In the Air Cadets
In early 2003, as the Iraq war loomed, I was 14 and a member of the Royal Air Force Air Cadets. I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Two nights a week, I would take the bus from the Southside of Edinburgh to a Territorial Army barracks where the cadets had a few rooms in the basement. Down the stone steps were a locker room, office, classroom, store cupboard and a drill hall we shared with the army. The rules and regulations were pinned on felt noticeboards on the walls, along with sign-up sheets for weekend exercises and pictures of the squadron out in the woods or standing next to aeroplanes.
The squadron leader was a police officer from the Borders. He drove up each evening; his wife also commanded a squadron of cadets near their home. Our warrant officer was a nurse who scared me with stories of the ways people could get sick from the slightest things, though I think he meant well. I was sheltered, immature, bullied at school. The other cadets all seemed more more at ease than I was in that world of physicality and ribaldry.
We wore uniforms: a sky blue shirt with grey trousers, dark blue belt, blue beret (tamped down on one side of the head just so), a piece of dark blue cloth on the right arm with rank badges sewn on, and heavy black boots. Each evening began with a parade and inspection; we could be punished if our uniforms didn’t meet regulations. We were taught the history and evolution of the RAF and the roles of its constituent parts; protocol; radio skills and the phonetic alphabet (which came in useful a few years later when I worked in a call centre); drill and so on. On weekends and during the holidays we went on exercise, learning to shoot and fly, first gliders and then powered planes. Once, in an old prisoner of war camp – we slept in Nissen huts – we were all woken up in the middle of the night and marched outside. Some cadets had been discovered smoking cannabis. We were lined up on the parade ground as the officers came round, shining torches in our eyes to see if our pupils were dilated.
All of which meant that in the run-up to war in Iraq, my opinions and outlook were profoundly out of step with most of my contemporaries’. I believed that even if Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, he was a bad man and ‘we’ were right to remove him and bring democracy to the Iraqi people. In my English class we read John Pilger’s essays on the terrible effects of the UN sanctions on Iraq. I was moved, but not swayed. In drama, we debated the war. A weed-smoking anarchist screamed at me through tears that I was ‘so insensitive’; the teacher had to remove her from the class. As the anti-war march approached, the school let it be known that while it could not be seen to be endorsing truancy, no one would be punished for absence on the day of the protest. I was one of two pupils who turned up to class. Our cadet officers warned us not to wear our uniforms on the way to and from the barracks, given the perceived strength of anti-military feeling.
My military ambitions came to an end the following year, in a recruiting office on Shandwick Place. I had gone to ask for information about signing up for a pilot aptitude test, only to be told that my recent diagnosis with asthma meant I would never fly for my country. Outside, on the pavement by Safeway, I felt my world was spinning and crumbling, and I called my mother on the verge of tears.
I’ve changed a lot since then. I now work not for the RAF but Amnesty International. I studied Arabic in a refugee camp in Bethlehem. But whenever I see news of an explosion in Baghdad – more than 250 people were killed in a suicide bombing on 3 July – I shrink from the person I was 13 years ago, a member of Tony Blair’s ‘silent majority’, dolled up in my uniform and supporting violence in a place I knew nothing about.
Read more in the London Review of Books