Smile, Shoot, Smile

Article from todays Telegraph about the Scots Guards in Basra

The sudden, high-profile VIP visit to the British Army base near Basra did much to raise the morale of the Scots Guards who are on duty this Christmas. Everyone wanted his picture taken alongside such dazzling celebrity and most of the men agreed it was a first-class performance.

"Those Page 3 girls were extremely hard-working," said the commanding officer, Lt Col Harry Nickerson, thoughtfully. "And the smiles on the boys' faces - I have never seen such an effect."

Major Willie Swinton was also admiring. "It was most enlightening - they were all stars and they all knew what buttons to press."

"Not that impressed," said a bright-eyed guardsman who stood to attention in his tent until persuaded to sit down. "I thought they looked a bit rough, actually."

The visit by Tony Blair on Tuesday, on the other hand, was a matter for only mild curiosity. The whole camp was ordered to rehearse at 8am without being told why or for whom. At 4.30pm, when Downing Street was still emphatically denying a Blair stop in Basra, the entrance to Shaibah Base was starting to look like a military penguin colony. Guards, gunners, Engineers, Marines and RAF personnel gathered in groups. The servicemen and women arrived, punctual to the nanosecond; Mr Blair was 45 minutes late, his arrival coinciding shamelessly with the sunset.

The Prime Minister's minders pushed the accompanying entourage of press about and then turned bossily on each other. The soldiers watched with amused detachment. Then Mr Blair was in their midst, with his to-the-back-of-the-auditorium gaze and goofy smile, shaking hands, posing for pictures. Great job…elections…moving forward…we are proud of you.

He looked both polished and awkward. The earthy banter of the military is at odds with Mr Blair's rarified temperament.

Unlike Geoff Hoon, however, he doesn't confuse manly banter with laddishness. The Defence Secretary was once asked to a sergeants' dinner and phoned to say he would be late because he was watching a big football match on television, as he imagined the soldiers were. The sergeants were puzzled. Of course they weren't watching the match, because they would be at the dinner with Mr Hoon.

When the Defence Secretary turned up, he was presented with the traditional group portrait of the sergeants. "Here is a photograph," said a soldier, with dignity, "which you should have been in."

But the military does not hold grudges. When Mr Hoon visited Shaibah camp recently the flooded ground was landfilled to spare him embarrassment and the chef produced a birthday cake.

"What do the men think of Mr Hoon?" I asked one officer. "They don't think of him," he replied.

Mr Blair's visit was a straightforward photo opportunity - for the soldiers, that is.

One private with a bodybuilder's physique chuckled and said that he grabbed the Prime Minister in an armlock in order to "get my 15 minutes of fame on camera."

"I'll never wash me hands again," said another, with friendly irony. "Who is that man, by the way"?

Banter is the language of the army. When Lt Col Nickerson's tent was flooded in storms he found a rubber duck floating above his belongings.

He describes the relationship between himself and his men as one of "intimate respect". First names are rarely used, and some soldiers have to think before telling me what theirs are. (In a notable exception, a young guards officer who won a military cross for service in Iraq called to his men by their first names in order to rally them after their battalion had been hit.)

Lt Col Nickerson is the master of military understatement. He described an upsurge in insurgent activity, including two recent mortar attacks on the camp (one flew into an empty tent) as "interesting". He noted wryly that the only armoured section of the camp was the lavatories, so that is the best place to be hit. And he talked of the patrols around Basra, negotiating with warring tribes as well as dismantling explosives and other devices as "odd jobs".

Lt Col Nickerson, 41, has the languid features of a Mitford, the hands of a pianist and when necessary, the expressions of a Millwall supporter. "How did we settle the tribal dispute? We plonked ourselves in the middle of it and said, 'Come on, if you think you are hard enough.' "

The terms used by the British Army are in contrast to the Americans. The codename for the Fallujah assault was originally Thanksgiving Massacre until the British encouraged the more bashful alternative Phantom Fury. Our military activity in Basra is called Operation Energise, a bland title devised by computer. The same computer impishly led the upright Danes into the realms of 1970s pornography with names such as Deep Throat.

The multi-national division treads carefully with the Americans. A blue-eyed sergeant, who was once forced to fight with bayonets during the Falklands War, shook his head over American tactics in the south. "If we meet an American vehicle on the road, we will never pass because they just start shooting," he said. "The Danish have refused to patrol that road now. The Americans, they are buggers - they really are."

On the other hand, in the last week there have been two ferocious attacks on Americans in the north of Iraq. The soldiers watch the news on television in silence. The items on Iraq come second or third after more pressing concerns, such as Kimberly Quinn's growing list of lovers. I tried to explain domestic stories and the soldiers responded with polite bafflement.

They don't watch much television. They rent local pirate DVDs - the kind that have The Lord of the Rings and The Scorpion as a double bill and that show the heads of the cinema row in front bobbing up and down and sometimes leaving. They use the internet. And they sleep up to 10 to a tent for the guardsmen, sometimes under childlike duvet covers adorned with images from The Simpsons or Disney, surrounded by FHM calendar girls and letters from their mothers.

BY their bedsides, they have hoards of sweets. This week they have added some tinsel and some clumsy decorations. A sign outside the tent of Colour Sgt Chris Minay reads: "Santa, I've been a good boy, Please Stop."

The girls' tent, by contrast, is cosier and better organised - more girls' boarding school than military camp: clothes hanging up, radio on, girls in towels sitting cross-legged on their beds writing letters home.

There are no days off and not many nights, either. A group from C Company spotted a box of ammunition in the centre of a village while they were on patrol in the suburbs of Basra. I asked the soft-faced sergeant if it was anything significant. He gave small smile. Plastic explosives, improvised devices, a bag of nitrate, 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Good quality hardware, ready to go and aimed at the British.

"It would take out a convoy" he said. On their return, after nine hours without food, some of the men went immediately on to night guard.

Many of the Scots Guard have served in Northern Ireland and find the situation in Basra familiar. "It is smile, smile, shoot, smile, smile," said one officer. As we left the camp to visit the local market, which has been able to open only in the last month, RSM Mark Cape did his usual checks. He warned of spikes in the road and of improvised explosive devices.

A new mound of earth at the side of the road is suspicious, as is any unfamiliar object. Recently, insurgents have been disguising mines within abandoned tyres. Cape also listed the vehicles known to be owned by insurgents. "They are becoming more sophisticated," said one officer. "They are definitely adapting."

What makes it harder for the British is that the Iraqis use gunfire as an elementary form of expression: they fire for celebration or for conversation or in order to kill.

"The tribal way of solving a dispute is shooting each other," observed Lt Col Nickerson. The Scots Guards have to interpret gunfire as well as respond to it. Smile, smile, shoot, smile, smile.

As we passed through villages, two Guards officers walked the vehicles through the riskier passages. It is both a means of protection and of engaging with locals.

The children giggle and wave, the adults raise a hand and smile but their faces are melancholy rather than jubilant. "We are so tired," said an Iraqi interpreter. "We need peace, we need security. Not freedom, just peace."

In the market, a handsome man wearing a tweed jacket and neat beard pushed through the clusters of black- eyed, charming, menacing, pick-pocketing children.

"Excuse me, but are you English? I teach English. I like English, I love English, I adore English. But you don't appear to speak it properly any more. It is slang now."

I asked the teacher if life was improving for him. "I tell you what we need," he said with the clarity of a 1950s radio presenter. "We need services and security. We need rules. Nobody pays any attention to rules, not even for traffic." I thanked him for his time. "Not at all."

I pushed my way through more children. "Jiggy, jiggy, make the baby," one small boy said, laughing roughly. What all Iraqis want is security. The training and building up of the Iraqi National Guard and the military police is a frustrating process.

The British have tried to institute a Sandhurst training plan and a model structure, but the Iraqis have added their own idiosyncratic touches.

Some Iraqi officers demand that their men pay to speak to them. One captain simply drove off, abandoning his men in the middle of a patrol, because he had grown bored.

Recruitment is not easy. "We have five families in one house," said a stall-holder at the market, through an interpreter. "If I join the police, then our house becomes a target."

I went to meet the Iraqi lieutenant colonel at the local station. A slow, heavy man, he beckoned us to take his picture, pulling back his shoulders and raising his chin. I asked him if he thought the elections would be able to go ahead at the end of January. "God willing," he said.

Then he had a question for me. Do I know Moses? He frowned. He would like to hear the story of Moses. That was what he would like to hear.

The Iraqi National Guard is being trained on a disused airfield. On the day I went on battle exercise, we had tanks, missiles - and would have the RAF except they pleaded a fuel shortage (rivalries between the services are a running joke).

I hauled myself on to the tank, like a stranded beetle under the gravity of my flak jacket, and commented on battle operations with all the authority of Bridget Jones.

The following day, the guardsmen practise with rifles only. "Not quite ready for tanks," said one officer.

At the end of a previous battle exercise, a Bedouin tribesman brought forward an eight-year-old old boy with his leg blown off.

The guards thought at first that he had been hit by their artillery, but it was a nearby landmine. The company medic saved his life, although the boy lost his leg.

Views vary among British soldiers about the situation in Iraq.

One guardsman believed that the Army was making life better. A senior officer asked wearily how big a fig leaf was needed to allow withdrawal. Several said that they thought western-style democracy was unachievable: Iraq needed a benign dictatorship. Others said simply: "Above my pay grade."

Back at the camp, the mail room was piling up with Christmas post. Many had addressed parcels simply to "A Scottish Soldier".

"You got a letter this morning" said an officer to Capt Duncan Woodward, a sweet-natured university graduate. "What was it, a Dear John?"

"Oh no, I got that before I arrived," said Woodward, grinning.

"The camaraderie is everything," mused Lt Col Nickerson later in his headquarters. "If you can't laugh, you shouldn't be here. It prepares you for the uncertainty. A bad soldier is a selfish soldier. You always have to put your team above yourself."

He was clear about the fundamental purpose of a soldier. "It is an extreme form of sport - putting your life on the line against someone else's. To be tested to the ultimate."

Lt Col Nickerson's main concern is the encroachment of civilian society. "I feel that society outside the Army is lost, it is without morals."

He swept aside the argument that a messy private life was irrelevant to professional competence.

"If I am prepared to lie to my wife, and the guardsmen know that, why should they trust me when I say it is safe to go round the corner? People here know the difference between right and wrong."

Lt Col Nickerson said he would prefer to keep military laws. If a Guardsman fails to show up, he can be put in detention. No one would dare go on the sick. Lt Col Nickerson has a role of magistrate as well as commanding officer.

Capt Woodward delivered Abbie Trayler-Smith, The Telegraph photographer, and me to the border in watchful silence. An American guard ordered us out of the car. "How you doing, ma'am - another day in paradise?" he said.

Within minutes, we entered the reassuringly developed roads of Kuwait. In the back of the car were two young guardsmen, still with fine facial hair, whom we were instructed to follow if under fire.

They were heading for the American base now. "They've got everything: Pizza Hut, Starbucks," said one boy cheerfully. "And the ice-cream parlour," added the other.
Looking forward to reading the article over lunch. But like the comments (front page):

it is "Smile, Smile, Shoot, Smile, Smile" :lol:

"Come on if you think you're hard enough"

"I feel that society outside of the Army is lost, it is without morals"

Say it as it is

The earthy banter of the military is at odds with Mr Blair's rarified temperament.
Thats putting it mildly.

What an excellent article. Best one I've read for a long time that seems to sum up so much of what's right with this Army of ours.
Rudolph_Hucker said:

What an excellent article. Best one I've read for a long time that seems to sum up so much of what's right with this Army of ours.
Well said RH, and thanks to WG for finding it. Highly recommended, I will have to take a look at the Telegraph's website to see who wrote it.
D Telegraph article was by Sarah Sands.

Accompanying leader piece in the same edition:

Cheers to Tommy Atkins
(Filed: 24/12/2004)

Many will remember Wellington's description of British soldiers as the "scum of the earth". What most people forget is what he went on to say: "But what fine soldiers we have made them." Anybody reading Sarah Sands's account of Christmas with the Scots Guards outside Basra will be struck by a similar thought. Modern soldiers may no longer be the scum of the earth, or at least not after attending basic training; indeed, what fine people they are.

There is a temptation to be rather gloomy about contemporary society in general and youth in particular. Many adults are guilty of assuming that youngsters spend all their time hanging about on street corners wearing hooded tops, punctuated only by spells slouched in front of the television. But the performance of the Army in Iraq goes to show that today's young people are just as capable as previous generations were of exhibiting the timeless military virtues: discipline, service, stoicism and, of course, that mischievous mixture of respect for authority and insolence that can be so entertaining in adversity. Even the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, must have chuckled to himself when presented with a group photo in which he should have featured, after being late to a dinner at a sergeants' mess. :oops:

The Government is certainly guilty of taking the Army for granted. But politicians throughout the ages have done so, and soldiers are used to it. When Tony Blair flew into Iraq earlier this week, the Servicemen who greeted him put on a good show, but made clear that it was all in a day's work for them. They would have behaved the same towards Michael Howard or Charles Kennedy, but not perhaps towards the Tory defence spokesman, Nicholas Soames, whom they regard as one of their own.

Of course, what young Guardsmen need to transform them from slovenly youths into the world's finest infantrymen (pound for pound and man for man, the British Army is still more efficient than the mighty US army) is strong leadership and a proper moral framework, where horseplay is tolerated, but letting down your comrades or telling lies are beyond the pale. They find this in our regimental system, with its special esprit de corps, values, traditions and family links. As you celebrate Christmas, spare a thought for that endearing archetype: Tommy Atkins.
Hackle quite rightly said
Many will remember Wellington's description of British soldiers as the "scum of the earth". What most people forget is what he went on to say: "But what fine soldiers we have made them."
However, the way they were trained and utilised in the field of battle should be recognised as bullying par excellence. The officers were leading exponents of the 'Now is the time for a useless gesture' sort of action. Wellington appointed a Provost Marshal to organise executions of his troops for a wide range of offences. Within a very short while he had 24 Provost Marshals doing this work. Had the coldiers' treatment and losses been widely known at home, there would have been much more interference from Horse Guards. Other times - other mores.
I rather think that Wellington's treatment of his men kept losses down rather than increased them. Without incredibly strict discipline the Peninsular could have been just as hostile to the British as it was to the French. It was Wellington's policy of paying for supplies from the locals while punishing theft severely that separated his men from the French who were expected to thieve ("forage") for their sustenance as a matter of Napoleonic policy. Bearing in mind that a large number of his men were avoiding the magistrate's wrath back in Britain for various crimes the provosts had their work cut out. The result was that Wellington's army was considerably better nourished than the French and consequently had a better survival rate. Interence from Horse Guards was something Wellington avoided because it lead to the kind of petty beaurocracy that made things much worse, as he seen in earlier British continental campaigns was learned in America.
It is probably quite wrong to suggest, as many do, that Wellington had a callous disregard for his men, indeed he seems to have devoted more time to providing for their welfare than most of his contempories. This may have been because he knew that his manpower was finite in a way Napoleon - who was all grand gesture but little substance - never did.


Kit Reviewer
Bladensburg said:

Interence from Horse Guards was something Wellington avoided because it lead to the kind of petty beaurocracy that made things much worse,

Why does this seem familiar......?
It was Wellington's policy of paying for supplies from the locals while punishing theft severely that separated his men from the French who were expected to thieve ("forage") for their sustenance as a matter of Napoleonic policy
During the war in Portugal Wellington gave instructions that his troops were to use a scorched earth policy so that there was nothing for French to scavenge. Due to the long l of c from Fraance this was very decisive but the Portugese were not recompensed for the food and food producing centres that were detroyed.
Thanks WMG, I'd missed this. A clever article. Reading some of her old articles, it seems that her son is joining. Good on him and good on her!

ORC - The scorched earth policy in front of the Lines at Torres Vedras was indeed Wellingtons idea and it was disasterous for the Portugese who lived there, it's said that at least 5% of the population perished. However I do think that it is harsh to hold Wellington entirely responsible, the Portugese Junta must accept some responsibilty for the sheer incompetance with which they administered the evacuation. The plan was for all foodstuffs to be removed behind the lines as soon as they were harvested and for the working parts of mills etc. to follow with the population. However, due to enormous levels of graft and sheer incompetance (which didn't exactly fill the peasants with confidence, I suspect) there were still whole villages that were untouched until a very short time before Busaco. Consequently much had to be burned or otherwise destroyed that could have been saved, and many people were left on the wrong side of the Lines and at the mercy of Massena's increasingly desparate Army.
"Not that impressed," said a bright-eyed guardsman who stood to attention in his tent until persuaded to sit down. "I thought they looked a bit rough, actually."
He was talking about the visit from some page 3 girls. Funny as hell. They're all caked in makeup (and airbrished) when you see them in the papers and mags. It's only when you see them in the flesh that you realised they're all tiny halfwits and they're usually quite repulsive too. I remember seeing that Maria Whittaker on a live appearance and she was minging. Just like typical CSE show fodder. And they rarely put out for the lads - they always seem to get swiftly escorted to the offrs mess!
westwinger said:
Thanks WMG, I'd missed this. A clever article. Reading some of her old articles, it seems that her son is joining. Good on him and good on her!
I believe her son is at Sandhurst at the moment - I always cut out her articles and put them in the Squadron lines because they are so well written and actually give the lads credit for the job they do.

I do find that she can be a bit sentimental though, a bit which was missing from quote of her article on this site was going on about the two young infanteers in the back of her vehicle asleep and looking as if they were "dreaming of ice cream and opening their christmas presents from mum". If I know troopers at all, and I like to think I do, I can pretty much guarantee that there were no dreams of Ice Cream going on at that particular moment! :wink:

Overall though she makes a good point and shows a different, more educated and thought provoking side to the usual tabloid style of portraying our soldiers. Well done the Telegraph, once again.

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