Wasted Lives & Wasted Years: Northern Ireland 1975/9 by Ken Wharton. Advance review.

Ken Wharton, Northern Ireland historian, ‘Troubles’ veteran and scribe extraordinaire, and my fellow Royal Green Jacket, has once again granted me the honour of reviewing his latest offering in raw manuscript form. And what an offering it is: a mammoth 350,000 word two volume colossus that hits you between the eyes and leaves you reeling with spent, impotent and futile rage at the killings just gone and the bitter tale told.

Wasted Years and Wasted Lives is Ken’s sixth book on ‘The Troubles’, and as with his more recent works, he has subtly shifted his focus from the relentless grind of the military death toll, to the insidious and cancerous grasp on the community, caught defenceless in a dreadful pincer movement of Republican and Loyalist terror. Wasted Years abounds with moving tales told in the soldiers own voices that resonate with precision, pride and professionalism in a job well done, but burn with loss, grief and anger at the mistakes made ‘on high’ by incompetents in power and politics. He has captured the voice of the man on the ground and many former soldiers will find themselves laying the book down and muttering, ‘Bloody hell I’d like to have gone on a patrol with him or been in his section. This guy knew what he was doing.’ Mike Sangster, ex Royal Artillery, makes several such powerful contributions and if ever there was a role-model for a section-commander, be it then or now, then I reckon he’d be it. And he isn’t the only one; the book is replete with such men whom make you feel proud to have been a British soldier.

But above all else, this is a book that captures the tragedy of the Troubles and the inhumane cruelty of the murderers and thugs who hid behind them. Ken has forensically, painstakingly and solemnly, unearthed many lost tales of innocent young lives cut short and cast into forgotten history, all for the sake of political expediency and to save the blushes of present-day leaders. Whilst there has been eons of time and energy spent on alleged cover-ups and collusions by the security forces there has been precious little given to the greatest cover up of all: what really went on during those times and the endless crimes that were committed against the communities by their own self-imposed ‘protectors’ and representatives.

One is left reeling at the sheer scale, brazen audacity, bumbling incompetence, careless rage and cunning coldness of the IRA/UVF killing machines, who spent as much time killing innocents of ‘their’ own kind as they ever did murdering professional soldiers. The excesses of IRA ‘nutting squads’ and Loyalist murder gangs casually slaughtering innocents is hard to believe; random strangers are lifted off the street for wandering into the wrong area and spirited away for knee-cappings; lunatic drunks calling themselves ‘Butcher boys’ kidnap defenceless student types and dispatch them in blood spattered ‘romper rooms’; half-witted ‘freedom fighters’ burst into the homes of innocent families and shoot pregnant women or fathers holding toddler offspring; opportunistic psychopaths stalk streets and randomly sling bombs into heaving bars with a manic chuckle and gleeful grin, before a huge blast scatters life and limb like wedding confetti; and on and on it goes with nobody immune from the terrorist grasp and all caught up in it: taxi driver, delivery boy, milkman, barman, merchant sailor and bank clerk alike. Nothing and nobody is spared and no apologies are forthcoming – no matter that often the entirely wrong ‘target’ is struck and innocent multitudes of their own religious kind are taken out. It’s all cheerily written off as ‘freedom fighting’ or ‘economic warfare’ by the murder squads – most of who wouldn’t last one day in a professional army – and served up as meat for ‘the cause’.

The impression that I am left with after reading Ken’s book is that there were two kinds of terrorist groups in Northern Ireland: the first kind was a cunning, ruthless and – I will admit it begrudgingly without respect – highly professional outfit with ‘good’ tactics that were effective and precise, in the art of ambush and guerrilla warfare (I will give them that much and pay them that compliment). The second type was a motley, random collection of clinical psychopaths, criminals, social deviants and full-on gangsters that simply hid behind the political labels of their cause and indeed didn’t even care about it too much, but rather used it as a convenient excuse to spread murder and mayhem on their merry way. It was the former types that took out soldiers at the rate of one a week and the latter types that killed softer targets and innocent civilians in their scores. As regards the Loyalists I believe that they simply adopted a ‘scorched earth’ policy and as a result were far less calculating and ultimately far less effective in securing their strategic aims than the Nationalists. I also believe that they attracted a far less politically motivated and ‘genuine’ recruit, but attracted a far more criminal and bloodthirsty sort for all the wrong reasons. With the Republicans it seemed that dreadful strategy reigned but with the Loyalists it was more calamitous chaos.

I am also left with the belief that the IRA adopted – perhaps unwittingly but more probably by ruthless, careful design – a Clausewitzian strategy of ‘Total War’ to drive the superior British force out by any means, up to and including the sacrifice of their own innocent population. I believe that the tragedy of Bloody Sunday in which completely innocent catholic protesters were shot dead by the British army was a carefully planned and executed ‘honey-trap’ sting, using the protesters as bait and carried out with dreadful ‘success’ by the IRA high command. The army allowed themselves to be baited and sleepwalked into that dreadful trap which saw many innocents die, a great regiment tainted, and the nationalist leadership gaining a stunning, ‘game-changing’ and strategically successful PR coupe. Certain leading members of Sinn Feign have admitted to wandering around that day with machineguns; I don’t believe that they were carrying such weapons for pigeon shooting, but that they were used to corral something else together, in my opinion. As any good policeman will tell you: when investigating a crime the first recourse is to see who profits from it and that’s your chief suspect. Many people lost on Bloody Sunday and a certain few profited, as any fair-minded soul can see. Even more surprisingly, a certain few are deeply reticent, evasive, cautious and unusually reserved about their own whereabouts on that most dreadful of days. And yet these same few plunge the knife into the soldiers on duty that day with twinkle-eyed glee. Total War indeed.

Nobody does Northern Ireland like Ken and nobody tries harder to tell the stories of the men that soldiered and died, policed and patrolled, cried and bled, or lived and wept on the Emerald Isle than he. Without Ken’s voice many of these tales would be lost to the sands of time and the courageous sacrifice of these men would be forgotten; but thanks to him they won’t and the stories of heroism, comradeship and survival against the odds will live on, educating and inspiring a younger generation of soldiers on a different battlefield yet facing an equally fanatical foe. All of us who have ever worn green owe Ken and the men he writes of a debt; because lest we forget it could have been us.

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