Still some reverberations from a story that broke in Britain on Sunday, when the News of the World obtained video images of Royal Marines engaged in a bizarre initiation ritual. The footage shows Marines from 42 Commando, at the end of their 32 week commando training, stripped naked, watching two of their comrades fight in a field. The fight was allegedly orchestrated by two junior NCOs who appear in the video, dressed as a surgeon and a schoolgirl. Initially, the two marines fighting do so with arms bound in bedding rolls. One of the NCOs then gestures for them to fight with fists: and when one refuses, appears to lay him out with a kick to the head.
Widespread denunciation of such behaviour from all and sundry, including conspicuously military rent-a-gob from Colonel Bob Stewart. Best of all, this from Patrick Mercer (a former Sherwood Foresters officer with a distinguished service record and now Tory MP): “Just imagine a young man turning up in his unit and being made to wrestle naked in a field while his non-commissioned officers are dressed up in women’s frillies. I mean, it’s not very dignified stuff, is it?” Only if you recognise the generations of rivalry and ribaldry between soldiers and marines will you get the full nuance of the tongue in his cheek: ‘Bloody Marines spend too much time with the Navy. Bound to rub off, eh?’
Reaction 1) Surprising how little you hear of such rituals in British regiments earlier in the modern period. I think – please correct me – that ‘milling’ in the Paras goes back to WW2, but I don’t remember encountering anything like this with regard to British regiments, even of regulars, during the First World War. I suspect that this is to do with problems of sources and evidence, rather than that it never happening. After all, many of the rituals associated with the end of apprenticeship in British working class popular culture before the 1950s (maybe later) would now be seen as harassment/sexual or physical abuse (some of them involving women as well as men). I find it hard to believe that some regiments didn’t have something similar.
Reaction 2) Boys will be boys. I think that any British man who has been on a sports club night out will have looked at that footage and only been puzzled by the Marines’ need to strip off before having a stupid fight (dressing up, on the other hand, is pretty much a given). In fact, wrapping their arms in bedding rolls looks like an excellent way to have them make fools of themselves without inflicting too much damage. And as usual, it’s all fun until someone goes too far. There’s always one. And yes, you look back at that stuff and think: ‘That was stupid and barbarous and potentially life-threatening and definitely illegal. God it was fun.’ Nobody’s shown us what happens next in the video, I note. I suspect that the footage of the appalled other soldiers dragging the NCO off the bloke he’s kicked and admonishing him is there, but won’t come out.
(DISCLAIMER: I should point out that I have always done my best to prevent real barbarity on such occasions. And I’ve been lucky enough to do my drunken misbehaviour with fairly genteel fratboys, rather than pissed-up Marines. I’ve never got involved in a fight, or stripped naked (voluntarily or otherwise), but I’ve seen other people do both. And there’s plenty of my behaviour that I’m very glad was never filmed to be played back to the general public.)
Reaction 3) Soldiers will be soldiers. Most of these men come from backgrounds where physical violence is more present than it is in the world of the junior academic or the London reporter. Some of them are not that bright. Pretty much any junior infantry officer I have taught has been able to talk about having their eyes opened to the amount of low level violence that goes on amongst those they lead. I don’t say it’s a good thing, I don’t say they it isn’t awful for those that find themselves on the receiving end. But I don’t think it’s that much of a problem for an army designed for war fighting.
When it does risk become a problem is if it become usual for power to be occasionally acted out with physical violence. If it becomes a given that those in authority may physically abuse those who are subordinate to them, that behaviour will be replicated. It’s more likely than ever before that misjudgements will be documented. Soldiers now regularly find themselves being filmed (or filming each other) in contact with people over whom they have great power. Captured Iraqis who’ve been looting supplies, for example. And if they make a mistake, even momentarily, about what is appropriate behaviour in that situation, it becomes not only a very bad thing for those involved, but for the army and its mission as a whole. That’s why the army will say that it will do its best to stamp it out – even if it will never succeed entirely.
I wrote the above offline about a week ago, and wondered about publishing it. Mainly because I thought it ran the risk of making me look like a bit of a tit – male posturing and bravado and all that. But I came back to it because I thought that the comments I made about seeing this in a historical light were worthy of the light of day.
Whilst sorting out the links, I came across this story from the Daily Mirror. They found the kickee in question – Marine Ray Simmons. He appears to be quite upset by the misuse being made of his experiences. By his account, it was all drunken misbehaviour gone wrong. Quote of the article: ‘Because of all the rushing about, games and the booze I can’t recall exactly what happened.’ Hm, either that or the kick in the head, yes.