HMS Hermes returning to Portsmouth

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, in a speech yesterday asked us to embrace our troops when they return from Afghanistan and Iraq, and he contrasted the welcome they receive with the much more marked appreciation that soldiers in the US and Canada get when they come home. 

Since this was something that struck me when we went to America recently, I’ve been thinking about why there is the difference.

General Dannatt thinks our indifference is because we do not, as a nation, support the policy of our government in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is difficult to fete the troops when we do not believe in what they are doing.

Contrast this with the Falklands War in 1982.  On the 19th March the Argentinian flag was hoisted on South Georgia.  On 21st July 1982 the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes sailed back into Portsmouth to a rapturous welcome.  She was carrying 1700 crew, Royal Marines, and survivors of the destroyed HMS Belfast.  Margaret Thatcher joined the ship by helicopter prior to the ship’s arrival in port.  One side of the ship has been decorated with a scoreboard showing the 46 enemy aircraft shot down by the Sea Harrier fighters launched from its deck.

This is what one returning soldier, who served with the Royal Marines on SS Canberra, said:

“We left Southampton Docks to the sound of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ played by a large contingent of the Band. Up until this point I had become cocooned, withdrawn, by myself; did I really join the Royal Marines? Do they really expect me (a seventeen year old kid, who joined the Corps to make his parents proud and make his mates sit up and listen) to go to War? I listened to the tunes, I watched Band, I saw the send off and thought to myself “Yes Pess, they are proud of me, time to be proud of myself!”…

The homecoming was special, my parents travelled to Southampton to meet the ship. The band did a Procedure Alpha on the flight deck and then we grounded instruments and hung over the side to see our families. That feeling has only ever been repeated when my children were born.”

Apart from a lack of belief in the cause that our forces are fighting for, it is also the case that there are whole swathes of the country that have no direct connection with the armed forces.   The officers – particulary in the army – are still largely recruited from the small band of upper middle class families who have supplied officers for generations.  We know several former officers from the three services, all now living civilian lives.  We have one close friend serving in the Navy.  We know only one young “squaddie”, the boyfriend of our daughter’s babysitter.  He is waiting to make his very first tour – to Iraq.  I am touched by his enthusiasm, by his politeness (to me), by his desire to make something of himself, and by the huge price he may have to pay for not wanting to stay put – in a war that few of us believe we should have started in the first place.

National Service ended in the UK on 31st December 1960.  Since 1939 most men between the age of 18 and 26 had been required to sign up, but during most of this time the UK had been at peace.  Relatively few men other than career soldiers have memories of active service.  Relatively few families have been touched by military conflict.  In the US memories of the draft and the Vietnam War are much more recent, and, as we learnt, still define the life experience of many, many Americans.

Sadly, here, the most obvious welcomes are those given to the bodies of young soldiers killed on duty.  Private Aaron McClure died in Afghanistan on August 27th 2007, aged 19.  He died in a suspected friendly fire incident involving a US jet.  More than 500 people attended his funeral in his home town two weeks later, and a cortege of hundreds led by a bagpiper walked the mile or so through the town centre from the church where his funeral was conducted to the greenfield cemetery on the outskirts on the otherside of the town.  During his time in Afghanistan he wrote:

“I’ve had 14-hour fire fights with the Taliban, been shot at, had rockets going over my head, missing by mere metres, but the only thing I’m scared of is snakes.”

Private McClure’s 18-year old brother was about to join the Royal Anglian Regiment but his training has been put on hold.

It’s nice to think that 500 people would have turned out to welcome Pte McClure home if he was still alive, but somehow I doubt it.

A piper walks ahead of the funeral procession,,2174528,00.html