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The Desert is Still Storming

January 17, 2011
British soldiers in NBC kit

The British wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 have been fought in an atmosphere of constant media coverage.  There cannot be many in the UK who do not know something about them.  Places like Al-Amarah, Basra, Sangin and Nad-e-Ali are familiar to many who have never been anywhere near them.  The deaths of British service members are reported on the TV news as they happen and the stories of those who have suffered life-changing wounds are told throughout the media.  This is as it should be.

The first British war to be fought in the light of near-instant, blanket coverage was the 1991 Gulf War.  Known as Operation Desert Storm by the US and the press and Operation Granby by British forces, the air war in January and February 91 was followed in minute detail, with daily updates.  Images of smart bombs and cruise missiles ‘surgically’ destroying individual buildings were all over the news broadcasts.  Gen ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf was a household name.  When the ground war to recapture Kuwait came, it famously lasted 100 hours and was painted in the British media as an almost bloodless victory.

It was not bloodless; the British casualties are listed here.  Iraqi forces suffered somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 deaths.  Beyond this, many were wounded physically and/or scarred mentally, their lives irrevocably changed.  British service members were faced with ballistic missile attacks, including the threat of chemical attack, ‘friendly fire’* and the aftermath of the air attacks on Iraqi forces, e.g. the Basra road.  All this on top of the ‘normal’ stresses and dangers of meeting the enemy face-to-face.

Out there in Britain today is effectively a generation of service members whose heroism, service and struggle is almost unknown to the British public.  Their war was, at the time, the most reported in British history and yet the very real suffering of those affected is practically invisible today.  This war was 20 years ago now and many people who have served this country are feeling the effects still.  Gulf War Illness (GWI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and disfiguring, life-changing wounds are a daily reality for these mostly middle-aged men.

I hope that the fact that this war happened exactly 20 years ago this month may pull a little more focus onto these neglected veterans and give them the recognition and support they deserve.  War can have a devastating effect on those involved and their families.  The least we can do is acknowledge what they have done for us and do what we can to make sure they can live their lives the best they can, as we do for veterans of more recent and some older wars.

“When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

The Kohima Epitaph quoted above says everything about what the British service person wants from the British public.  In short, “please don’t forget any of us, alive or dead.  It was all for you.”

*  The term ‘friendly fire’ is, without doubt, one of the most moronic ever coined.  ‘Blue on blue’ is the phrase used today and, while still euphemistic, is not so seemingly dismissive.

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