Turkey strikes Syria…

In June this year, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish military jet, claiming that it was in Syrian airspace. Turkey maintains that it was clearly in Turkish airspace. So began a militarisation of the conflict between Turkey and Syria – neighbours, former allies and potentially powerful enemies.

Recently, the Turkish parliament passed a Bill allowing unilateral military action against Syria, resulting from a shell fired over the border having killed 5 civilians. “It is not a bill for war”, said Besir Atalay, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minsiter, though it is intended to possess “deterrent qualities”.  Turkey retains one of the world’s largest standing armies, at roughly half a million soldiers it is larger than the professional armies of the UK, France and Germany combined. It is second only in size, within the Nato bloc, to that of the US. Similarly, as of last year, there are serious and considered plans to yet further double the size of the Turkish army – to a million soliders trained and paid for by the Turkish state. The aim being to both solve issues Turkey has had for many years with terrorism and its Kurdish separatists in the southeast, and long term structural unemployment.

Turkey has been reserved in its response to the growing violence in Syria, fearing unilateral involvement, and actively pursuing a UN resolution or a broader NATO containment force to be deployed. It is critically aware of historic sentiments towards its Ottoman rule over much of the Middle East. Yet, like the quiet but forceful boy in the playground, it’s not really wise for Syria to go poking him in the eye…

30,000 estimated deaths in Syria, as of early October 2012, is still apparently not enough to prompt either a consensual UN resolution, or an intention from NATO to deploy force. The rebels are not tiring of their all too just cause, and Assad feels strengthened both by this International inertia and the civil strife in the country his family has dominated for two generations.

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US Soldier breaks under pressure…

For all of their training, soldiers are people first and soldiers second. This simple fact can be seen yet again in the breakdown of one of these people, resulting in him shooting dead 16 people, in an unprovoked, premeditated act of murder.

Is a man guilty if he loses his mind? What are the ethical views of a society towards such a man; a society who recruited him, trained him, armed him and sent him out into a workplace – an arena of war, where he lost his mind. Does that society have a duty of care to this soldier? Is it really likely that such a person would be a mass killer in other circumstance? Lost his self regulation, forgot his empathy for his fellow man and took away their right to life.

This incident in not unique – just over two years ago, a middle ranking Officer and a senior professional (a US Army Major, serving as a psychiatrist), shot dead 13 people and injured 29 others, in the worst single act to take place on a secure American military base. How bad can things be, when the professional employed by the Army to address and resolve mental health issues in the soldiers for whom he has responsibility, himself loses his mind and instead of caring for and counselling his charge, he kills them.

On the latest figures we found (for 2010), US Army suicides were up 80%, from 2004, following the invasion of Iraq – to a total of 160 personnel. Previously suicide rates were far lower than amongst the civilian population. This was for a host of well documented reasons: camaraderie; purposeful occupation; role of physical exercise in mental well being; the importance of “joint purpose”. For this situation to have so catastrophically switched around is devastating to the lives of the serving soldiers, their families, the broader Army ethos and not least for their victims.

In a war that is operationally winding down – and all parties know this, its outcome will be measured by hostile actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, within two years of US withdrawal, and the civil disorder still prevalent in Iraq. For the ISAF soldier, this outcome will more tangibly be measured by the mental health state they are left managing as they retire from the military and return to civilian life, along with the rest of us.

Ruining the TA

The British Army is one of the most called upon in the world. It delivers more “bang for buck”, than possibly any other regularly utilised force. Equally though, these expectations have become so entrenched, that any additional request put to the Army, is considered already done once it has left the mouth of the Minister of State for Defence (for it is often left to the junior Minister, rather than the Secretary of State for Defence, to make unpopular decisions regarding manpower). The recent decision to halve the number of days payable for training, to the TA, is the most short sighted decision on the part of the MOD in a very long time.The TA runs on the goodwill of its personnel. We have familes, we have increasingly demanding jobs, we are paid a starting salary of approx £30 a day, to put ourself in harms way. There is no greater civic committment, than to be a member of Her Majesty’s Forces. The TA do this in addition to their full time jobs and lives. The Britsh contribution to the Iraq War, was reliant on roughly 15% of its troops being TA.

The war, quite simply, could not have been conducted without them. They also require immense management time to co-ordinate efforts, training, pre-deployment training – and simply ‘showing up’. I personally know members of both the TA and the Reserves (recently left members of full time Service personnel), who have missed the birth of a child, whilst away on Operations. This is a regular occurrence for our full time Army colleagues, but it is a big “ask” for someone who has volunteered to be there in his or her spare time… To cut by half the days available to be paid (to 11), effectively means one weekend every two months, to fulfill training that will allow our TA colleagues to be prepared to go forward to deployment training, and, at the very least, to provide the “Home Guard” function, vital to protect this country’s national interest. The net result, in a year’s time, could easily be an operational TA of half it’s present size, its members simply having drifted away…back to their own lives. We anticpate the Government’s response at that time.

Rock Climbing in Canada…

A friend said to me a number of years ago that one of the definitions of bravery was to be afraid, and then do it anyway…..On that basis, I seem to be a very brave person!

I began my trip to Canada, with 135 Independent Geographic Squadron (Royal Engineers), filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of doing a mountaineering course. This excitement changed somewhat when I volunteered instead to do a 5 day rock climbing course….it became trepidation, mixed with terror – although there was also a fair dose of excitement in there aswell…

This was easily borne out – although yes, pretty scary – it was exhilarating. It did take some time to sink in, but the course itself was excellent – our Guide was a world standard Mountain Guide, with International Accreditation – and also a deeply serious climber.

The technical skill involved in climbing is never ending: the knowledge to be gained is so vast and the discipline so rigorous, that one could easily spend a lifetime climbing and still feel you had so much more to learn. I am a lifelong and skilled hiker, and yet the relationship to the land between that of a hiker and climber is so very different: for the hiker it’s usually the views and to be involved with the land, that drive us on. For the climber it’s the challenge and the respect of the climb, the respect that is, for the rockface itself.

Hanging by my fingertips on more than one occasion, during these five days, I found myself asking “did I really volunteer for this??” – one of the first maxims of the Army is never volunteer for anything! But, if you don’t, sometimes you miss out on the spectacular – and that is precisely what the views from the cliff face above Banff in Alberta were. To be on top – literally – of a World Heritage Site, looking down, below the tree line, to these distant buildings. It really did look like a map, but one that you were deeply embedded in.

During the course we learned how to use the various and very complicated pieces of kit – what to expect of their strengths, which in some case were 2.4 tonnes of weight…..! How to use this equipment and the various scenarios for using different bits of kit. We learned about the rope – far more intricate than I might first have imagined. We learned how to belay, and we learned – almost most importantly, to rely on the equipment. To trust in it. That is easier said than done, for it seems an alien thing, to be hanging hundreds of metres above a vertical drop, broken only by the occasional outcrop of sharp, jagged rock, by a piece of rope 10MM in diameter…..

And yet we did, and here am I to tell the tale! Even if only as a course in “Fear Management”, it was exhilarating, and I do hope to climb again with the Army – it was a privilege.

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