Hard Men

Neal Ascherson

  • Contact by A.F.N. Clarke
    Secker, 160 pp, £6.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 436 09998 5

‘This book is written in anger,’ the author begins. ‘Anger at previous attempts to portray the British soldier. Anger at the violence and the hatred that became part of a way of life. Anger at the misrepresentation of the facts ...’

And here, at the very outset, as it seems to me, the writer starts to lose his way among his own emotions. Northern Ireland offers an infinity of occasions for anger, as Clarke knows better than most of us: he was a subaltern in the Parachute Regiment on two particularly foul spells of duty, in Belfast (Shankill Road, Crumlin Road, the Ardoyne) during 1973, and at Crossmaglen in South Armagh in 1976. These are the subject of his book. But anger is not really its dominant emotion, which is rather a seething mixture of remorse, divided moral loyalties and sheer confusion. Clarke loved or grew to love his ‘toms’, the very young men of 3 Para whom he commanded and some of whom never returned from Ulster. But under the fearful stress of their task, they and he developed an ethic of considerable – not total – savagery and callousness which no ‘civilised’ society can accept. As he says, the Parachute Regiment in Northern Ireland was ‘both famous and infamous, praised and hated’. They did brave things, but also cruel things which this ‘civilised’ society still with a fair measure of success pretends did not happen and do not happen. It is that pretence, that stifling and complacent agreement not to bring out into the open and confront the moral price of the British presence in Northern Ireland, which renders ex-Lieutenant Clarke so desperate. Nobody wants to hear this sort of confession, which means that nobody will grant him and his men absolution.

There are no grand atrocities in this book. Clarke was not present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry, for example, and beyond quoting some of the regiment’s own lurid myths can shed no light on what the Paras did or didn’t do that day. He is writing about ‘routine stuff’, about how the Paras behaved and talked on night patrols in the Ardoyne, on raids against Loyalist drinking-clubs, in rain-drenched hiding-places among the South Armagh hills, among hostile crowds when the flames were rising and the enemy snipers were beginning to find their targets. It is the brutality and ugliness of that routine, still being followed now as you read, that makes this book important. This is what nobody wants to know.

When an IRA gunman is wounded and captured, they let him bleed to death. When they pull in suspects, they beat them up, quickly and almost casually: the rougher things are done at a higher level by the people who come and take the suspects away for proper interrogation. When they are off duty, the ‘toms’ improve the hour by sticking pins and razor blades into ‘baton rounds’ and filing bullets down into expanding ‘dum-dums’ (something British soldiers have done ever since the invention of the rifle). When they are fired on from the territory of the Republic, on the South Armagh border, they fire back with vigour. A plastic bullet is aimed at the groin, if the aimer has time, and a woman caught in a street round-up on a dangerous night will not be handled or addressed with the decorum attributed to English gentlemen. And so on, and so forth. Clarke reconstructs his own thoughts: ‘I was really quite a nice guy before I came out here ... Build an outer casing round your emotions, enjoy the sense of power, revel in the excitement of the chase.’

This is what the military used to call ‘action in support of the civil power’. Men trained to fight and kill, in the full-blooded way that they fought and killed at Goose Green last year, are restrained by a pack of ‘yellow cards’ and ‘white cards’ prescribing how and when they may open fire or carry out arrests. Political considerations, not the simple question of how best to find and destroy the enemy, govern their deployment and their actions. They are supposed to co-operate with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a force which 3 Para, at least, seems to have despised and mistrusted. The enemy moves almost freely about the ghettos, enjoying the initiative which these restrictions – in the view of the average ‘tom’ – confer on him. He is seldom encountered. Weeks of tension pass between the crazy, deafening seconds of catharsis which are a ‘contact’. This is the hardest kind of soldiering, in which frustration, hatred and fear build up intolerably. ‘The whole camp is praying for a contact. For an opportunity to shoot at anything on the street, pump lead into any living thing and watch the blood flow ... A few kills would be nice at this stage, good for morale ...’

There is a cycle in morale, when soldiers find themselves in situations like this. Brutality becomes more common at a late phase in the cycle, a sign of fraying nerves and – especially – of fear. If troops are not replaced and rotated in time, the final stage is a sort of paralysis: men become obsessed with their collective safety, as a group unwilling to run risks, and much more prone to ‘shoot first and ask questions afterwards’. Clarke’s book suggests, however, that the Paras suffered not only from this sort of process but from jealousy about their reputation as the hardest of ‘hard men’.

In a general way, the supremacy of the heroes in red berets was in decline across the world during the Seventies. Their original purpose of airborne landings long obsolete, parachutists had become in many countries the Praetorian Guard against internal unrest or colonial defiance. But as time passed, marine commando units became a more suitable and flexible strike force for international crises, while the growth of terrorism led in turn to the rise of a very different sort of repressive élite – the SAS, or the Latin American death squads – to deal with domestic subversion. The Paras, once so spectacular and so feared, faced the awful prospect of being counted as just one more line infantry regiment. There are traces of this sort of anxiety in Contact, when Clarke discharges his feelings about the SAS: ‘If that’s the élite, then what the fuck must the rest of us be like? Cowboys, the lot of them; there are some guys I’ve recognised who have failed our selection tests, so how did they get into the SAS? I wouldn’t give them the time of day ... they are a joke.’ Or the Marines: ‘Professionally inept and social dwarves’.

These are, of course, reconstructed feelings: Clarke does not indicate that he kept a diary in Northern Ireland. It may be that the passage was retrieved from memory after the Special Air Service captured television at the Iranian Embassy and made themselves Mrs Thatcher’s own Household Cavalry. This sort of rivalry between corps and regiments, to say nothing of services, is less trivial than it may seem. History is occasionally decided by it. One would like to know how the balance of self-esteem stands between SAS, Marine commandos and Paras after the Falklands war.

Clarke describes in detail the nastiness and toil of the soldier’s lot in Northern Ireland. He may be lying up in some hidden observation post, excreting into plastic bags, eating cold food out of tins, with the only sound the whir of the video focused on some doorway across the street. He may be trudging at night through the blackthorn hedges of South Armagh, where the spikes tear denims and flesh and where the bushes are often threaded with trip-wires leading to booby-traps. He may deliberately place himself near a bomb, affecting not to know it is there so that the IRA will be tempted back to their own firing-point – and into the sights of British snipers. He may be crammed for days at a time into some fortlet of corrugated iron and sandbags, staring into the darkness through night-vision equipment or sleeping on a cement floor littered with his own comrades. He is overstretched: this book is full of the yearning for sleep, of sketches of a company commander who is so tired that he closes his eyes and falls out of his Land Rover several times a week.

This is Ulster seen through a blockhouse slit. Contact is not a political book. Clarke observes in his introduction that ‘Northern Ireland is a catalogue of religious mistakes, political mistakes and military mistakes,’ but he has no urge to suggest how these mistakes might be corrected or reduced. He is withering about any Irish policy involving persuasion or conciliation.

They’ve been bullshitting us again with crap about how we’re winning the war ... ‘Get to know your local community.’ Bullshit. Hearts and minds, comes the never-ending cry from the politicians. Get a fucking rifle in your hand and get out here, comes the never-ending reply from the toms on the streets.

Much of the book is written in this vein; this sort of language. ‘Hearts and minds. Be nice, encourage the talk, something might slip out. The tea served out of dirty, cracked mugs tastes like dishwater and there have been instances of ground glass being mixed with the sugar. What a place this is ...’

The tom’s view of Ireland, as ventriloquised here by Clarke, is of an inverted pyramid. The apex is the private soldier, squeezed down into the Irish mire by the weight of imbecile company commanders under pig-ignorant battalion commanders under four-letter-word Tactical Headquarters under cowardly, self-seeking politicians in Belfast and London. Horrible journalists pad around the scene, licking their lips over blood and snarling at the honest soldier doing his duty.

‘Mire’ is very much a euphemism for what the Paras think of the Irish, if Clarke is to be believed. They make, in the first place, almost no distinction whatever between ‘Loyalist’ and ‘Republican’: they are all treacherous, unwashed ghetto Irish who will drop a tom with a bullet if they get the chance. The very accent came to inflame Clarke’s nerves, whether heard on the Shankill Road or in the Ardoyne, in the mouth of UDA supporter as of IRA supporter. No discrimination between creeds or political beliefs here. Clarke and his soldiers loathed the lot of them, and their men of God in particular. The Belfast priest who tied tags of various colours to the churchyard railings to indicate the position of army patrols was not regarded as unusual. So strong, in fact, was this undifferentiated hatred that Clarke makes the most striking mistake one could commit in any account of the Belfast scene: he mixes up the two religions. We read a description of an interview with ‘the local priest’, a meeting which is ‘the most disliked chore in the base’, in which the churchman is addressed throughout in the dialogue as ‘Father’. This apparent Papist is made to drone on about how peace-loving and warm-hearted his flock are, but then to add: ‘Now with the Catholics, it’s different of course. They are born with a violent nature. They must be stopped, and the only way is for you to go in and shoot the ringleaders ...’ Clarke should be grateful that the readers at Secker and Warburg missed this contradiction. It tells a great deal.

At one moment, the toms are crashing through thirty doors in a ghetto street. The filth and stink they find beyond the doors seems to enrage them even more than the abuse. At another time, it is a Loyalist drinking-club the Paras are raiding: heads are broken and the stock of booze smashed as the troops deliberately provoke a brawl. There might be a way of entering and searching which didn’t end in bloody faces, broken mirrors and men clubbed to the ground with batons. But the Paras do it the other way. They want a fight. They have plenty of accumulated hate and fear to unload. They make sure that the Irish swing a fist at them, so they can start hitting back. Doesn’t the ‘yellow card’ mean that ‘whatever happens,’ the enemy ‘always fire first’? The toms emerge a few hours later pleasantly tired and feeling better.

The Paras may have been harder than some units in Northern Ireland, less brutal than others. It is difficult to know. But Clarke’s book is probably a close enough description of what goes on and what soldiers feel, and there is nothing in it to offer any hope that matters in Northern Ireland will get better rather than worse. By implication, the book says a good deal about the determination of the Provisionals, and much more about the atmosphere of fear and resentment they need to move about in. To maintain that atmosphere, the IRA requires just about the level of British harshness registered in this book: not too much (that would lead to panic and betrayals), and not too little (that would undermine the community’s motivation). So Clarke is really describing a symbiosis between gunman and soldier, a complementary relationship which has proved very durable. If there is any professional ‘respect’ for one adversary from the other, Clarke certainly doesn’t record it. But it is not difficult to see common ground of a withered kind. Gunman and soldier know that, unless some new factor enters the sum, neither can defeat the other. They agree in their fashion that there should be no distinction between Irishmen. They have no respect for the Northern Ireland Office. They might even agree that British troops should get out.

Clarke sees that even an urban guerrilla war can become a stable institution, out of which all kinds of people draw a livelihood.

We are here to create the news for a hundred poised pens and ready cameras. To provide a nation with its quota of violence, to give people a chance to shake their heads, others to organise marches, pressure-groups and all the other paraphernalia of a well-organised growing industry. Northern Ireland is an industry, providing reporters with the opportunities to further their already stagnant careers, for social workers to martyr themselves on the unsympathetic conscience of an unimaginative nation. An entertainment without interlude. To hell with the lot of you.

What he does not see is that the troops themselves are part of this growth industry. The military, and the police too, have used the Northern Ireland industry to produce all kinds of lessons and experiments useful to themselves. Nobody, after reading this book, could suppose that British troops want to remain in Northern Ireland. But neither could a reader deny that, however much the ‘toms’ hate the place, their own behaviour often ensures that they will be kept there.