Wednesday, 20 March 2013

'Violence will not be tolerated by our armed forces'

As news stories go, it didn’t seem the most – well… newsworthy. A bit like being told France is full of French people or the Sahara desert has lots of sand.
Nevertheless, someone at the BBC decreed that it was the most interesting item on what was admittedly a fairly quiet morning for news.
“Younger members of the armed forces returning from duty are more likely to commit violent offences than the rest of the population,” we were told. Then, standing back a little from this less-than-amazing assertion, the newsreader added the rider, “a study suggests”.
In other news, professional sportspeople tend to be fitter than the man on the Kesgrave omnibus. A study suggests.
But let’s consider this a moment. The violence of young servicemen  may not be surprising, but it is worth thinking about.
The report, first published in the medical journal The Lancet, comes from analysis by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London. It is based on the records of 14,000 British service personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And the headline story is about people who are paid to be violent abroad continuing to be violent when they get home. As if anyone should be shocked by that.
There are, of course, several reasons why this might happen. And several ways, too, of spinning the figures.
Supporters of military discipline may point with pride to the fact that military personnel are slightly less likely to break the law than the average person.
As if there was any average person out there. It might be interesting to see how the forces compare in this respect with people in other jobs – with teachers, for example, or the police. Or journalists. Or the unemployed.
Those figures, however – without which the bare statistic about the military doesn’t really mean a lot – are not available.
On the other side of the coin there’s the fact that men under 30 who have been in combat zones are three times more likely to commit violent offences than those who haven’t.
An army man says “the vast majority” of forces personnel commit no offence.
Someone else might think it shocking that 20 per cent of our young soldiers have committed a violent offence after coming home. That’s one in five of those under-30s.
One suggested reason for this aggressive behaviour is the mental problem now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s the aspect, naturally, that the Institute of Psychiatry is most interested in.
Age, rank and experience have all been identified as factors in the likelihood of violence.
Those under 30, those in the lower ranks, and those who have been shot at are likelier to offend. (And basketball players are likely to be taller than jockeys.)
Those who drink a lot are also more likely to get violent. (And jockeys tend to be slimmer than sumo wrestlers.)
Put those findings together (not necessarily the bits about jockeys) and you have a pretty obvious chicken-or-egg situation. Which came first, the drink or the stress?
And, to be fair to Professor Simon Wessely, who led the research, he’s aware of the most obvious fact underlying the whole issue.
“The military don’t select chess-playing choirboys,” he says. “They select people who often come from difficult and aggressive backgrounds – and they’re the ones who are most likely to end up in the parts of the military that do the actual fighting.”
Quite rightly, though, he’s concerned for the mental welfare of the troops.
And the inevitable difficulty many have in adjusting between “out there” and “back here”, where vastly different behaviour is expected of them.
Acting in what might seem a properly military way on patrol in Kabul may not look so good in Tavern Street. (It may not look that great to the ordinary people of Kabul, either, but that’s another matter.)
The MOD spokesman quoted in the BBC report seemed unaware of the irony in his words when he said: “Any violent offence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by our armed forces.”
Professor Wessely doesn’t draw – at least, not publicly – what seems to me the no-brain conclusion from all of this research.
That if we really cared about our young people; if we really considered their mental (and physical) well-being; if we really didn’t want them to behave violently back here (or out there); if we really supported our troops… we wouldn’t go sending them off into needless wars in the first place.




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