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We Have Learned Nothing, Warn Veterans: Thoughts turn to past conflicts for old soldiers

27 October 2001

John Braidwood was 24 when he was dropped into hell, spiraling from the sky with the rest of 4 Para into the maelstrom of Arnhem.

Now, the old soldier keeps his memories in the blue leather box that holds his medals, and he speaks with the quiet understatement of one who has witnessed too much for words to convey.

“It was just a muck-up,” he said. “I made my way to the bridge but we could not hold it. We ran out of ammunition. They had tanks. We had no tanks. We lost thousands at Arnhem, a lot of young fellows.”

He saved one life, helping a colleague who had become tangled in his ropes, but had to leave another whose arm had been shot half-off and whose screams were drawing attention to their position. He was eventually captured by a Panzer division and spent six months in POW camps before the Americans liberated him.

“When the Yanks arrived I said 'give me a gun and I will give you a hand'. I might just say the same thing now,” he said. “I agree with what's happening at the moment, that America and our boys are doing what they should. We must get Osama bin Laden. I wish I could get a hold of him. Wanted dead or alive? I would bring him out dead.” The 81-year-old's face softens. “But if they get Bin Laden they should call it a day. A lot of innocent people were killed in the towers but a lot of innocent people are getting killed in Afghanistan. I often think them that start the war should fight it themselves, the politicians and all those sorts. But it's others that get sent to fight for them, others that suffer.”

Bill McDowall, 40, has done both. The former Scots Guard served in the Falklands war. He was at Bluff Cove when the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were hit and was in the thick of the action on the final battle for Tumbledown Mountain. He lost 11 friends and almost lost his mind.

“They say the training takes over but the biggest part of it is human instinct,” he said. “I remember confusion and fear. When I got back to the UK people were complaining about the price of beer and why Coronation Street was re-scheduled half an hour later. I came close to losing my grip on reality because I could not understand how everybody's life was so normal.”

“And here we are in the new millennium with another war and we have learned nothing. I grew up with my Dad's stories from Korea. My younger brother was in the Gulf war. We get to the stage where I think, when do we ever learn? Out of all of this what have we gained?”

Mr McDowall has found a form of peace at the Erskine ex-servicemen's hospital, near Glasgow, where they diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. He lives in the grounds with his family, close to people who understand. People like John Braidwood and Robert Ritchie.

Mr Ritchie, 80, served behind enemy lines as a commando during the second world war. He trained partisans, stuck limpet mines to German ships, and blew up fuel dumps.

“When we went in it was 'king and country',” he said. “We were being bombed at home. We had an incentive to go and do our bit. These boys are going into a country they have no experience of to fight a rag-tag army. I don't know where they are going to get their incentive to do this. Their own people are not in danger. The people where they are going are dying from poverty. Our boys are going to be affected by all of that. I think Tony Blair is a warmonger. None of the politicians will go out fighting, nor will their families. They are not involved with the body bags. And there will be some of our men who will go to sleep out there and never wake up.”

“But while our lads are there, all ex-servicemen will be saying, quietly, all the best lads, we did our turn, now it is your turn.”

Hugh Currie's turn came in Korea, but his thoughts in this new conflict are not always with the military.

“It was the worst winter in Korea for 50 years and it was the people, the refugees, who suffered. These people were dying in the road, through lack of food, through frostbite. Women and children. This is what is going to happen in Afghanistan,” said Mr Currie, 70.

“My concern is for the civilian population. I think the Americans should sit back and stop bombing. They should put all their energy into dropping troops, tents, bedding, food and medicine just over the Pakistan border and looking after all those who are going to suffer during the winter. They will not get the man they are after or his associates. He will be sitting back somewhere in Pakistan or Iraq.”

Two weeks from tomorrow, on November 11, the residents of Erskine will have many conflicts to remember.

“The only thing that binds all of these wars is that innocent people suffer and there are no winners,” said Mr McDowall. “We have all lost something because we have got to this point. But if I was fit enough and young enough I would go and fight, even after everything. To try to stop it happening again. We all fought because we thought it was the last time it would ever need to be done.”

“I'm going down to the Cenotaph on the 11th. Before long, there will be another contingent to join us - the veterans of the war in Afghanistan. They will have to remember too.”

Kirsty Scott.
Published in the Guardian.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

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