All that were told in terms of who we were fighting was: terrorists, murderers, criminals, mafia. All words that negate dissent, all words that label and don’t explain anything.Lee Lavis, 2018
Lee Lavis interview
My training base was only 7 miles from where I lived. Some of the lads there were from Welsh regiments, or Hampshire regiments, which is in the Midlands. I was just up the road from where I was from. He (my father) drove me there. As I walked through them gates, he stopped me and called me back and took £50 from his pocket, which from a working class man in 1989, a lorry driver, was a lot of money. He gave it me and his words to me as we walked in, he goes, “Don’t believe so much that you forget who you are.” Off I walked. It was a comment based on his own experience on being a soldier and at the time I didn’t understand it. Didn’t know what he meant by it, just, “Yeah whatever, dad. Thanks for the 50 quid.” And off I went.
Early 1991 we were told we were gonna go on a 6-month tour to Northern Ireland, to Fermanagh, to man the borders.
Then you go into a process of training, being prepared to be sent to Northern Ireland. You were sent to the Northern Ireland Training Team and you go down to a purpose-built town in the South of England, a place called Lytham Hythe. We call it Riot Village, a town with shops and fronts and so on, a mock up of an Irish town with a Doherty’s pub and things like that. There’s blanks fired out of windows and there’s bins that blow up and there’s cars with IDs and you go through all the scenarios that you may face. There’s also a civilian population in there, but the thing is the civilian population is supplied by another regiment of the army, another infantry regiment. Which has a bearing on how you interact with each other, because in the army, all of the regiments hate each other.
Here you’ve got a situation where one regiment are dressed up as civilians and one regiment are getting ready to go to Northern Ireland and the role of the civilians is to be searched, to carry out the attacks, suspected IRA men — and to riot. So you can imagine what that’s like.
That whole process, throughout that period, there’s no sleep. A bomb goes off in a bin and you’ve got to react to that, form a cordon, you get no sleep. Then there’s a riot and you have to get back to the mock RUC station, y’know, you don’t get hardly any sleep cos it’s got four towers on it and there have to be two individuals in the towers overnight. You do one hour in each tower, then four hours off, then another two hours in each tower. Totally out of kilter, you later learn, to the pace of conflict here — it’s really gruelling but it’s also really misleading. Northern Ireland: every bin didn’t blow up. And the “civilian population” you interact with, all of them are aggressive. So you get the impression that the civilian population where you’re gonna fight are all the same. Which isn’t the case, you’ve got nuances in how people see violence, even from people who don’t want the army in Northern Ireland. People who say, “I didn’t want you here, but I didn’t want any of you to die.” You didn’t get that nuance in your training, it’s just RIOT, BOMB!
16-18 hour days they were the norm. That was reflected in the training, you didn’t get sleep. The difference in training was you didn’t get sleep, there was incidents all the time. When you actually arrived here you could sleep but 95% of the time or even more nothing, you were just walking around doing your patrols, your guard duties. Yet you’ve still got this exhaustion.
Go back to my training. People think that people drop out of the army during training. Most people think of the physical element of the training, the running around the Brecon Beacons with a huge amount of weight on, assault courses. That certainly does weed people out, makes people leave. However by far the greater reason people leave is the psychological element of the training.
As a process, sociologists often call it a process where the barriers to kill are removed. Which is the very inverse to the way society has brought you up.
Three main elements I usually flag up. First of all you’re encouraged to be a sort of super-patriot, either a xenophobe, or jingoistic, where your country is the greatest in the world and only fights the good fights. You’re always gonna be on the side of good, the other guy’s always gonna be the Nazi or terrorist, your country fights for morality not self-interest. There is a righteousness about your cause that brooks no other element.
Second element to it. It’s a process where, through negative reinforcement — often physical — your impulse for independent thought is drained away. It’s drilled into you: your job is the what. Other people, far cleverer than you, will be dealing with the how and the why. To put it in poetic language from two centuries ago, Ours is not to reason why, Ours is but to do and die.
And then the final element is there’s a hierarchy created in your head and the top of it is your nation. Then the British Army, the British armed forces, allied armed forces, your civilians, other civilians, enemy civilians, the enemy. Think about that pecking order. Civilians come quite far down — and they’re your own.
There was no historical element of the training in Northern Ireland, no one explained to us how or why we got to this part. Cos our job is not the how or the why, ours is the what. We learn nothing about how — in my opinion now — this conflict is based on the historic relationship between Ireland and Britain. And, we may as well get it out there now, Sectarianism is an offshoot of that, it’s not the cause of the conflict.
I believe any description of this conflict as purely Sectarian essentially absolves politicians and people in places of power who made decisions that led us to where we were — in Westminster and Dublin. If only good Catholics and bad Protestants could get on this wouldn’t be a problem, which totally ignores the history of the two islands which we encounter. There was no historical element, we wouldn’t’ve asked for it or wanted it. All that were told in terms of who we were fighting was: terrorists, murderers, criminals, mafia. All words that negate dissent, all words that label and don’t explain anything.
You know we were told things like the British Army came here to save the Catholic community and Republicans stabbed us in the back because they like killing. Again, it’s a very emotive statement that explains nothing. That’s the kind of thing we were fed.
Your enemy’s the IRA, your enemy is Republican, and they’re drawn from this community. We are not nuanced thinkers, we are from the section of society that probably has the least educational, social grounds and power. We end up transposing our feelings towards enemy combatants onto the Nationalist community as a whole.
Which is very important to know, if you think of the mindset of British soldiers when we get here. Why sometimes things turned into horrific incidents, which were completely wrong, like Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday and many more instances. The logical extension of your thinking was that all this community was guilty.
My training has taken place in late ‘91 into early ‘92. Went for four weeks leave, big drinking culture in the army, very masculine, and I dived into the pints. I was a young man, I was 19, enjoyed it. On the Sunday I was in my local pub. I was in my local pub having a drink with some of my friends, I think the football was on the telly. We had to report back to camp by 11 o’clock that night, we were deployed the next day.
Then the trucks turn up and company by company we’re transported to Liverpool airport. We were sitting on the tarmac in the four ton trucks that are the workhorse of the British Army. We were sitting next to the terminal, it was a glass terminal and you could see people inside – and they can see us with our weapons, can see us in the back of the trucks. I remember there was lots of kids and young people at the windows looking at the soldiers, absolutely in awe of us.
I often think back to it – and think, did any of them young men end up joining the army, because they saw me looking heroic and fabulous and about to fight the good fight for my country? I wonder what happened to them and if they were as deeply impacted as I was by conflict.
And there’s Chinooks waiting at Aldergrove and you’re flown down to your area of operation. We were going to Fermanagh. I remember flying, there was 24 in my helicopter. We are dropped off at the vehicle checkpoint right on the border that the previous year had been over run by the IRA, with the loss of three soldiers’ lives, and was subsequently destroyed.
As the helicopter landed, we could hear what sounded like gunshots… And it was crow-scaring, because it’s a rural area. Rumour has it that the locals turned them up to the max because they knew when there was a changeover, just to scare the regiment coming in. From watching football in the pub at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the previous day, I am now on the border in a place where soldiers have been killed on a fairly regular basis since 1969…
Do you remember any of those encounters, that first day?
Yes. Reason I can remember the first person stopped, it was a local man who we would’ve been told about by the incoming regiment. He had a cousin who we were told was a “player”, which is codeword for an IRA member. Not him, he had a cousin. Very tenuous. His land was split by our checkpoint, he had to travel through our checkpoint. He was a local farmer, not much more than a sustenance farmer, he certainly would be a smallholder. He would be surviving.
Anyway, he comes through, a very simple country man. Of course we were dealing with him as if he was an IRA man. The reason he sticks in my head… was as the tour progressed, and the realisation of how he reacted, it became a bit of a game amongst us to get a bit of a reaction out of him. We could keep someone in the checkpoint up to 4 hours, searching them. We would get him off his vehicle… I would search his tractor for four hours. Didn’t have a trailer on it. There’s not a lot on a tractor, we were just fucking him about. What he would do eventually was he would lose his temper and then he would refuse to leave the checkpoint until the police come down and he could register a complaint. They would come down and they would mollify him, then he would drive off. And they would say to us (chastising tone): “Now come on lads.” That would be it, they’d go away and there’d be no punishment for us.
Then you could do it again.
And again, and again. Now remember, we were told about this guy by the regiment before, how he would react.
They’d already discovered this joyous opportunity.
And how many regiments before that? There’d been a checkpoint on his land from 1975, how many years had this man been going through this? He was just an honest man trying to earn his living as best he could. Every day the indignities that were meted out on that man were incredible and that’s why he sticks in my head, and is the first one… I would argue that military training, whether it’s for Northern Ireland or general military training, stunts your growth as a person. Often when you grow as a person, it suddenly comes to you. Oh I did that! I just thought the whole community, they were in the IRA or they were going to join the IRA. That’s how much I dehumanised that community. I didn’t hate them, hate is emotion. I didn’t have any emotion towards them, which is far scarier than there being emotion.
That kind of deadness behind the eyes, there is a term for it, it’s usually applied to soldiers who have been through a period of intense operational duties. Have you ever seen the famous picture of the US Marine in Vietnam, you can just see the exhaustion. That’s the thousand yard stare. The thousand yard stare is very well known in popular culture. But it’s not very often spoken about in wider society because of the way, in England in Scotland, the way veterans are venerated, and I think sometimes they’re venerated so much because it distracts from societal guilt that realises the very process of training a soldier, before you even send him anywhere, is damaging to that individual. It’s far easier to venerate than actually look at the impact of conflict on the individual.
You were saying that you were there for the ceasefire?
Yes I completed my two in 1992, in the November, and returned here in 1994.
That 6-month period I’m on about between February and the Ceasefire, both sides were negotiating behind the scenes but we didn’t know it. One of the things when you get to negotiations is the protagonists, when it’s conflict, the protagonists want to go to the negotiating table with the strongest military position possible. What tends to happen in that sort of last period, as you get towards calling a ceasefire, is the level of violence spikes and goes up.
I was in Crossmaglen, we were protecting Engineers who were rebuilding a police station. Took 3000 soldiers to secure this area, in a town with a population of 900. Of course, not everyone is in the IRA, as the Republican area remember in Crossmaglen. I think it’s one in every five all the soldiers killed in the conflict here was killed in 2 miles of Crossmaglen. A dangerous area.
They had been a spike in the violence, a helicopter brought down in that period by mortar into the base. There was machine-gun attacks, mortar attacks. 3000 soldiers, and we’d built semi-permanent checkpoints around so we could check every entrance into Crossmaglen, we’ve got helicopter patrols, every single thing, one of the largest operations carried out after Operation Motorman, the last major operation before the Ceasefire.
But then it was announced there was a ceasefire. The way it was put to us, there is a Ceasefire coming August 31, 12 o’clock that evening. Came into effect on the turn of the clock on the 1st of September. On one hand we were told it isn’t for real, the IRA are just taking a break, don’t let your guard down. At the same time, we were informed that the next morning, we were going out on patrols to show a less aggressive attitude. Take your helmets off and put your berets on.
You’ve got to remember, on my tours of Northern Ireland, until this point, if you went outside of a mortar-hardened building within the base, you wore your helmet. Because of the chance that a motor or a bomb might go off, you wore your helmet inside the place. Now they want us to walk in some Nationalist housing estates…?
The following day, when we go out with this beret on, we had a sweepstake on who was gonna be the first one to get a brick round the head walking around the estate.
But the remarkable thing that happened is, we went out and it was slightly more relaxed. We spoke to more locals, who wouldn’t normally have passed the time of day with us.
So these kind of conversations are happening.
One day I asked, “Why didn’t you attack us that first time we wore our berets?”
And they said, “Because when you finally took off your camouflage and your helmets, we realised how young you were.”
Lee Lavis was interviewed by Philip Davenport in Derry, 2018