This week’s showing on BBC2 of the gripping Our Falklands War: a front line story will have forced comparisons and contrasts with the Troubles. When I reported the Falklands War from afar in Buenos Aires I used to wonder how those spotty youths in ill fitting uniforms would fare against the elite of the British Army like the Parachute Brigade. Not well as we saw when 1000 of them surrendered to less than 100 paras at Goose Green, although the elite Argentinian marines fought a whole lot better on the approaches to Port Stanley.
You know what I’m going to say next. Actual conflict was massively different from taking pot shots at civilians in Derry and Ballymurphy. In the film the military spirit was rampantly on display. War lent it a legitimacy denied to solders “acting in support of the civil power.”
Filmed on board liners on the way to the south Atlantic, we saw super aggression of the paras, whipped up to kill the enemy, “the real job for soldiers, ” waving pints of beer like a football crowd and jeering contempt for “Argies”. Just the same no doubt as in grim cramped quarters of the improvised barracks in Belfast and Derry, expressing fear and contempt for the sudden sniper attack on patrol and the wider community they believed sustained the IRA .
In recollection as elderly men, actual combat at close quarters was such a contrast to the swagger. Ironically it humanised them. The para with a Catholic background who had “doubts” and held his victim in his arms as he died and closed his eyes. The other who couldn’t abide the smell of a fart because it reminded him of the smell of a man dying violently in trenches used latrines. Another wearing dark glasses on the way to the supermarket to hide his suspicious staring eyes.
Waddington, of the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, who was only 19 when he was sent to war, also had to use his bayonet to kill an enemy soldier. “I remember the smell,” he said sadly. “He defecated as he was dying.” Another soldier told how he was forced to head-butt a soldier repeatedly “until he was no longer a threat”.
“People ask me, ‘What was it like in the Falklands?’ ” said Nigel “Spud” Ely, also from 2 Para. “Now I’ve served in the SAS, in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Africa, and nothing can compare to what we did at Goose Green.”
Imagine how psychologically damaged you must be if, on coming home, you build a trench in your mother’s back garden because it feels safer to live outside. Michael Iddon, who was on board the Sir Galahad when it was hit by an Argentine strike and became trapped in a smoke-filled corridor, could no longer bear to be indoors, so spent “months” on the lawn. The storytelling was controlled well, like layers of an onion being slowly peeled away.
PTSD rampant; but they didn’t call it that in the early 1980s.
Apart from the grisly detail the film left two strong and quite familiar impressions; the life time loyalty to comrades living and dead; and the repeated vow of some hat they had never spoken of their worst experiences before and never would again.
This set me wondering how to repeat the moment captured for the Falklands documentary for the Troubles, whether it is possible to draw out, often for the first time, the stories of how combatants truly felt and what they truly did.
The UK government’s idea of a de facto amnesty for those who come forward with admissions may be too quickly written off. Perhaps if the opportunities were seized and supported by all the “community” groups and indeed the community as a whole, this could be the moment when truths are exposed. I have a feeling that if there never had been legal process, many more grim confessions would have tumbled out already. Not that the law could have been set aside just like that.
But now? Wholehearted public support for personal experiences might make all the difference.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London