, where victory for the insurgents in Afghanistan could destabilise places as far apart as Islamabad and Luton.

I do not glorify any of this. I merely acknowledge that it is so: and pray -- as you should do -- that all our lads come safely home.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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