“But it wasn’t really a war was it?” – John Humphrys
To the over 300,000 British servicemen who served in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007 it certainly was a war. To the hundreds of families who received the dreaded knock on the door, it was a war. To the countless families impacted on by the stresses and strains of Northern Ireland, it was a war. To my Nan, whose nerves were shredded dreading a knock on the door informing her of bad news, it definitely was a war.
It is not easy for me to talk objectively about Northern Ireland. Having been told about it by three of my uncles who served there in the 1970’s, and having read a fair few published accounts by certain Greenjackets and Paras, I was not picking up this book ‘blind’.
What this book by Ken Wharton tells us, is that we need to rethink what we think of as ‘war’, beyond the two world wars. Just because active service in Belfast and Londonderr and Crossmaglen did not meet our narrow definition of battle, it does not lessen the bravery of the men who served there. Those of us reading from the comfort of our armchairs cannot begin to imagine the human strain of being on service in the Province at the height of the Troubles. If anything Northern Ireland was a more difficult kind of war, as with yellow cards and rules of engagement, the Security Forces were incredibly hamstrung in what they could do.
What also leaps out from the pages of this book is the leadership that NCO’s and even Private’s were called on to show. Northern Ireland has often been called a ‘Corporal’s war’. Rather than in conventional battle where officers and senior NCO’s make decisions and give orders, the war in Northern Ireland was conducted largely by low-level units. On patrol every man had to show the utmost initiative. But along with showing incredible initiative – indeed, the Army gained long-term benefits from this learning curve – the physical and psychological toll was huge.
Oral History has always been a greatway of telling ordinary people’s stories – and they are old in their own words. The human memory being what it is, we cannot take every word as gospel, but as exactly wha they are – memories. I suppose in the interests of balance it might be interesting to compare the views of IRA members during the same period. But what is interesting is that for the large part, the squaddies interviewed seem to have been as bitter loyalist paramilitaries as much as republicans. As most often in history, the average British Squaddie does not seem to have been bothered with politics. Others might feel that the British Army acted like gangsters, but evidence suggests that time and time again British soldiers showed amazing restraint. And thats how the war was ‘won’ – by not letting the terrorists achieve their goal of dragging down the Security Forces. If other certain armies had been fighting in Northern Ireland, a lot of sledgehammers might have been deployed against walnuts.
Wharton also sheds new light on some aspects of the war that are perhaps no so well known. The not insignificant number of British Army personnel who took their own lives. The massaging of statistics by the Ministry of Defence. The dedication of the men of the Ulster Defence Regiment. That what the British public knew about what went on ‘over the water’ depended on the media. And how many of the events in this Book will be completely unknown to the reader – we have all heard of Omagh, Bloody Sunday and Warrenpoint, but these were by no means the only atrocities carried out. There is a comprehensive roll of honour at the end of the book, giving names, dates, units and causes of death.
This is an immensely readable book – I had great trouble putting it down.