WHERE I came from, you signed up, or you didn't.
If smart, you could have an education, or a job, or a custodial sentence, or a schoolboy form with a football club. Otherwise it was training with the standard British Army bayonet. It was what you did. That old, gone Scotland had its Jock-talk to make the process seem rational. "Away for a sojer," they'd say. The talk was feudal, mostly. Were you Edinburgh-born, in those days you went up to the Castle and signed up. I almost did.
The reader may now pause. My mother, if she's not in shock, can also pause. It's true, though: at 16, staring hard at those recruitment papers in the rain, I almost preferred soldiering to being ordered around by toffs in a seminar room. Same difference, as it transpired.
So why am I not writing now as Maj Gen Bell (retd)? First and last, Ireland. Couldn't and wouldn't, not in this universe. If it isn't in the Special Branch file, put it in print: had they given me a chance, I might have set light to a post office or two, just for fun.
Second, that persistent, nagging thought. When I completed every entry on the papers, that day in the rain, I remember drawing breath. You must delete a bygone teenager's expletives, but they involved another way to spell "what counts". Then I asked: why would I ever be killing anyone for the sake of some count?
To be a soldier, in my book, is to be a kind of socialist. Humanity hangs together, in hope, for humanity's sake. Young men join up because of other young men. They live and work and die together, as often as not, because of a place or a tradition they hold in common, and because someone asks them to kill others. Then, perhaps, they understand better what is meant by their world. That's my belief.
But I just got reminded. In my day, only daft laddies joined up. Now young women assert the right to be exploited. I wish those women would refuse the honour, but part of my memory contains others. If modern squaddies resemble the girls I grew up among, they're probably asking why they don't have an equal right to kill all foreigners.
I never got the hang of it. In some branches of my family military abounds, but no-one ever called an obligation a career. The falling rain, all those years ago, said I was kidding myself about that. True enough.
I have a sad old piece of typed paper somewhere, saved by my grandmother's uncle, out in the eastern desert of north Africa, for Christmas in 1943. Those were, as Hamish Henderson well remembered, puir swaddies. The typescript for the order of service says sons of the Canongate sang Silent Night before setting off to kill some German boys for some battle or other.
We all have this ancestry, and think nothing of it. I can invoke a great-grandfather who lied about his name and age and wound up in India, aged 15, in the high summer of empire. At the end of his life they gave full honours over his grave just days after a British firing party had executed his brother in a Dublin jail. Even a friend of militarism could concede that such facts produce complicated reactions.
A few years back I wrote something about the boys from the barracks near the house where we lived, and how the checkout girls in Tesco would make them blush – for a laugh, ken? – and about how unspeakably young those half-men were, and about how furious, predictably furious, I was about Blair and Bush and their wars. I forgot something. I forgot to say how those boys sounded.
Just like me, once upon a time. When RL Stevenson intended poetry he called it "the language spoken about my childhood". Louis called that "the drawling Lothian voice", and said it was dying out. But in the intonation of those young men in a supermarket there lived an entire history. And I could hear it.
How many soldiers does a decent country need? You could rewrite the question. You could ask how many maimed and dead generations of the otherwise unemployable will satisfy the thing we call pride? I was in Perth the other week and by chance veterans of the Black Watch were gathering. Old men were talking about what the regiment had meant to them, and why it had to be defended against "cuts".
You can call me ambivalent. I can sound as indignant as anyone when another Tory minister reveals himself as a staggering hypocrite, praising heroes in one breath and handing out redundancy notices in the next. Don't talk of "service" to someone you've just put out of work, whose scars are deep, permanent and beyond healing. But I wonder.
They mean to cut 20-odd thousand personnel from the British armed forces' permanent list. Because they are spooked by the SNP and a referendum, it seems that Scotland will get to keep more cap badges than other regions in the United Kingdom. Will this assuage our presumed resentments? Or do we want more boys marked for an Afghanistan or an Iraq?
The chatter from Whitehall says that the Jocks are getting off lightly. Allegedly, if our "recruitment profile" was the sole criterion, a lot more of the old regimental names would be gone. I find that interesting. If you believe the Ministry of Defence – at your own risk – modern Scottish teenagers are less keen on military tradition than once they were.
I'm not sorry. Once upon a time there were pipes, drums, marching men and old family tales passed down through the years. I smell another story now. It amounts to this: even at a time of hellish unemployment and hopelessness, young Scottish men are failing to sign up. Have they seen through it all, at last? If so, Britain is in more trouble than Britain realises.
One of my grandfathers made a life from nothing. By that I mean something simple. Before he had become an adult, every significant person in his life was dead. There was the diphtheria, the Great Flu, the usual stuff that poverty does: by the time my grandfather was a young man almost all of them, brothers and sisters, time after time, had gone. But his country wasn't done.
As best I can gather, Private Alfred Mackay of the Royal Scots – "Edinburgh's regiment", once upon a time – was lost in a place called Mesopotamia at the hands of "the Turk". All I can bet is that young Alfred, remembered by no-one, had not a clue about where he was dying, for what, or for whom. It seems he was under the age to serve, of course.
To take pride in our military traditions is to take pride in foolish boys and girls, not in those who give the orders. It might be that we are better off out of the soldiering game, and better off imagining the country that does not impose those sacrifices on its children.
That's probably another reason why I am not Maj Gen Bell (retd).
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