Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The introduction of this unusual book smacks the reader full in the face: it is a bullet point summary of Martin Bell’s very eventful life that has, as the title suggests, revolved around war and peacekeeping.
His university education was his national service – specifically in the 1st Battalion of the Suffolks (formerly the 12th of Foot). This provided him with a bedrock of survival skills in a warzone, an understanding of weaponry, and some nuances of the command and control systems (and internal politics) of the British Army. That he failed a commissioning board understandably rankled a little, but probably enabled him to witness his wars from nearer the sharp end. Bell is a great advertisement for the good that came from National Service; his experiences give him the footing (and legitimacy) to make much of the comments that follow.
It is apposite that Bell’s first discourse is on Turkish/Greek relations – the situation remains very live today. My sources tell me the Turkish Navy is constantly trying to provoke its Greek counterpart in contested waters. Bell’s war with the Suffolks was in the peacekeeping role in Cyprus. Here he was first able to observe the British Press Corps in action – the comments are wry. In parallel he is concerned and amused about how what he is experiencing first-hand is played out in Whitehall. As one might expect most of the stories are the cocktail of pathos, danger and wit that only Britain’s armed forces can conjure.
By page 57 this reviewer’s heart was beginning to tick a little faster – the Turks actually invade Cyprus in 1974. This is the only war I have played a hand in. More like a fingernail – involvement was temporary and microscopic. Bell mentions Op Ablaut – the need to resupply British Forces on the island at extremely short notice. He doesn’t mention the parallel operation – Fallacy – which was the equally urgent repatriation of British service dependents. I flew out in a C130, in retrospect too blasé that the main cargo was ammunition, with Ablaut, and did an immediate about-turn with Op Fallacy. The cargo was wives and children; they were unsurprisingly stressed and tired – the C130 is not configured for passenger comfort. And as I soon discovered, they were prone to air sickness. This was probably not helped when an hour later I poled the Herc around the sky for 20 minutes!
Bell very clearly apportions blame for the (continued) partition of Cyprus to the British Government. Once into his journalistic career he has continual opportunities to evaluate the success of the UN’s interventions around the globe. The Balkans are one of his first conflicts, and he gives a withering assessment of the utility of the contributions of minor nations to UNPROFOR. In the aftermath of this conflict he did a lot of testifying at the Hagues’ War Crimes Tribunal.
Bell is justly very exercised by the proliferating use of landmines by Third World regimes, and of cluster bombs by First World countries. His fundraising work for the likes of the HALO Trust is well explained. He also gives very useful coverage of the prevalence of PTSD. According to Bell (this, like everything in the book, is irritatingly unsourced) 17% of British front-line veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts have suffered from it, and 6% of support troops. For reservists the proportions are higher. Thirteen years is the average length of time before a sufferer cries for help (this tallies with other evidence). Proof, were it needed, that the UK should put more effort into veteran care (and that politicians such as Blair rarely pause to consider the long-term consequences of their decisions).
This experienced author (this is Bell’s ninth volume) has taken the opportunity to get much off his chest. At the ripe age of 82, there is an edge of certainty in much of his commentary. Funny how teenagers are so certain of the correctness of their own opinions; in one’s thirties and forties one acknowledges that other points of view may occasionally be valid, and then in dotage those certainties return. Hence “It was right for us…”, and so on. Bell rarely feels the need to hide his opinions – perhaps after a lifetime’s career with the BBC he feels liberated; hence his opinions on Trump and Boris Johnson are starkly clear “the rising tides of mop-haired ethno-nationalism…”
Bell’s experiences to date gave him the perfect background to act as ambassador/flag waver for UNICEF. But the rationale of the narrative then is lost with a diversion into considering the tale of the British military disaster that was Malaya and Singapore in 1942. Each chapter is preceded by some verse penned by Bell, and this chapter starts:
For all the sins of Blighty
Which we would fain forget
May God who made us mighty
Not make us mightier yet.
Bell uses this example of British over-reach and ineptitude to go off at a tangent to criticise the notion (and process) of Brexit. “As is the way with politicians, no one would ever admit they were wrong. It was a self-inflicted injury and we shall have to live with the consequences. So will Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the charge to the cliff edge.” The Brexit riff is self-indulgent, and at odds with the rest of this fascinating book. He goes on to disparage the lamentable current occupant of the White House, laying much of the blame for his remaining in power to Senator Mitch McConnell. An effective demolition job of this world ‘leader’ with feet of clay.
Bell feels an old man’s frustration that today’s youth seem more interested in sucking up fake news and social inanities from the internet than seeking first-hand experiences. His turn of phrase is occasionally arresting – the internet is a “spigot for bigots”! The last chapter is full of very pessimistic conclusions, only leavened by some great stories of his rivals in the Press Corps in Africa.
An interesting book which should be mandatory reading at ACSC Shrivenham.