These boots were made for talking about

Why soldiers' concerns about their inadequate kits are hitting the headlines in the UK.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘Marines’ boots too small’; ‘Troops forced to scrounge kit from GIs’; ‘Desert kit: the shortages and shortcomings….’ The headlines say it all. Apparently British troops are being packed off to the Gulf without the right kits – complete (or incomplete) with ill-fitting boots, wrongly sized uniforms, and dodgy tanks and rifles.

‘They’ve got the courage, Mr Blair, but have you given them the equipment?’ asks the front page of the Daily Mail, reporting that ‘Our Boys’ are ‘being sent off for war against Saddam Hussein with malfunctioning weapons and a desperate lack of battle kit’ (1). ‘It’s a joke’, one marine’s mum told the Sun, after her son was issued with size 9 boots for his size 12 feet. The Sun reckons that ‘some soldiers have to spend up to £500 on extra kit’ (2).

It goes beyond bad boots and uncomfortable uniforms – apparently British weapons aren’t up to much either. There’s the SA80 rifle, said to be ‘notoriously unreliable in desert conditions’; the AS90 self-propelled gun, which ‘suffered serious problems in desert heat during recent exercises’; and the Challenger 2 tank, with its 30-year-old radios that, according to an official report, are ‘completely inadequate’ for combat (3). ‘This is a sorry way to treat our troops on the brink of war’, says one newspaper (4).

It is no doubt true that squaddies are being sent abroad with clothes that don’t fit and guns that don’t kill. Just last week the British sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf with no aircraft on board, because of ‘serious problems with the engines on six Harrier GR7s’ (5). And remember the British military’s big contribution to the Afghan War – blowing up four caves of ‘enemy ammunition’ which it later transpired belonged to an Afghan ally? (6) These are incompetent times, and the British military can be as incompetent as the worst of them.

But why is this becoming a big issue now? The British military has never been particularly well-equipped. From the First World War to the Second, right up to modern British wars in the Falklands and Northern Ireland, British troops have always struggled with ill-fitting uniforms and second-rate weaponry. In the past, however, troops tended to complain about these issues among themselves or in letters home. Now they’re giving interviews to reporters, and the kit problems are hitting the headlines.

This all-out focus on kit problems, alongside claims that troops are not ‘ready’ or ‘prepared’ for war, suggests a deeper uncertainty about the planned attack on Iraq. Among British troops, the discomfort seems to be with the war itself and not just with their size 9 boots.

Some of today’s troops may have boots too small for marching, but they at least have a pair each. During the First World War, British troops had to share boots, and tin hats. According to Fred Cox, an EastEnder who fought in the First World War: ‘There wasn’t enough boots, there wasn’t enough tin hats to go around – you shared with one another.’ (7) In Cox’s trench, there were only three tin hats for the men on duty, which would be used by those ‘looking out of the trenches’, and ‘when we went off duty the next man came on and used the same hats’ (8).

The boots of the First World War were far from comfortable. During the making of BBC TV’s reality show The Trench in 2002 – where ordinary members of the public spent a couple of weeks in a trench to see what ‘trench life’ was like (as if) – some complained about the over-realistic boots. ‘One piece of equipment we had difficulty with was the army boots’, said one participant. ‘[They were] the most uncomfortable piece of equipment, I never got used to my army boots.’ (9)

As for uniforms, in a letter home during the Second World War one soldier complained: ‘Mum…all uniform and outfit is of first-class material – although it doesn’t fit too well sometimes.’ (10) Other veterans of the Second World War explained how they would put their uniforms in freezing water to shrink them, and ‘cut off the cuffs’ if necessary. ‘I tell you what we do, we “make do and mend”’, one soldier wrote to his wife in 1944.

Recalling his life at the British Army’s Catterick Camp in Yorkshire in the 1960s, one soldier says that ‘nothing ever fitted’. ‘Everything was in either small, medium or large, nothing between. Naturally nothing fitted properly and major adjustments had to be made by us.’ (11) And apparently, there was never any question of complaining about ill-fitting uniforms or boots. Those who did would be asked by the Catterick sergeant: ‘What is wrong with you laddie, are you deformed?’ (12)

According to one modern-day British official, problems with British boots go back even further than the First and Second World Wars. In November 2002, Bruce George, chair of a Commons Select Committee on military matters, was exasperated when he heard that today’s soldiers still have boot problems. In a cross-examination of Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the UK chief of defence staff, George said: ‘I presume this question of army boots, which has been bedevilling the Army for about 400 years, is resolvable?’ (13).

Even in recent conflicts, British troops have found themselves without decent basic equipment. Today’s Gulf-destined troops fret that their guns won’t work in the desert, as well they might – what’s the point of having a rifle that doesn’t shoot? But in the ‘Battle for Wireless Ridge’ in June 1982 during the Falklands War, a company in the British Parachute Regiment found that it had ‘exhausted’ its ammunition and that no more was being delivered; so the troops ‘hastily fixed bayonets’ to their guns (14). The soldiers prepared to storm the enemy in the ‘old-fashioned way’ – suggesting that gun problems haven’t always been allowed to stand in the way of (savage) acts of war.

In a conflict closer to home – Northern Ireland, 1969 to 1994 – many British troops complained privately about their uniform and weaponry. Writing after the conflict, one ex-squaddie, who served in Derry and Belfast in the 1980s, recalled: ‘It was a pain to patrol streets where people really despised us…. [It] was made more painful by the boots we had to wear. You’d wait for weeks for the right size boots to turn up at the barracks.’ (15)

British soldiers have faced uniform, boot and gun problems for decades, if not centuries. Such problems may well be worse now, especially with weapons that simply don’t work in desert conditions (never a good thing for a Gulf War) – but there’s another difference between then and now. Where British soldiers wrote down their kit concerns in private letters in the past, or remembered them in memoirs years after the war, now British troops and their worries are making the front pages of the papers even before the war has started.

There is a bigger problem with the planned attack on Iraq than badly-fitting boots – a lack of conviction. From the chief war-talkers George W Bush and Tony Blair down to the rest of us, there doesn’t seem to be much stomach, much less passion, for invading Iraq. As we have argued before on spiked, neither side in the war debate, whether it’s the pro-war politicians or the anti-war protests, have offered a particularly convincing case. In America and Europe, there isn’t much sign of conviction in either camp, leading to a confused climate where most people have a shoulder-shrugging approach to the talked-up war rather than any really strong feelings.

If even our war leaders aren’t especially fired up about launching the war, instead issuing confusing and uncertain statements, why should the troops on the ground be any different? In the past, it was the soldiers’ sense of being part of a broader aim that suppressed their complaints about kits. It was the notion that they were fighting for something bigger than themselves, for some national or moral good, which created the ‘make do and mend’ approach described by the Second World War veteran. Why would troops complain about their boots and hats when they had an enemy to defeat, and a seemingly good reason for doing it?

Today, when there is little sense of what the Iraq war is for – or when it will start, or how many troops will be involved, or how long it will last – there is little to tie soldiers on the ground together in anything resembling solidarity. When troops are sent abroad in their thousands for who knows what, it’s hardly surprising that they feel insecure, that they appear uncertain about what they’re supposed to do with their weapons that don’t even work very well.

It is this broader confusion that contributes to, and amplifies, the British complaints about their kits. If in wars gone by it was the collective aim that helped to keep individual soldiers’ concerns and complaints in check, no such mechanism exists for the coming war with Iraq. As a result, every petty (and not-so-petty) complaint about boots and guns can be expressed, not only privately, but also in interviews with the media.

The way in which the soldiers’ worries have been given such prominence in the media and in political circles, turning their concerns into a big national issue, reflects the wider uncertainty about the war. In previous times of war, a media campaign around the British military’s incompetence, and newspaper editorials about British politicians selling short ‘Our Boys’, might have been denounced as disloyal and unpatriotic. Now, when there is much confusion about the Iraqi crisis, these issues can take off, as commentators and politicos grasp for some meaning to the conflict.

Now, some of those opposed to war with Iraq (like the UK tabloid The Mirror and Liberal Democrat MP Paul Keetch, who has interviewed British troops) are kicking up a stink about the kit problems, as a way of calling for the war to be stalled or rethought. There is nothing like a principled stand against war – and flagging up the kit issue to ‘delay’ an invasion is nothing like a principled stand against war.

The kit issue provides a snapshot of a far bigger problem facing modern military machines. Today’s armies – whether it’s the American, British, French or Israeli – seem to find it increasingly difficult to justify individual sacrifice in the name of a collective aim. This is an age where soldiers sue their commanders if they make them do anything too stressful; where every war seems to be followed by its own syndrome; where the military advertises for recruits by depicting army life as a way of helping beleaguered women and children around the world.

During the Afghan War, military lawyers were on hand to ensure that troops avoided risky operations – and that the US military avoided getting sued. According to one US soldier: ‘If an operation [proposed by the operation corps] said “raid”, “ambush”, “kill”, “sniper”, anything like that, then it would be disapproved based on the vocabulary used.’ (16) Now, in Britain and America, military officials are fretting about another outbreak of Gulf War syndrome if there is a new war with Iraq, expressing concern that soldiers will take them to court if they suffer side-effects as a result of the vaccines they’ve taken.

In our uncertain times, the British and US armies find it difficult, not only to put a clear case for military intervention, but also to put the case for elevating ‘the mission’ over the welfare and self-esteem of those fighting it. This has had a dramatic impact on the nature of army life – where some soldiers now seem to consider it perfectly acceptable to demand better boots and guns, rather than having to ‘make do and mend’.

It isn’t only the guns that don’t work in the Gulf – neither, it seems, do arguments for a collective intervention.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War with Iraq

Moral cowardice – what hawks and doves have in common, by Mick Hume

(1) Sold short, Daily Mail, 22 January 2003

(2) Marines’ boots are too small, Sun, 22 January 2003

(3) Iraq could face a nuclear attack, Daily Mail, 22 January 2003

(4) Let down again, Daily Mail, 22 January 2003

(5) Mission still uncertain as troops set off for Gulf, Michael Smith, Daily Telegraph, 11 January 2003

(6) See Military imprecision, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Life in the trenches – personal recollections of the First World War by Fred Cox, Oxford Tours, March 1998

(8) Life in the trenches – personal recollections of the First World War by Fred Cox, Oxford Tours, March 1998

(9) The Trench live chat, BBC Online, 23 March 2002

(10) A soldier’s thoughts from the Second World War, Joe Houghton, Kiwi Soldier Web

(11) My personal story of the second RTR, RW Brown, 2001

(12) My personal story of the second RTR, RW Brown, 2001

(13) The United Kingdom Parliament, 6 November 2002

(14) Honour regained: second time round for 2 Para, Britain’s Small Wars, 2002

(15) Brits Speak Out: British Soldiers’ Impressions of the Northern Ireland Conflict, ed John Lindsay, Guildhall Press, 1998

(16) See War from on high, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics World


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