There is currently a gripping series of plays on BBC1 on Monday nights – Accused, written by Jimmy McGovern.
These go directly against the grain of twenty-first century television, in that they tackle difficult issues seriously, and use a realist style to create a sense of credible modern people struggling with situations that for better or worse bring out unexpected qualities in their characters. To get an idea how different these plays are from the mainstream, one only has to compare them with the series that was previously in the 9 p.m. slot on Mondays – the high-speed hokum of Spooks.
Yesterday’s play, set partly in Afghanistan, was on the theme of bullying in the Army. Senior soldiers have already protested that the events were highly untypical, but the troubling reports from the Deepcut barracks show that the Army is hardly a bullying-free zone, so the subject is one worth tackling.
The play began with a couple of trouble-making lads causing havoc in a pub and then using volunteering for the Army as a way of avoiding civilian jail sentences. Once enlisted they came in contact with an Army culture that was brutal and unforgiving. This was embodied by the corporal (brilliantly acted by Mackenzie Crook) who brutally picks on one of the lads when he shows fear under fire. This N.C.O. was too fanatical to be typical (I hope) but in his cruelty he was given the best lines in the play. I can’t quote them exactly, but he told the friend of a victimised soldier that all the platoon were frightened and uncertain, but having a “bitch” or victim in the group gave them confidence, because they could define themselves as not like him.
Inevitably, this reminded me of some Great War texts. For example of Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We, in which a serial deserter, Miller, is treated with utter contempt by the other soldiers. When Bourne, Manning’s alter ego, is given the job of escorting Miller to court-martial, he feels for him ‘the kind of pity which can scarcely tolerate its own object.’ Miller is condemned to death, but the sentence is commuted; later two other soldiers see the man, and: ‘“They ought to ‘ave shot that bugger,” said Minton indifferently’. Manning points out that ‘[t]he indifference of this judgment was its remarkable feature’. The typical soldiers judge without emotion, and simply reject a man who has let down the group. Then:
Bourne found himself contrasting Miller with Weeper Smart, for no-one had a greater horror and dread of war than Weeper had. It was a continuous misery to him, and yet he endured it. Living with him, one felt instinctively that in any emergency he would not let one down, that he had in him, curiously enough, an heroic strain [….] Miller might be one of those people whose emotional instability was not far from madness [.…] And then, from amusing his mind with the puzzle presented to it by Miller’s character, Bourne found himself probing anxiously into his own.
Manning neither condemns nor exonerates Miller in his own voice or that of Bourne. Instead he presents the ‘indifferent’ judgment of the soldiers and considers the nature of fear, and the effort that Weeper must put into maintaining the façade of courage (which paradoxically reveals his ‘heroic’ strain). But the final effect of seeing Miller is that Bourne starts ‘probing anxiously’ into his own character, and his own potential weakness. What this passage implies is that all soldiers knew fear. Most managed, like Weeper, to endure it; most, equally, must have felt the temptation to crack, as Miller had done. By displaying such cowardice, he has let down the whole group; his presence confronts them with a reminder of their own potential weakness, which they must reject with a façade of indifference. Condemning the man is a way of coping with ‘the contagion of fear’ that such an ineffective soldier threatens to spread.
On the place of bullying in Army culture, Stephen Graham has much to say. In his memoir, A Private in the Guards (1919) he describes life in an elite regiment where bullying was endemic, but his attitude is not one of total disapproval. The first sentence of his book is: ‘The sterner the discipline the better the soldier, the better the army.’ Graham was among conscripts, ‘some of whom in a true and sensible national economy would never have been sent to fight,’ and these were turned into soldiers by means of brutality: ‘the humiliation of recruits by words or blows’ and ‘the use of glaringly indecent language’. Graham deplores these but ‘in wartime the problem of breaking in those who were never intended by Nature to be soldiers was so difficult that some of these ugly things became useful.’
McGovern’s play similarly faces up to the fact that (nearly a century after Graham was writing) Army culture is still different from civilian standards, and for strong reasons. The scene that I found most credible was the one where the victim’s father (ex-regiment) sees through the official line that his son died heroically on active service, realises that he had been driven to suicide, and, essentially, accepts that this is how things are in the Army. The Army has a culture distinct from the mainstream that is immensely supportive of those who reach its standards, but can be cruel to those who cannot. Is this the only way to ensure that soldiers do their difficult job effectively? I think that that was the real question that McGovern’s compelling play was asking.