Monday 23 April 2018

Review: In the shadow of men by Valerie O'Brien

Most of us know very little about life in the Irish Army, apart from seeing the "mighty" Rangers in their camouflage gear on TV or pictures of the Minister shaking hands with our troops on UN duty somewhere hot. That and stories about deafness and rotten living quarters. But what is it really like being in the Irish Army?

This book is an honest attempt to give the inside story. And it's written by a woman. Not just any woman, but one of the first female combat soldiers in the Irish infantry. And boy does she tell the whole story -- including the macho environment, the intimidation, the sexual harassment, the porn and the prostitutes.

Valerie O'Brien was brought up in an army family -- her grandfather and father were both in the ranks. So it wasn't that surprising that, after almost going to college to do science, she switched track and joined up in the late '90s, full of excitement and anticipation. Given her background, she had some idea of the man's world she was entering and knew she would have to work hard to survive.

What she found, however, was much more challenging than anything she imagined. No allowances were made for her being a woman during the very tough training -- nor did she want any -- but she came through it with flying colours. Along the way, she married a fellow soldier and had two children. She was committed to her career and highly professional in her approach.

But right from the beginning she had to endure a lot of sexism that at times edged into physical and mental abuse. She was never going to be one of the lads and she often felt very isolated. Even so, she persevered and was promoted to corporal.

However, it was on her UN tours of duty in the Lebanon and Eritrea in Northeast Africa that she really began to question whether she wanted to be a part of army life, given the behaviour she was seeing around her. The antagonism, intimidation and sexual harassment got worse and she seemed to become a hate figure for many -- but not all -- of her colleagues.

Eritrea was the worst, mainly because of what our boys were getting up to. There were over 200 Irish troops in a camp near the city of Asmara and just down the road there was a hotel/bar called the Ber Hiba with upstairs bedrooms that functioned as a brothel. The main clients of the Ber Hiba were the Irish troops who took over the place at weekends, and it is O'Brien's frank description of the sordid, exploitative doings there that will make her book highly controversial.

"The first time I entered the little hotel, a few miles outside the city, seemed to startle some of those present," she writes. "It was full of privates, corporals and sergeants. When the tables of troops saw me, suddenly all drinks were put down and an awkward frosty moment ensued. I think they were afraid that, as a corporal and a woman, I would complain about them."

Eritrea, in the aftermath of the war with Ethiopia, was dirt poor and many of its people were struggling to survive. "The 220 troops who made up our mission were seen as a ready source of income for the many local Eritrean women desperate to improve their circumstances," O'Brien writes.

"The bar (at the Ber Hiba) was filled with the most beautiful exotic Eritrean women, tall and slender with caramel skin and deep velvety chocolate-brown eyes. Their slim silhouettes floated from table to table, entertaining the patrons. There was never a mention of prostitution or exchange of money. This type of prostitution relied on discretion. The women only ever asked the male patrons to buy them a drink. Then they went upstairs where there were a number of rooms on two separate floors."

O'Brien tried to develop a "couldn't care less" attitude. But as she got to know some of the women involved during her six-month stay, she came to despise it. Some of the Irish soldiers were violent towards the women, while others had sex and didn't pay for it.

"They (the Irish soldiers) had beautiful women all vying for their love and attention," O'Brien writes. "They were like kings in their own palace, the Ber Hiba . . . towards the end, the men often just paid the girls in food. A chicken or a pizza was deemed sufficient payment for their services . . . I watched another night, my insides churning, as a man bounced a very young girl on his knee in the brothel."

As time went on, her relationship with her colleagues got even worse, she was missing her toddler son back in Ireland and she developed an eating disorder. "I thought of my own son at home when I saw starving children outside the brothel begging for food," she writes. "They ran up and down the long concrete path with no shoes or undergarments. I wondered if their mothers were inside trying to get money to feed them."

What bothered her also was that so many of the Irish troops were involved, some of them married and with families at home. They were ignoring the HIV lessons they had been given. Some of them were not only using the women as prostitutes but making their own pornography. Many were making promises to the desperate women they knew they would never keep.

That time marked the beginning of the end of her army career. She was ill, her marriage had broken up, and, in 2007, she eventually left the Army and became a beautician, a career she had once dreamed of when she left school.

Writing this book is obviously part of her coming to terms with the years she spent in the Army. There is much that reflects well on the Army, in terms of training, professionalism and dedication. But the unsavoury off-duty African details are alarming.

In reaction to the book, the Army has pointed out that the kind of behaviour O'Brien says she witnessed in Eritrea in 2002 cannot happen any more because there are new rules in place; in Chad, for example, where the Army is now, there is strictly no drinking and no off-duty walkabouts from the camp.

Plus the Army now has proper structures to prevent the kind of sexism O'Brien experienced and prides itself on being an equal-opportunities organisation.

Valerie O'Brien's account of the Army five to 10 years ago has a ring of truth about it that makes it convincing. She writes simply and directly and the impression one gets is that this is a considered and fair book that tells the truth as it was then. It makes uncomfortable but compelling reading.

Irish Independent

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