Truth and Responsibility are soul mates.
So writes AFN Clarke in Contact, the book he wrote about his experience as a 3 Para platoon commander during and after two tours of duty in Northern Ireland. In 1973, Clarke served a tour in Belfast and in 1976 he served a tour in South Armgah, two very different environments. He wrote Contact in an effort, it seems, to cleanse himself of his experiences in Northern Ireland and his Royal Army service. He wrote it to tell the truth about things as he experienced them first hand. He may have written, as he says in the introduction “in anger” and in a “stream of consciousness style” as he mentions at the end of the book, but I think that’s what makes Contact so effective.
His anger at the way British soldiers were portrayed, the violence, and the hatred that was part of Northern Ireland combined with stream of consciousness writing style combined to give vivid descriptions of the environment, the people, the patrols, and the fighting. I was just a toddler when Clarke was serving in Northern Ireland and “the Troubles” are something I’ve never studied in depth so the chapters on his tour in Belfast were what struck me the hardest. Clarke and his fellow soldiers were in an urban setting, trying to keep two groups of people from killing each other. The hate was palpable. Whenever they went out on patrol, the Paras knew that regardless of what side of the dividing line they were on, there were people trying to kill them. Despite his vivid description, I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to find one’s self between two communities that bore not only an intense hatred for each other, but also an intense hatred for me – the one who must attempt to contain the violence. The Belfast tour chapters reminded me of some of the books I’ve read on the fighting in Iraq. The environment and training combine to result in a harshness and brutality of action which can backfire and be counterproductive.
The chapters on South Armagh can be seen to be a second section of the book. In South Armagh the setting was rural, but the natural beauty was in contrast to the deadly contest that took place along the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Here, the Paras were trying to prevent the infiltration of men and weapons. Wherever they went, whenever they went, there was the constant danger of ambushes, booby traps, and snipers. The South Armagh chapters very much reminded me of some of the books that I’ve read about the Vietnam War. Once again, the environment they’re operating in has a psychological effect that results in an increased harshness and brutality of action. What impresses me most about Contact is that Clarke never attempts to make excuses for what was done; he simply tells the reader what happened. He doesn’t make a case for either side in Northern Ireland; he simply describes what each side does. As he writes near the end:
Nobody is innocent.
We all have guilt.
Some more than others.
Just as all three were and are undeclared wars, there is another similarity between Northern Ireland, Iraq, Vietnam (and we can add Afghanistan to this list as well) – they are all three very much Platoon Commander and NCO wars. The decisions and actions of the Platoon Commanders and Squad Leaders did and do have a major impact on the conflicts. A mistake or bad decision on their part can snowball and place overall mission in danger. That’s a lot of responsibility in the hands of sometimes the least experienced soldiers in the field. It is my opinion that it is men like Clarke that we need as leaders in our military – leaders who are not only tactically proficient but who have a conscience and will tell the truth when things go wrong, leaders who care about their men just as much as the care about the mission. Frequently these are leaders that don’t fit into a peacetime military but are necessary in a wartime military. It’s a shame that their usefulness isn’t seen in a time of peace.
The third set of chapters deal with the medical problems that cut Clarke’s South Armagh tour short, ended his military service, and changed his life. Clarke ended up losing most of his bowels after he was misdiagnosed by military doctors, suffered what can only be described as malpractice, and was saved by the intervention of a doctor who bucked the system and directed him to civilian surgeons. It struck me that had Clarke been an enlisted man instead of an officer, his treatment could very well have been worse and he wouldn’t have survived to write Contact. Unfortunately, his experience is emblematic of how servicemen are treated. Men who give their bodies and lives for their country are often neglected and mistreated. Veterans are forgotten. We’ve witnessed this in our country in how some of our servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have to fight for what they need from the government they served. We witnessed it in how Korean War veterans were forgotten and servicemen returning from Vietnam were hated and scorned.
As much as the book reminds me of books written about the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam, there is one element that can’t be forgotten and makes Clarke’s experiences different from the two. In his words: “the surrealism of being an occupation Army on home soil.” It leads me to wonder if his experiences are similar to those of Union soldiers in the South during our Civil War. Perhaps it’s because I’m currently reading Foote’s three volumes on the Civil War, but for some reason this parallel just stuck in my head.
Books that look at the big picture of wars and conflicts are necessary and so are books that delve into the policies and diplomacy (or lack thereof) that lead to wars, but if you really want to get an idea of what a war was about, you read the firsthand accounts of the men who were on the tip of the spear. Clarke’s book Contact is an excellent example of this type of book. You don’t get excuses; you get an unvarnished view of what happened from someone who was there. There are lessons in it for everyone.