Monday 23 September 2019

Declan Power: 'Value our infantry - once lost we may never get them back'

'What makes the infantry stand out compared with more hi-tech specialists is that it specialises in teamwork in adversity. Troops are taught at an early stage in their career to embrace hardship and develop physical robustness and mental resilience' (stock photo)
'What makes the infantry stand out compared with more hi-tech specialists is that it specialises in teamwork in adversity. Troops are taught at an early stage in their career to embrace hardship and develop physical robustness and mental resilience' (stock photo)

Declan Power

Today the Irish Defence Forces family will once again parade, this time in Cork, to protest and highlight the continuing decline of conditions within our armed forces.

In support of my former comrades, I will attempt to explain to those not directly involved with defence issues why this matters.

Recently I encountered a foreign official with many years of experience in the Middle East and elsewhere. He spoke incisively about the role of the Irish Defence Forces on a variety of UN missions, especially the more recent one on the Golan Heights.

This individual was heavy in his praise about how their professionalism, capability and experience were well recognised in the upper echelons of international political circles as a game-changer in many conflict management spheres.

To show he wasn't just spoofing me with nice sentiments, this individual made references to certain specific skill sets and tradecraft of the Irish professional soldier, demonstrating real awareness of the work done by our troops on various missions.

It is ironic it took a foreigner to demonstrate this. Our own politicians, and indeed population, have rarely ever expressed such an awareness.

Most of us have encountered nurses and gardaí in our daily lives, but many of you reading this will ask the perennial question: what does the Army do?

Many times you may have heard references to the work of the Naval Service or Air Corps or, indeed, the specialist work of the bomb disposal personnel or the Army Ranger Wing.

However, the very essence of any military force is embodied by a body of troops called the infantry. They are the combat arm of the army, the ones who must get close with the enemy and destroy them if required, or hold ground against heavy odds as the troops who fought at Jadotville did. This is also the body of troops most likely to be called out in support of civil powers during emergencies at home.

From rescuing Filipino peacekeepers under fire on the Golan Heights to clearing snow off roads in Ireland, that is the infantry. All arms, all adaptable, all weather.

What makes the infantry stand out compared with more hi-tech specialists is that it specialises in teamwork in adversity. Troops are taught at an early stage in their career to embrace hardship and develop physical robustness and mental resilience. These are not the skills acquired in institutes of technology or universities, they are learned in the winds of the Wicklow mountains, the rivers of the Glen of Imaal and the sands of South Lebanon.

Coupled with these old-school disciplines are the skills of physical command and leadership in the field from corporal to colonel. This type of stuff takes years upon years to develop to a high functioning level in any individual.

But to develop this year in, year out in a unit of 500 or 600 soldiers of all ranks to the point of it continuing to work in situations of life-threatening stress can take generations. The infantry is the team of teams of our Defence Forces. Imagine stripping away the club sides of the GAA or regional and town teams of the IRFU and then wondering why the county and national teams fail to perform.

This is why the retired veterans of the Defence Forces and their families and friends are marching today. To warn the country, the people, the politicians, that when you hollow out a force like the infantry, it cannot be rebuilt over a few years with regular recruiting.

The culture of leadership in adversity and the embracing of hardship are not easy skills to inculcate into an organisation. Once lost, they are hard to regain.

If others from beyond our shores, as I mentioned at the start, can see the value in our forces, then maybe it is time our politicians and people should place the same value on them.

Declan Power is a former career soldier and author of 'Siege at Jadotville'

Irish Independent

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