A photograph of Dave, courtesy of Helen Carr.

The pity of war: what a paratrooper’s tale can teach us about humanity

The life of one paratrooper shows how we learned to see soldiers as ordinary people suffering in the service of their country, finds Lara Feigel
October 17, 2018

On 26th July 1982, the government held a memorial service at St Paul’s for the families of servicemen who had died in the recently concluded Falklands War. Preparations had been fraught. The church wanted to express regret not just for the 255 British men who had died but for the war as a whole—and to initiate reconciliation with Argentina. The dean proposed reading the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. The government, however, was more interested in celebrating victory, keen to assure the bereaved families that the sacrifice had been worthwhile. On hearing about the proposal for a Spanish prayer, Margaret Thatcher asked simply: “Why?”

In the end the service was a compromise. The chaplain of the Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment (known as 2 Para), the battalion that led the advance in the bloodiest battles, read a lesson, as did two junior members of the British task force—this despite the dean’s preference that the military not be involved in the religious aspects of the service. There were no prayers in Spanish. But the church’s position was made clear in the sermon by Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had served in Normandy during the Second World War.

After praising the courage of the British Task Force, Runcie insisted that “war was a sign of human failure, and everything we say and do in this service must be in that context.” He prayed not just for the British dead but for the fallen Argentine as well, reminding his congregation that there was “mourning on both sides of this conflict.” This was not what many of his listeners wished to hear. “The boss is livid,” Denis Thatcher reported. Nonetheless, the service had found a way of steering a course between nationalist reverence and international humanitarianism.

This is also the path successfully steered by Helen Parr in Our Boys. Subtitled “The Story of a Paratrooper,” it begins as the story of Parr’s uncle Dave, who was a soldier in the 2 Para Battalion and was killed as the Falklands War ended, at the age of 19. Parr grew up in the shadow of this war and, now an academic and historian, decided to investigate the experiences of paratroopers from a military and social perspective. Her interviews with Falklands veterans will prove a vital resource for subsequent historians. And in her combination of testimony, social detail and traditional history, Parr has found a way to honour individual stories while maintaining Runcie’s distaste for war as a whole.

She describes asking herself, as she wrote, “whether I was for or against the Parachute Regiment; whether I was for or against war. In a way, it is a redundant question… war is terrible, even when it is necessary.” There is a danger that such historical judiciousness can shade into moral evasion. But the gain of her approach is an immersive book in which material is presented without explicit judgment.

The mythology of the Falklands War is inextricable from the mythology of the paratrooper. Parr traces the regiment back to its origins in the Second World War, when Winston Churchill decided that as the Germans had parachutists he wanted some too—5,000 of them for the Army. The paratroopers were the heroes of Arnhem (even though that battle ended in defeat) and then parachuted into Northern France ahead of D-Day, earning a reputation for showing extreme bravery and enduring extreme suffering. One soldier whose parachute got entangled in a tree had his throat slit, and his genitals cut off and stuffed in his mouth.

After the war, as airborne infantry became less popular, the parachute regiment shrunk to a single brigade. They became associated with unpopular fighting in Suez and Northern Ireland, where the paratrooper battalion was described by the Guardian in 1971 as “hated by Catholics in troubled areas where among local people at any rate it has a reputation for unnecessary brutality.” It was paratroopers—initially sent in to control loyalist rioters in 1969—who killed the civilians on Bloody Sunday.

But for many privates, such as Dave Parr, a career as a paratrooper promised a life of heroism, often serving as an escape route from a violent home life. They claimed not to expect mortal danger because it had been so long since the Army had fought in a vulnerable position on the ground. The Falklands changed the whole picture: the war both restored the reputation of the paratroopers and put the soldiers in the kind of danger for which they weren’t mentally prepared.

The war started suddenly. Until 1982, the Falklands were a small, strategically unimportant and half-forgotten colony. It was something of an anomaly because unlike other parts of the empire the people of the Falklands themselves had asked to remain a colony in 1957, citing as evidence of their impeccable Britishness the fact that they drank tea and pints of bitter and ran a post office. The Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri ordered the attack in April 1982 shortly after taking power in a coup, wishing to divert attention from Argentina’s economic crisis.

Ronald Reagan discouraged Thatcher from going to war over “that little ice-cold bunch of land down there,” wishing to protect the US’s own interests in Argentina, and reflecting the long-standing doctrine in Washington that Europeans should not meddle in the American hemisphere. But Thatcher had come to power with the promise of restoring Britain’s greatness and, having already (uneasily) relinquished Rhodesia to Robert Mugabe in 1980, feared that if she let go of the islands, she’d have to resign.

Diplomacy failed—and so 700 men of 2 Para set sail on 26th April, less than a month after Galtieri had made his first move. They were well trained and confident that they’d prevail easily against the Argentinian conscripts. Wading ashore, soaked and burdened with kit, they found the climate tough. “I have never known a more bleak, windswept and wet place in my life,” one sergeant wrote home, adding that “once we have given them a hammering and put them back in their place the Argentines can have the place.”

“Being a paratrooper promised a life of heroism”

Parr is a good storyteller and her accounts of the two major battles of Darwin and Goose Green, and the lesser-known Mount Longdon, make for harrowing reading. These were assaults characterised by the arbitrariness and poor communication that was a feature of trench warfare during the First World War. Darwin was badly planned; there was insufficient fire support, and at the end the men lay huddled in a dip with no ammunition, waiting for death. It wasn’t until morning that they heard the enemy had admitted defeat. “There were bodies lying everywhere,” one officer recalled, “I could hear captured Argentines crying and praying. It was awful.”

There is fascinating testimony here. Soldiers describe breezing through the act of killing on the battlefield, but then finding the memory of it terrifying back at home: “not the fact that I killed him, but that it was up to me whether he should die or not.” It’s here that the book asks its most significant questions, examining the relationship between the veterans and the society to which they returned. The ambiguities and contradictions are encapsulated well by the title—Our Boys—which you could read with an implicit question mark.

Parr mocks the enthusiasm with which Thatcher claimed the servicemen—the phrase “our boys” was hers. The author quotes a brigadier’s lament that “you don’t mind, if you like, dying for your Queen and your country but you certainly don’t contemplate dying for politicians.” Yet the author suggests, too, that the word “our” has validity. This was a war in which professional rather than conscript soldiers began to be perceived as ordinary people suffering in the service of their nation, whether or not the cause was just. The idea of soldiers’ human rights gained traction and attention started to be paid to their mental health.

Parr focuses on the repatriation of bodies and what that meant for Britain’s relationship to foreign conflict. Previously the war dead had been buried abroad, hence Rupert Brooke’s lines that “there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” After the Falklands War, many families demanded the war dead be repatriated. The government agreed, and the dead were interred in their communities, so that their ultimate association was with their families and villages rather than with their battalion.

For Parr, this process culminated in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where crowds gathered in Wootton Bassett as dead soldiers were driven through from nearby RAF Lyneham. During these wars, she claims, large sections of the public were opposed to military action but sympathetic to individual soldiers. Is this moral subtlety or bad faith? The Help for Heroes charity and Prince Harry’s Invictus games for injured servicemen have further humanised “our boys.” But what about the victims of our actions in the Middle East? Do “their boys” ever count?

“One tried to kill himself five times”

Something similar has happened with the normalising of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Though shell-shock was recognised by doctors during the First World War, the diagnosis was not accompanied by systematic treatment. The medical term PTSD only entered the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. In the US, for the Vietnam generation, trauma came to be acknowledged as a reasonable response to war.

In stiff-upper lip Britain, though, the same acknowledgment took longer. During the Falklands War there was no psychiatric help for veterans. At the time, the military congratulated themselves on the low instances of trauma. However, Parr provides moving accounts of suicide attempts among veterans. One tried to kill himself five times over the course of the next decade. Another waited till 1991 to strangle his wife, drink a bottle of vodka, take sleeping pills and attempt to hang himself. His doctor reported that there had been nothing in his record to suggest that he had PTSD. It was only 11 years later—in these extreme circumstances—that he got a diagnosis.

In the past decade, 20 per cent of UK soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. We have, Parr thinks, learned to see soldiers as humans caught up in a violent ordeal, rather than wantonly violent. Parr herself is part of the shift she’s tracking. This is an act of reclamation in which her dead uncle and his (largely still living) fellow paras are seen through the lens of the present.

There are relatively few lessons to be learned about the horrors of war in general, or this war in particular. Could the conflict have been avoided? Yes, perhaps, but not with Thatcher in charge. Could it have been conducted with less human cost? It seems unlikely. Yet Runcie’s message was heeded by the veterans at the St Paul’s service. Twenty years later, having been diagnosed with PTSD, a few soldiers returned to Argentina to seek forgiveness and understanding from the men they’d once tried to kill. One returned a trumpet he’d looted to its rightful owner.