For my final project I interviewed an ex-Sergeant (referred to as MacGuffin, not his real name) from the British Army, who was in the Parachute Regiment from 2000 to 2011. He served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I focused my interview on trying to get a sense of how it felt to be in the Army and more importantly how it felt to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to try to get as honest and open responses as I could from him, to do this I told him to forget about being related to me and to feel at ease and to be free to speak his mind. I also reassured him of his anonymity, as I would be using a pseudonym for the project. I felt that once he was reassured of this he felt more relaxed about doing the interview, perhaps the fact he was still in Iraq and had recently left the Army made him slightly sceptical about the interview to begin with.
I started off by asking him about joining the army, why he joined the Parachute regiment and also about his training. I wanted to get a sense of how the army prepared soldiers for going into combat. I had a basic knowledge of some of the training they do as I spent a few years with the Army Cadet force in Scotland, with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, but I wanted to learn more about the way in which the British army prepare their infantry mentally, for some of the things they will face in a war zone. The Sergeant explained to me that he joined the army with his brother in 2000. He was playing professional football (soccer) in Scotland since leaving school, he was released from his professional contract and he felt he needed a new challenge in his life. His brother had shown an interest in joining the army and so they both decided to visit an army recruiting office in Glasgow to find out more. This is the furthest stage I got in my army career, I visited the same office to enquire about joining the Kings Troop, a cavalry regiment based in London, as I can ride horses and felt it would be a good career, but the fact I had to commit to a minimum of 4 years put me off. So I admire the actions of those who go the next step and actually join and not just a ceremonial regiment like the one I was contemplating signing up for, but one that would potentially be deployed to a war zone. I wanted to know why he had joined, why he had taken the step I couldn’t and what had attracted him to the regiment. When he explained that the army focused on his fitness and his football skills, telling him that he would get the opportunity to carry on doing this, I felt a sense that maybe he and countless others have been told similar stories. Telling young men they can learn a trade or skill or continue with their favourite sport, but ultimately the army will be preparing you for going to war and I think my cousin quickly realised this, when the football opportunities were soon taken over by army life. I don’t think he was sold just on this basis, but the fact they focused on his fitness levels demonstrates the way recruiters can sign up potential soldiers. After all he would have been training 6 days a week with his Football club, so they must have known that side of army life would have been an attraction to a young man like him.
The Sergeant decided to join the Parachute Regiment, their motto is ” Utrinque Paratus “(Ready For Anything) and so I asked him to tell me about the regiment and about some of the training he received to make him ready for anything. He explained “the Parachute Regiment are an airborne infantry with a secondary role as light infantry, they were formed in 1942 and since then the regiment has seen service around the world in places such as Africa and the Middle East” (MacGuffin). He also explained the process of becoming a part of the Parachute regiment and on earning his distinctive maroon beret. He said “we had 14 weeks of training, this included things like basic field craft, fitness, drill, first aid, basic weapon handling and of course parachute training” (MacGuffin). I asked him to elaborate on the weapons training and he told me “we started off learning at the shooting range, but we then moved on to what’s called field firing, where it’s a more realistic setting than the range” (MacGuffin).
I wanted to get a sense of how it felt to be in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and if the training provided by the army made him not only physically equipped but mentally equipped to deal with the potential situations and circumstances he would face. In order to try to understand how it felt I asked him about his training and about his reactions once he was in a war zone. I have to admit I was surprised when he said the training took over, I felt at this point of my interview he was not as open about talking about the things he was ordered to do. I can understand why he felt like this, but I did not want to be morbid and ask “How does it feel to kill a man?” However I did want to get a sense of how it felt in that instant; all the training takes you to that point, but I wanted to see if there is any moment when part of your brain or your very being calls yours actions into question. I wanted to try to get some sense of how that felt and I feel this was the hardest part of my interview, as he was not as open about these types of questions as he was about some others and this relates to the work we have read from Professor Monroe, where we have various accounts of how people reacted and how they felt in times of war and genocide. Each person’s reaction is unique and I wanted to get a sense of how Sergeant MacGuffin felt, I wanted to try to use some of the knowledge learned from our course to gain an insight into his actions, with a focus on ethics and morality.
As I was asking him questions it struck me that some of the answers he gave me regarding his actions were all put down to a sense of doing his duty and carrying out orders. I asked him questions about the validity of going to war and being in Iraq and even though he agreed the reasons were perhaps not correct or even valid, he still felt once he was there that he had to carry out his orders and do his job to the best of his ability. This is fascinating to me, as it must be a strange feeling to be somewhere you are not necessarily welcome and yet be able to function based on your sense of duty to the army. For me this would be the hardest aspect to deal with. I would be questioning why we were in Iraq and it might then affect my ability to work, but from what he told me in the interview it sounds like that is blanked off by the soldiers and they get on with the task in hand. This ability to screen things out enables them to do their job. This is also evident in his replies about how the people of Iraq and Afghanistan reacted to the troops on the ground. Even though he could tell some people hated him, he still had a moral obligation to try to do the best thing for them or do what he believed to be the best thing for them. He also talks about winning the “hearts and minds” (MacGuffin) and again this shows to me that those guys on the frontline, facing the abuse and the threat of injury or death are the ones carrying our message of trying to make their country a better place and they are doing that by trying to win over the citizens of these countries.
This aspect of his daily life or routine was one that I felt was closest to some of the situations we have discussed in class, such as the feeling of being able to trust someone and trying to see the good in people. He admits he struggled at first and that he did not trust anyone, but I could sense that he really felt like the army were doing a good thing and I think this feeling helped him throughout his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. By that I mean I feel he knew his moral obligation and he knew the boundaries of good and bad, as he says so himself, when he references his upbringing. I believe him when he told me that he knows right from wrong and I feel that is something that he has acquired from his family upbringing and he has used his own ethics and morals to carry out his duty within the army. I realise some things he may have been asked to do would make some of us question or doubt the ethics or morality of the situation, but from what he told me in the interview, his sense of knowing right from wrong enabled him to his job without questioning. I also believe the training from the army, not just the physical aspect, but the mental training prepared him for such situations as he would find himself in Iraq and Afghanistan
In conclusion, I feel that my interview allowed me to see another side to my cousin and it gave me an insight into how people deal with being in a war zone and how they are affected by it. In terms of long-term problems, I think he is strong enough in his mind to be able to cope with the trauma of what he witnessed, such as the killing of his friends and seeing some being badly injured. For me it was also significant that he decided to end his military career, when he realised that the risk outweighed the gain and he decided that £1,000 per month was not worth risking life and limb in these hostile environments. I think like many he became disillusioned by the war and he saw an opportunity to make five times his normal monthly salary by working for a private security firm. This demonstrates to me that MacGuffin felt the army no longer offered him security or stability and that he could transfer his skills and hopefully his ethics and morals to the private sector. I would like to think the same sense of knowing right from wrong that he has will be put to use in his new job and that what he says is true, that everything taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan is for the better of the countries and its people.
Interview with ex-British Army Sergeant
Q 1: The course I am studying at the University of California is called ‘Ethics in an age of Genocide and Terror.’ I would like to ask you questions about your time in the military and about the war zones you were deployed to, would this be ok?
A: Yes, what kind of things do you want to know?
Q 2: I would like to focus on your own thoughts and feelings regarding ethics and morality, mainly concerning being in a war zone. This has been the focus of our study in class, looking at different aspects of how people react in times of conflict, for example during the genocides in Rwanda. I want to try to get a feel of what it was like to be in a war zone, how it affected you and about your experiences and moral lessons, if any, that you drew from it?
A: Ok…but as you know I’m still working and living in Iraq, so I’m not sure I will be able to answer all of your questions, but I will do my best.
Q 3: I understand, I realize some of my questions may be sensitive and deal with sensitive subjects that are still fresh in your mind from your time in the army, but as I said in my initial phone call, I can assure you of your anonymity. I will not use your real name for this project, I will use a pseudonym, so no one will know the information and the answers you give me have come from you. Can you start by telling me your rank and which regiment you served with?
A: Ok…I will try to answer all your questions as best I can. I was a Sergeant in the British Army and I was in the Parachute Regiment.
Q 4: What made you join the army in the first place?
A: There were a few factors for me joining the army, I was nineteen and just got released from my contract at Clyde [Football club], my older brother was looking in to joining the army and we spoke about it…and it appealed to me very much, especially with all the hard physical training. I looked at it as a challenge and something I believed I would love. When I joined there was no talk about going to war, however the chance of it happening was always there, so in my mind it was a great career, plus I got told I could play all the football I wanted.
Q 5: And so both you and your brother signed up together?
A: Yes, we both went to the army recruitment office in Queen Street [Glasgow].
Q 6: Did you get to play all the football you wanted?
A: HaHa…not really, we played a few tournaments, but I spent most of my time training and then focusing on my army career, that soon took over from playing football.
Q 7: Ok…Can you confirm which countries you have served in and for how long you were serving?
A: I was in the army for eleven years and I have served in Iraq and Afghanistan; I have done four tours of Iraq at 6 months each tour, and one tour of Afghanistan which also lasted 6 months.
Q 8: When you joined the army, what were your thoughts on one day going to war? Did you think about it during your training, that one day you could end up in a place like Iraq?
A: I never actually thought about going to war, as stupid as it sounds when I joined back in 2000 there was no indication about going to a war zone apart from serving in Northern Ireland, which at that point was starting to calm down and British troops were starting to pull out. But of course when you are on the ranges firing your weapons you do think about it and sometimes I thought what it would be like to have someone in your sights and watching someone fall from the squeeze of your trigger.
Q 9: How did that make you feel, that the skills you were acquiring could possibly lead to the death of another human being?
A: It was a very powerful thought…I mean…as I learned new skills such as shooting; it did make me think that one day I might have to use these skills for real.
Q 10: That is a very powerful thought, back then as you trained and shot at targets, did you ever question if you could shoot someone for real? These are the themes of my course, in such circumstances do you have a predetermined idea of how you will react or does the training take over?
A: We done it so many times on various ranges across Scotland and the UK that it became normal, it’s hard to explain…but shooting became part of being in the army, it was as much a part of my daily life as shooting a football at goal when I played for Clyde. It was part and parcel of being in the army. I’m sure the thought must have crossed my mind, but we were being trained to be ready for that very scenario, so I knew I would be as well prepared as I could be for it. Once I was in Iraq or Afghanistan I would say the training does kick in, all the things you learn take over.
Q 11: How did you find out about going to war, can you tell me where you heard the news and how it was relayed to the troops?
A: I knew we would go to war as soon as the Twin Towers got hit, we all knew whatever the Yanks decision was after that day, the UK forces would follow. However it wasn’t till 2003 that we actually left for Kuwait and it wasn’t till a brief by our Platoon Commander that it was confirmed we were going into Iraq.
Q 12: How did that make you feel, knowing you would be posted to a war zone for the first time?
A: It made me excited knowing that all the training we had done was going to get put into practice. The only way I can describe how it felt, is this, imagine playing professional football and training every day for years but never getting to play a game on the Saturday. You would be very frustrated if you did that every week, so I felt I was now going to put my skills to some use. That was my first thought, then of course there was a lot of fear, with a feeling of not knowing what was in front of us…I have to admit I had thoughts about getting hurt or kidnapped…it’s fair to say we did run through the worst case scenarios.
Q 13: That must have been scary; not knowing what was in front of you. As you thought things through, did you ever have any questions or any expectations about how the people in Afghanistan or Iraq would respond to your arrival?
A: To be honest, I always thought the worst…as in the people of Iraq and Afghanistan…thinking that they would not welcome us there and they would be very hostile towards us. However that wasn’t the case for many of the locals, who were happy for us to be there and would chat and would offer us food and tea, on the other side, the other group would say nothing to us. They would just look at you and you could see in their eyes that you were not welcomed, for me, in some cases that was more intimidating than anything else I experienced.
Q 14: You mentioned Northern Ireland earlier…certain parts of the community over there did not welcome the British soldiers. Do you think that was the same for Iraq or Afghanistan?
A: I honestly don’t know, you can never win over everyone. As I said some people welcomed us and some people…well I could tell hated us and everything we represented. I would not like to think that any of our actions would encourage people to hate us, I would rather they thought we made a change…for the better in their country.
Q 15: How did you feel about going to war in Afghanistan? On the wave of feeling after 9/11, many thought it was the right thing to do, to go after Bin Laden. How did that make you feel morally?
A: After what happened on 9/11 I think something had to be done…there were a lot of angry people wanting action taken. When I got told I was going to Afghanistan I was happy that we were finally going there and doing something against the war on terror, as Afghanistan was producing many training camps and “students” if you want to call them that, and pushing them out to do destruction. Morally…I felt I was doing some good, by going there!
Q 16: Can you tell me how it actually felt to be going there, did you feel like you were protecting our freedom by doing it?
A: Of course I was protecting our freedom…many civilians couldn’t understand this, thinking terrorism will never happen here, it will never happen to me…but as we later found out the UK was targeted and hit, including Glasgow airport. There were many casualties and fatalities in Britain by a very cowardly act, as is always the case. So yes, I felt I was doing my bit for freedom.
Q 17: Once you were in the country, did you ever encounter any situations when you felt your own ethics or moral beliefs were being called into question? By that I mean, do you feel you were asked to do something that compromised your own beliefs or values?
A: No not at all, as I know right from wrong, and if I ever did encounter something that questioned my own beliefs and values I would get a grip of the situation straight away and I would ensure the relevant chain of command was informed.
Q 18: So you never doubted or questioned why you were there or what you were asked to do?
A: No, I was there doing my job, following commands and doing that to the best of my ability. It’s not really my job to question why we were sent there, but it was my job to make sure we done everything to the best of our capabilities.
Q 19: On my course, we have looked at various periods in history where people have been put in situations that either makes them stand up and be counted or they simply become bystanders, for example during the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda. I don’t know how I would react in a war zone or during genocide. Part of me wants to believe that I would not be a bystander. To get a sense of what it’s like, can I touch on what you have just said about your sense of duty…Did you feel it was your duty to be there and to be doing something? Did it take over any other feeling you might have had?
A: When we first arrived in Iraq and the same goes with Afghanistan, you never knew what to expect with everything that happened on 9/11 and the world in general regarding extremists. In the army, you go to these places to do your duty. To give you an idea of how it felt, especially as a young man…I would say the biggest thing for me was trust…I didn’t trust anybody and I would think the worst of everyone, even though I knew I was there to help them. I found myself always thinking the worst of the people as in “Is he a good man or a bad man?” because you’re always thinking of the safety of your friends and yourself. I did feel it was my duty to be there…when you see the smiles on the faces of the people, you know you are bringing security to their towns and their country…they have that bit of freedom that they never had before, freedom to speak their minds on the streets, not thinking about the consequences, which in the past were fatal at times. To me that felt very satisfying.
Q 20: How did you feel, as the war dragged on and still Bin Laden had not been found? Did you ever question why you were there or how long you would be there?
A: The war on terror will always be there, but the more time Bin Laden was free and sending his videos out via the internet encouraging the extremists to carry on there so-called “good work” on the holy war was very frustrating. However we knew it would only be a matter of time before he was caught, we knew we would be there a long time, the country was and is still very unstable and does need the help from the NATO forces. No I never questioned why we went in to Iraq or Afghanistan, Iraq for example had a very strong and powerful leader in Saddam, he ruled with an iron fist, many say it is the only way for the people of Iraq…however his methods were crazy, it was his way or no way and if you were the latter then there was a big chance that you would be killed.
Q 21: In the case of the war in Iraq, based on the evidence we have today, how do you feel about the justification of the invasion? By that, I mean based on the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the dossier of him being able to utilise them in 45mins that turned out to be false. How does that make you feel, does it make you question some of your own actions while in the country?
A: Of course you don’t want to be lied to and with the evidence we have today regarding Saddam having weapons of mass destruction, I feel cheated and let down in a way, many people lost their lives in Iraq, both military and civilian…don’t get me wrong Saddam was a dictator and I believe he had to be removed, however the circumstances in how it happened are very touch and go, but I do believe Iraq is a much better place without him. As for my actions, I was carrying out orders and I don’t feel I could have done it any different based on what I know now, even though the reasons for going were maybe questionable, once there it was still a war zone and we had to carry out our mission.
Q 22: I understand you will have seen sights that most of us will thankfully never witness. But to bring up the justification of the war again, how does it make you feel to have lost friends and colleagues during the war, knowing that maybe you didn’t have to be there in the first place?
A: It does sometimes anger me, there have been a lot of my close friends killed and badly injured and many people would argue against us being there in the first place. I believe the world is a safer and better place without these dictators. The war on terror is a 24-7 operation and these people need to be caught and brought to justice before any other harm is done.
Q 23: So you think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made the world a safer place?
A: Without a shadow of a doubt the world is a safer place, we know all these cells/groups exist and we know where they work from, so many of these extremists have been brought to justice from us going in to these country’s…which can only be a good thing.
Q 24: Do you ever think about repercussions of your actions, by that I mean do you think about some of the things you have been called on to do having an impact on your later life or the life of people in Iraq or Afghanistan?
A: No I do not…I believe we done everything to the best of our ability and I don’t think about any repercussions.
Q 25: You never think about anything impacting on your life or others, from the actions you took or the army took in Iraq and Afghanistan?
A: No…I couldn’t live my life that way, it’s hard to explain unless you have been there, but I honestly believe we were doing the right thing…morally or ethically or however you want to call it, I believe I can look myself in the mirror, knowing I done the right thing.
Q 26: That sense of doing the right thing, do you feel that was something you knew before joining the army or something you learned?
A: Joseph…you know my family, you know me…I would like to think I was brought up knowing right from wrong and knowing the difference between the both of them.
Q 27: Ok…I understand. Can I ask what your thoughts are on the idea that by using military force and invading the country to try to eradicate terrorism we might actually be doing the opposite? For example in Northern Ireland, when British troops were based there, it was noted that the next generation grew up wanting to take up arms against the British due to what they had seen happen to their families and homes. The presence of troops seemed to divide the country further. Do you think military action in Iraq and Afghanistan could have similar repercussions?
A: Invading another country is obviously a very sensitive issue however the way it has been done (ie) the armies of these countries’ taking the lead on all aspects, with the guidance from the British and Americans is the way forward. I believe as an army and as soldiers, we have advanced and we are now producing a better soldier, a more thinking soldier, which is then pushing the army forward in the correct manner. The way the guys conduct themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan is second to none…hearts and minds is what they push out there, however sometimes you need to fight and it is a very hard thing to go through but the guys do it very well. It is a fine balance between carrying out your mission and trying to win the people over.
Q 28: On TV we get to see the war zones, with mortars going off and short clips of fighting. We never really see what life is like day-to-day. Can you give me an idea of what life is like in a war zone; are people able to go about their daily business?
A: It is very hard to go about normal day-to-day business but we do the best we can and with what the army provide, one day you could be sitting about drinking brews, shooting the shit, then thirty minutes later you could be out on the ground in a major fire fight taking casualties, then coming back in and trying to do normal things again…but you’re in that frame of mind anyway as in you are in a war zone , so you’re always tuned in, it is difficult to describe.
Q 29: Can you tell me when you left the army and why you left?
A: I left the army in March this year, I loved my job however we weren’t getting paid the right money for what the guys do, it is pennies, on my last tour just gone a few of my friends got killed and badly injured and were on just over a thousand pounds a month, so I made the decision that my future lay elsewhere, don’t get me wrong I miss it every day it and it is a very hard job to describe, in fact it is not a job, it is a way of life.
Q 30: How did you feel when you left, did you feel like you had done all you could?
A: I feel like I have done my bit, everything I did in the army I done with a positive mental attitude and with 100% so yes I do feel like I done all I could.
Q 31: In general how do you feel you were treated by the army? Did they help you at all when it came to issues such as feelings about shooting or firing at people? Did they discuss things like morals and ethics?
A: The army is a massive family but that family stops at a certain rank and then it is a lonely place, when it comes to these issues the army gives loads of support and help and always talks about morals and ethics.
Q 32: You have continued to work in Iraq after leaving the army; can you see a change in the country since you first went there?
A: I can see a massive change in the country from people living their daily lives, to people having opinions and expressing them, the way I look at Iraq and Afghanistan is that these people still live in the middle ages and we are trying to get them in to the 21st century within 10 years or more. It is not going to work as quickly as that, it will take many years and a lot of patience but they will get there.