Serving with Tommy Atkins
RTE News this evening carried a television report filmed amongst the British forces in Basra in southern Iraq. In contrast with the usual reports, those detailing attacks and army actions, this was a report focused on the soldiers and their thoughts and feelings. The focus was upon a particular group of soldiers, those serving with the Royal Irish Regiment.
Many of the soldiers in the unit featured were from this side of the border; they were citizens of the Republic of Ireland and, presumably, from an international perspective would be seen as serving with a foreign power.
The RTE reporter seemed puzzled and bemused at the responses of those encountered. Why were they doing this? What was it that prompted them to join the British army and serve in this place? One officer gave a blunt reply, ‘we are professional soldiers’.
Whatever the arguments over British involvement in Iraq, (I marched in the demonstration against it), I think I can understand something of what it is that prompts young Irish men to join the army.
In times past they joined the army to get work. It is no longer a question of economics; Ireland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the officers featured were from educated, middle class backgrounds. Men joining the army are looking for something more than just money.
I think in the army, the professional soldiers are finding things that are no longer to be found in ordinary life. They find camaraderie, they find identity, they find purpose; they find a life that is different from the mundane and the routine.
In a world where they are told that happiness is to be found in a BMW and a suburban house and a fancy holiday and an executive job, there are men who are thinking that there must be more to life than this. In a world where overpaid footballers are considered heroes, and musicians and celebrities are considered role models, there are guys who are looking for real toughness, real heroes, people they can really respect.
I would never have gone near the army, but in some strange way it seems to be offering an alternative culture to the world of reality television, shopping malls, and people who are famous for being famous.
The experience of the professional soldier makes the life of the guy in the office look insignificant. It is an experience that gives their life meaning.
Instead of feeling bemusement, maybe we could learn something positive from the blokes in Basra.
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