General Smedley Butler wrote in his scathing War is a Racket that ‘beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die…this was the “war to make the world safe for democracy”…they were just told it was to be a glorious adventure’.
Kevin Williams had to wait until his 18th birthday to be hauled to Iraq to start his glorious adventure. He carried with him the intrigue of chest-beating voyeurs in the right-wing press who put him on a pedestal as a ‘the kids are alright’ icon; he came back with a psyche shattered from PTSD to a country that had no interest in his story nor his problems.
The drafting phase of warfare is a promising blockbuster film, whereas the collection of broken lives it leaves are just grim vignettes of unpublished novels: dreary and unmarketable. When Kevin Williams was 17 he met the queen at a Royal Green Jackets tribute, one of the many tributes that marked his pre-Iraq life but were conspicuously absent when he returned to his native Essex a hollowed-out shell from the acts he was forced to observe and execute.
More Iraq veterans have killed themselves from January to August of this year than were killed in Iraq in 2005, when the invasion was still at its peak. These figures are not compiled by the Ministry of Defence, who assume no responsibility over their depreciated assets. Instead, NGOs and former soldiers-turned-activists fulfil the role of accounting for these lost souls: delivering food to underpasses and homeless shelters where the 13,000 homeless veterans search for respite from the cold this winter.
Williams became another statistic in the Spring, taking his own life close to his home in Basildon. Just 12 weeks later his best friend followed him.
John Paul Finnigan and Kevin Williams formed an ‘undeniable bond’ amongst the hellish backdrop of the Iraq war according to those that knew them. Finnigan became partly deaf after a mortar explosion, culminating in his eventual discharge. Williams opened up to his sister after his return that ‘he saved the lives of five of his comrades but to do that he had to kill someone with a bomb strapped to them. He couldn’t understand how he could have done that and he broke down’. Three of their comrades and close friends were shot by sniper fire during the Battle of Basra.
Finnigan returned to his home Merseyside and Williams to Essex, both feeling despondent and confused by civilian life. Williams said on a documentary that ‘returning to civilian life was a big shock. The skills I learned were all combat-based. I was pretty much useless and felt sad all the time’. He had been taught to kill and nothing else: a skill that carries no real value in Basildon. Finnigan stayed in contact with Williams and numerous other of his former comrades, which tormented him according to his brother Stephen. Racked with guilt, he spent his days as a civilian full of ‘rage and anger’; he taxied veterans who had become isolated to and from medical appointments to make himself useful.
In June of this year Finnigan took his own life at the age of 34, 5 years older than Williams, who never reached the third decade of his life. A wreath at his funeral spelled the word ‘daddy’.
At the current rate a British veteran or soldier commits suicide every 10 days. A 19-year-old member of the Royal Regiment of Scotland killed himself in his barracks in Catterick in the summer, marking the most harrowing case in a long time.
The disparity between the rhetorical troop worship we see on TV with actual concrete reality for members of the armed forces is huge and fuels the mental health crisis we are experiencing. Discourse surrounding ‘our boys’ encourages jingoistic lip-service but renders all talk of the consequences for those who enlist as taboo, effectively perpetuating an unregulated recruitment drive for the army which can penetrate every TV channel and newspaper and doesn’t require a terms and conditions disclaimer.
We need to start having an honest conversation about British soldiers: not the ones who leave, but the ones who come back.