Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tommy

Toni is off on her much-deserved holiday, so this week I'll take center stage with a rant about soldiers. Do we Americans coddle them too much, or do the Brits fail to show them due appreciation? What's your view?


During my son's wedding, as his Best Man was roasting him before the wedding banquet—you know, "the groom never learned much in school, he still thinks the capital of Montana is Hannah" and stuff like that—it was noted in passing that the groom had serviced in Iraq, and the room erupted into spontaneous applause. After the applause died down, my son grabbed the mic and said, "Thanks for that, but there's a table of my Marine buddies over there, why don't you give them a shout." The room, once again, exploded in applause, and then we all gave them a standing ovation. I remember thinking to myself, "This would never happen in Britain."

And indeed it would not. A few weeks after my return, I read an article in the paper telling of how three servicemen in uniform were refused entry into a pub. The young men were part of a larger group that had just left the funeral of one of their comrades who had been killed in Afghanistan. The bar manager was willing to let the people dressed in civilian clothes in, "but not the squaddies." The friends of the soldiers were outraged, but the soldiers told them, "Don't worry about it, we get this all the time."

I really find this behavior odd. In America, they would have been invited in and given free drinks. In fact, there were times in America, prior to my move to the UK, when conversation turned to world events in the bar, that I mentioned I had a son serving in Iraq, and my drinks were free.

Now, you can say Americans are jingoistic war-mongers and worship their warrior culture (no, really, go ahead, you won't offend us; if we could find a way to work it into our national motto, we would) but it seems to me that, far from appreciating soldiers, the Brits don't want them around.

Consider this: soldiers coming home from serving overseas were made to change into civilian cloths in Birmingham airport because they were not allowed in the terminal in combat gear. An ex-soldier I met and talked to about this, told me it was common practice to refuse service to soldiers in uniform, and they were, in fact, not allowed off the base unless they were in civilian clothes.

This particular soldier's take on the matter went like this:

"People think of us as trained guard dogs. Everyone wants to be protected by the guard dogs, but they don't want to be around them if they are not on a leash. That's what they see the squaddies as, dogs off their leash."

So why would anyone consider being in the military, I asked him:

"You do it for yourself, because you want to be the best, and to be part of the best. You don't do it for recognition because you know you're not going to get any."

There is no question that Britain, as a country, honors its soldiers; they hold the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day, and cheer them in certain newspapers, but on an individual level, not much as changed in the 119 years since the following poem by Rudyard Kipling was first published:

(By the way, I've made my point; you don't need to read the poem, but I think you should.)


Tommy
by Rudyard Kipling

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.

10 comments:

  1. I've been on a plane where it was announced that a soldier was flying home on leave, and all the passengers applauded.

    This is one thing that I have totally changed my views on, since living in the US. I think it is really important to honor members of the armed forces, whatever you think of the cause. How many people risk their lives when they go to work? Very few. I used to think supporting the troops meant you supported the war, but I now see it is completely possible to separate the two.

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  2. I must say that I think there is a wide gulf between the people on the ground in the UK, many of whom have deep respect for members of our armed forces (see the people of Wootten Bassett lining the roads in silence in respect of the bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8149051.stm) and those in power with their PC concerns. I think it is often at this more senior level that eveyr day soldiers are not given the respect they deserve.

    Iota's point is equally valid, serving soldiers are not politicians.

    However, there has long been a drinking culture with under tones of violence associated with young squaddies let off the leash for a night out as any town near a military base will tell you.

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  3. Umm, I think it is questionable how much we (the US) really appreciates our soldiers. Yes, we do the superficial things like put magnetic ribbons on our car or a yellow ribbon on a tree, and applauding on the plane is nice, but is that all? For the most part it is. That's why so many come back from Iraq and are homeless or mentally ill and without emotional support. I submit that most of our appreciation of the military is superficial. Let's institute a draft and see how appreciative everyone is of the military. Some how I don't think you'll see people running to the draft office.

    As a Veteran myself, I can tell you that I have never had a single person thank me face to face for my service. Personally, I think some of this is due to an underlying stereotype that all soldiers are men so a thought is never given to a female soldier who has served her country as well. Some people even seem taken aback by it. In fact, I get all kinds of solicitations in the mail directed at veterans and addressed to MY HUSBAND, who has never served a moment in the military. This makes me so angry because it assumes that the veteran in the house must be the man.

    When I was in the service, we were also instructed not to wear our uniforms off base unless you were driving home. You were directed to go home and put on civilian clothes before running errands. It was stressed that you could get in trouble if you were seen anywhere off base in uniform, unless it was work related or you were on your lunch hour.

    My first husband was in the RAF and I will agree with the comment above about an underlying drinking culture. Our military has one too but for some reason we are more forgiving. We tend to blow off drinking as stress relief along with other terrible behaviors that I have witnessed and won't repeat here. All in the name of keeping the morale.

    So as we talk about health care here in America, you hear a lot of criticism of the VA system and it's used as an argument against government run health care. So they don't want the VA system, but it's good enough for our soldiers? Sounds like real appreciation to me. I would argue we need to dispense with the superficial stuff and concentrate on appreciation that is more meaningful.

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  4. Mike, I will also add that I was instructed to never travel in uniform. So every time I flew to the states and back I was in civilian clothes.

    Anyway, nice to hear from you again. Keeping the home fires burning.

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  5. Well said, Iota. I agree with you entirely. I've always been a complete peacenik, but I do agree, it is possible to separate the "man" from the "mission". Or as in "Smitten"'s case, the woman from the task to hand. Well done, Smitten, btw!

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  6. > I read an article in the paper telling of how three servicemen in uniform were refused entry into a pub

    Ah, the dangers of using a single anecdote (particularly one from The Mail, a news outlet with no more respect for truth than Fox News) in an attempt to illustrate a generalization! Here is a more balanced account from a newspaper published somewhat closer to the incident:
    http://tinyurl.com/oe7hra

    For a description of how our local regiment was received by my own small town, you might like to follow this link: http://tinyurl.com/q4apyy

    It happened that I was in town on the day of the homecoming parade. After the parade the squaddies were allowed a couple of hours' leave to wander around the town and to socialize with the public. None of them was refused entrance to any pub; the pubs in fact had special reduced prices for soldiers in uniform, though so far as I could see, practically all were being bought refreshments by us locals. So on this occasion (though I have no doubt it is being repeated in the same vein with homecoming regiments the length and breadth of the country), to choose a line from the Kipling poem Mike quotes, it was a case of '"Thank you Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play'.

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  7. I went out with a squaddie years ago and I always thought they were told not to wear uniforms in public becuase they would be subject to aggression or terrorism. That was in the IRA days though.
    I do love how the USA honors service men & women - it's as it should be.

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  8. I've experienced a whole airplane burst into applause at the end of flight where 20-30 service men and women were aboard.

    Very heart-warming.

    But as said above, a fairly superficial "thank you" they deserve much more.

    But the US govt makes a pledge to each enlistee that they will be cared for for life if they're seriously injured in the line of duty. And I think they do a pretty job of it.

    In addition there are literally hundreds of military support organizations made up of private citizens.

    Not to mention churches that see to the needs of members serving overseas in combat. Our church regularly lists the names of members serving around the world. We're encouraged to pray for them, send them cards, and gift boxes at Christmas and for the New Year or any other holiday. Or for no reason at all, just to give them a little boost.

    My nephew is in Intelligence for the Naval Reserve, he was sent to the Horn of Africa. He was enormously gratified at the abundance of food, treats, activities and games organized for military personnel while he was there.

    He couldn't wait to get back home, but he said the meals, gift boxes and cards and letters from people all over the US made his tour much more bearable.

    So it seems we often do a fairly good job of it.

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  9. Interesting. I went toa University (Imperial college) where a fair number of the men and women students wer doing some kind of engineering degree while also being in officer training of some kind. The guys and some of the girls always wore their dress uniforms to the balls and formal social events, and the services were considered a noble calling. I don't know anyone personally in the US who served in the military, it seems to often be folks from less privelidged backgounds than the middle glass graduate school educated folk I mix with, whereas in the UK I knew several soldiers and airman. My dad wa sone of the last to perform national service, and he remianed in the RAF prt time, teaching gliding, for years, so for me, even if I didn;t agree with a war, my respect for those serving has been unconditional.
    I am a "peacenick " too, but I also like the respectful attidute to those serving in the forces here in the US where I live. I love fleet week here in SF, when the town is over taken with handsome men (and women) in their Navy whites. They get drinks for free, and sure, rowdiness occurs. As a young women with a bit of a thing for uniforms I was thrilled to be part of it!

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  10. Your story about the soldiers having to change in the airport is something I've heard before... from an American friend of mine who served in Viet Nam. It's only an intermittent thing that soldiers are feted in the US, depending on the popularity of the war.

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