THE BLOG

Beyond the Soldier Myth - Drones Strikes, Night Raids and Taliban Ambushes

21/02/2013 17:16 GMT | Updated 23/04/2013 10:12 BST

To say that media coverage of post 9/11 wars is sanitized hardly seems to be a controversial suggestion these days. This is the age of embedded journalists, stock war footage of soldiers doing 'soldier things' in sandy places and TV interviews with media-trained military officers.

One of the most striking bits of analysis to come out of the recent Prince Harry/Captain Wales interview was the comment by a PR expert that: "This is part of a rebranding of Harry, because people will forgive a hero. As a hero soldier, he's seen as someone putting his neck on the line for the country, which is very good PR".

As a former soldier myself, I am aware that while it might be a marketable idea, Harry is never going to be one of the lads. Even if he was not a royal, he'd still be a commissioned officer - the equivalent of senior management. And an officer in the Household Cavalry - the poshest regiment in the army - at that. But Harry aside, what about the 'lads' he's meant to be a part of?

The hero-soldier brand is undeniably potent. The increased presence of soldiers at sports events - be it at Premier League games or the Olympics - is a shrewd move by the PR-savvy Ministry of Defence. The idea of a wholesome, dutiful hero is very appealing and is very much a feature of British identity, intertwined as it is with our military history and our imperial present.

But soldiers - actual soldiers, not officers - are denied a voice. As I found out myself, speaking to the media without permission from you commander is an offence that breaks Standing Orders - the permanent, overarching set of rules that govern discipline - and doing so has the potential to land you with a long stretch in military prison.

This inaccessibility, combined with the propaganda which has been redoubled in the face of deeply unpopular wars, means that the voice of the authentic soldiery is missing. Are they really in favour the wars? Is it all about Queen and Country? Or fighting for your mates? Protecting Britain from a terrorist threat? Are the dusty young men on television really just robots, as the cliché goes? I decided to ask veterans from across the army - on a soldier to soldier basis - what they really thought about the wars, and if they actually understood what they had been doing. Some of the answers, and the hidden narrative behind the popular jingoism, surprised even me.

Over four episodes, I spoke to veterans and experts about military recruitment, training, going to war and the experience of coming home for UK soldiers.

Two of the major grievances amongst occupied people in Iraq and Afghanistan are drone strikes and night raids. We talked to Ben Griffin, formerly of the Parachute Regiment, about what's it like to blow the walls off family homes in Baghdad while carrying out house raids, and then come home to your own family. Guardsman Matt Horne was witness to numerous drone strikes during his time in Basra and he saw for himself the impact of this increasingly controversial and often indiscriminate remote weapon.

But while war is increasingly fought by remote, the experience of the soldier on the ground is still key. Glenn Humphries, for example, served in Afghanistan during the fraught 2006 re-invasion, he recounted the experience of being pinned down by enemy fire in a slimy irrigation ditch in Helmand and having to fight his way free, as well as the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life after the intensity of war.

If you'd like to get a sense of the story behind the parades and poppies, you might be interested in The Soldier Myth and the War on Terror.