By Charles EP Murphy
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 29th contest was Birthday.
Private Amelia Pike was, under a quirk of bureaucracy, called up on the exact day she turned eighteen and was demobbed from Afghanistan on her nineteenth birthday. "I had to eat my cake on the bus both times," she says. "First time, mum baked it specially; second time, the lads had clubbed together to get one at the last minute and it was a Thomas the Tank Engine telling me I was three today." She laughs and says "twats!" Out of uniform, she looks like any other nineteen year old girl heading for a night on the town - if you ignore the thin scars down the left side of her face. Shrapnel from rifle fire that, she says, she hadn't registered at the time. "Then Private Rowlands looks at me and swears and I say, what? And then the pain hits me!" But of course, these scars don't make her that abnormal among nineteen-year-olds. That is part of why the Repeal of National Service Act is in its second reading and this time, may actually pass. General Lethbridge is one of the few officers willing to say on the record, rather than briefing anonymously, that the act should pass. "It should have ended when the empire did. National service has always lumbered the army with disgruntled young men and made us force them through training, all for just ten months of actual use. We have to spend money housing and feeding more men than we need, so they can do the bare minimum of work." I ask if the Balkans and Afghanistan don't show the need for a large army, and he's about to speak before asking if I had done service. I respond I did, between 1993 and 1994. There is a sense that he is changing what he was about to say. "You'll remember spending most of your time static; we didn't send you on patrol or to where we thought the crises would be. Why? You wouldn't be as disciplined as the professionals. Srebrenica should have proven that, but patriotism blinded the public - easier to call for retaliation against the Serbs, and do not misunderstand me, they needed to be hobbled, but whatever lessons we learned, the government did not." The Battle of Srebrenica is part of British mythology alongside Agincourt, Rorke's Drift, and the Battle of Britain. Outnumbered peacekeepers fought back against a Serbian assault so civilians could flee (of which close to two thousand did not make it). One hundred and seventeen soldiers dead, the vast majority of them on national service. A defeat, then, but a valiant one. But as the Miller Inquiry found, discipline and coordination had broken down. What should have been an organised defence became disparate groups of frightened teenagers trying to hold their individual patch of land and communication networks were overwhelmed. Training had been inadequate and arguably many of the young men should not have been there at all. The new Labour government promised a sweeping reform, "a new national service for a new century" as Ashdown said at the time. Training has indeed improved, and has also been extended to eight weeks; it is easier to remove 'unsuited' men and women during training; and, in the spirit of the new age, LGBT youths are no longer 'exempt' and women have more roles open to them. Even General Lethbridge will admit the conscripts in Afghanistan are better prepared than my generation were in Bosnia. "They are still not as good as volunteers," he says, "and that will always be the problem." However, the public seems divided on the issue. A recent poll by the Times found 52% of Britain is in favour of repeal but 48% is opposed. This isn't about the strategic issue, this is about what it means to be British. Generations of men and, since the 1970s, women from all walks of life have been thrown together that may never have otherwise met. In theory, a scion of wealth from deepest Home Counties will stand side-by-side with a Welsh collier's son. In Northern Ireland, it was controversial for unionists that national service does not cover them - the DUP claimed that the army would be sympathetic to their 'plight' if only they could work alongside good Ulster boys. To some extent, this has been true. When Labour removed the de facto 'ban' on black and Asian conscripts, white boys from all over Britain got to meet, work with, and befriend soldiers of colour. Javed Khan, a former lance-corporal during his service in 1988, is a campaigner against repeal. "There was only one other Asian lad at school. My dad, he'd dealt with all sorts of crap when he moved over from Pakistan. But even though it wasn't perfect, the National Front couldn't get much of a look in, not with all the local men who'd done service with Asians in the seventies. When I did service, I had to put up with banter, let's call it that, but most guys were just curious and wanted to know, and I wanted to know about them. It passed the time standing around in Gibraltar, bunking off to go swimming." I ask Khan how he feels about the government recruiting disproportionately more Asian youths during the seventies to help 'integrate' them. He thinks a while before answering. "Honestly? I'd have been mad as hell if I'd been eighteen at the time but it worked out. They integrated with us." He shrugs and admits: "But if I'd been in Northern Ireland, I might think different." This goes back to the core of the issue for the pro-repeal side: national service means, in the end, that sometimes we send people to shoot and be shot at. And statistically, a conscript is more likely to be hurt or injured. During my time in Bosnia, I was lucky: I merely stood around a base on guard, I only got to be terrified I might be shot or that I'd see something that would haunt me. My friend Manish was not so lucky, getting a sniper's bullet in his spine while doing some engineering work. Manish is still a good friend; I grew up in Staines to the stodgy middle classes, he grew up in Manchester to a large working class family; we were both in the closet at the time and felt nobody else at home was. We would never have met if not for national service. But it's hard to think my friendship is better for Manish than if he was still able to walk. Amelia Pike saw the aftermath of Srebrenica on the news as a child, and then footage of soldiers entering Serbia in the Kosovo War, so she knew what service could mean. While she's been lucky to have only been involved in two fights, that has seen her scarred and still be lucky because someone else died. Neither her nor Private Vasquez wanted to be there. What does she think? "Well, this happened loads of times and nobody repealed then. You know what's changed?" And her, she sneers: "This is the first time it's happening to girls." While several women conscripts were killed or injured in the Kosovo War, it's true that the four years in Afghanistan have seen women equal to men and casualties to reflect that. And it's hard not to make a connection between this and the repeal act. There are apparently limits to what we'll sacrifice for our national identity and cohesion. It's unclear if the Repeal of National Service Act will actually pass its second reading, after the first reading was so volatile. Around a quarter of Commons have undergone national service - the number of veterans in office makes us abnormal in the 2000s, so far from the world wars - and the issue is personal to them, forcing this to be a conscience vote. They are split evenly on Repeal or nay, with the exception of Plaid Cymru's veterans (who argue Welsh youths shouldn't fight "English wars"). Labour leader and former lance-corporal Jeremy Corbyn, who is arguing against repeal even as he argues against wars, says national service means future MPs will be exposed to more of the country "and the consequences of what we order the army to do", though he admits the last part hasn't stopped Britain going to war. "At least no government can claim it doesn't know the price. And what wars might we be in now, if we could pretend soldiers were a seperate class of people?" Chancellor William Hague, a former private, is for repeal and tells me "the number of us in Commons is simply because party constituencies feel a candidate will look 'out of touch' or 'weak' if they haven't served. What does that mean for those who couldn't serve? Who have we lost?" (Hague controversially argued this point on The Brown Show, asking presenter Gordon Brown if he thinks he could have been selected as a candidate if not for being medically unable to be drafted) By the end of this week, we'll know which man has won and whether Britain will need another way of bonding its citizens together than sending some of them to war.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.