Lined up awkwardly inside the Army recruitment centre in Preston
yesterday were a group of youngsters, all no doubt eager for a chance
to see the world.
Yards away, sipping cola in a
pub round the corner, was a man who could tell them exactly what it
feels like to speed through Basra at night, heart thumping to the
sound of gunfire and colleagues screaming "contact left, contact
Former Rifleman Steven
McLaughlin remembers being 16 and desperate to join the army. Yet when
his regiment, 1st Battalion, The Royal Green Jackets, heads back to
Iraq this autumn, the 34-year-old will stay behind, having resigned
from an army of which he is still so obviously fiercely proud.
"I am not anti war personally,
I am anti the wrong war. Iraq is a God-awful mess. My own personal
opinion is it was a dreadful mistake. These Middle-Eastern countries
have got a history of kicking people's arses - it is their terrain.
"I really believe we invaded
Iraq on a false premise - WMD - and we have destabilised the whole
Middle East," he said.
He claims that three quarters
of his fellow soldiers from one of the Army's toughest infantry
regiments were opposed to the war. Yet they are among an increasing
number being warned that they may have to serve an extended
eight-month tour because the military is so overstretched.
"I know soldiers are unhappy
with Iraq and very frustrated but they can't speak out. I am out of
the Army so I can speak freely," he said yesterday.
Working in Basra in 2003
sealed Mr McLaughlin's opposition to the occupation. Having battled
for years to join the regiment in which his late brother served, he
has departed with an "exemplary" record and the best wishes of his
"When we first went out there
three years ago I would say 75 per cent were for and 25 per cent were
against. I would say that has exactly reversed," he said.
"As a soldier you relish the
challenge of a tour. I am extremely proud to have served in Iraq; I am
proud that I went. I worked hard and I did a good job, but at the same
time it was the wrong war, the wrong place.
"The problem as a soldier is
you can't pick and choose the wars you fight. When you take the
Queen's shilling, you agree to go wherever you are told to go. That is
our side of the bargain and we don't complain. But there is a bond of
trust that they will do their very best to make it a last resort. We
ask only one thing, 'please don't waste our lives lightly'.
"That bond of trust has been
broken. I know a lot of guys who are signing off," he said. Having
kept a diary of his time in Iraq, Mr McLaughlin has now written a
book, Squaddie, which is a candid look at life for the average
The book offers a powerful insight into the motivation that drives
youngsters to sign up as well as the fear which follows when they
realise they are off to Iraq. It describes the exhausting and, at
times, terrifying experience of serving in Basra - all for an annual
salary of £15,000. "I am not painting myself as a war hero," he said.
"I was a distinctly average soldier. I am nothing special and not
claiming to be. When I was in Iraq it was a relatively quiet tour. At
times it was hairy but it has got much worse."
Yesterday he recalled the
moment he tried to calm a pale and trembling 18-year-old comrade
covered in the blood of an Iraqi worker who had died in his arms after
a roadside bomb. "A lot of lads come from very, very poor backgrounds.
They haven't done well at school. They are looking for a new home, an
escape. The Army is often the only place they can go. They want to get
on in the world. I respect that. It speaks volumes about their
character that they are willing to take all that shit and get on with
it and do a great job. It is criminal the Government has abused their
trust and goodwill."
After joining the Marines at
an early age, Mr McLaughlin was discharged after it was discovered he
had undergone laser surgery for his eyesight. Following the death of
his brother, a Royal Green Jacket rifleman, in a car crash years later
and the relaxing of rules on previous surgery he joined the regiment
at the age of 30 and was sent to the Gulf within months. "I felt like
an alien invader. A lot of guys came back feeling it was a quite
humbling experience. I sometimes felt guilty about how lucky I am
compared to the Iraqis," he said.
Mr McLaughlin left in February
2005 and, despite losing a finger in Northern Ireland, the former
Labour supporter insists he is lucky: "There are physically fit men
who come back having lost legs, arms, eyes. There are people coming
back pissing into plastic bags for the rest of their lives at 25. And
they are forgotten. It is disgraceful. Tony Blair has not visited the
wounded in hospital here. He should be pinning medals on them in front
of the television cameras.
With an overstretched
military, he says some of his friends had signed off only to be asked
if they could complete another tour in Iraq before leaving.
"Recruitment is down and more
importantly so is retention. Guys like me who would be happy to risk
their lives in Bosnia or Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing are
certainly not prepared to risk their lives on a phoney premise.
"It shows how desperate they
are that regiments are having to go out there now with a couple of
hundred blokes from another regiment. They have to borrow men. That is
why Tony Blair should resign. He cried wolf on Iraq and people were
prepared to believe him once but they won't believe him twice. If
another Gulf or Falklands arose again, would Tony Blair have the
credibility to go before the public and persuade them to support him?"