Being called a 'black bastard' should not be normal

In a certain sense, the recent comments by the now disgraced Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, can be welcomed, says Eddie Ford

Before he was forced to stand down as shadow secretary of state for defence this former Cranfield officer told The Times that, amongst other things, being called a "black bastard" was a normal part of army life. After all, colonel Mercer spent 25 years in the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters regiment, doing nine tours in Northern Ireland and commanding a battalion in Bosnia - so presumably he should have some idea as to what he is talking about.

The armed forces of the capitalist state are normally predicated on systematic abuse, a pyramidical caste structure and a denial of basic democratic rights. The British army's bible, The military covenant, is perfectly candid: "In putting the needs of the nation and the army before their own, they [soldiers] forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the armed forces" (www.army.mod.uk/servingsoldier/usefulinfo/valuesgeneral/adp5milcov/ss_hrpers_values_ adp5_1_w.html#backgrd). Eg, there are special military courts, trial is by officers, not peers, there is no right to strike, trade union representation is not permitted, and members of the armed forces cannot stand in parliamentary or local elections.

Training is not just about weapons, equipment and tactics. Above all, it is about turning the grunts at the bottom into unquestioning, dehumanised killing machines - willing to instantly obey the orders of officers. Hence the emphasis on drill and square-bashing. Rank and file soldiers, in particular, are kept deliberately isolated in barracks and soulless special estates. An obvious aid in maintaining robotic discipline and separating them from the society they purportedly serve.

There is an obvious human cost. Psychological stress leads many to depression, drink and even suicide. Adjusting to life after the armed forces often proves impossible. Large numbers of rough sleepers are former soldiers.

Of course, communists want the thorough democratisation of the existing armed forces. Not because we wish to see them put to right and perfected. We fight for the abolition of the standing army and instead a people's militias - the population armed, not disarmed and disorganised. Naturally, as part of this anti-militarist struggle, we seek to expose the inhuman nature of the British army, the grievances of the rank and file and the humiliation, bullying and violence they suffer from NCOs.

Significantly, but almost totally overlooked in the subsequent brouhaha, Mercer's remarks were in response to the no doubt alarming news that some soldiers from Commonwealth countries were attempting to form a trade union - on the grounds that their 6,000 'members' have been treated as "third class soldiers" for too long, with the army authorities doing little or nothing to tackle racism and abuse in general.

Under the leadership of the still serving Marlon Clancy from Belize, who joined the British army in 1999 and has suffered victimisation for his outspokenness, the proposed British Commonwealth Soldiers' Union plans to confidentially advise ethnic minority servicemen and women in the event of discrimination or other problems. An excellent development - one which should be fully supported by the left and the entire workers' movement.

Understandably, for an officer and a gentleman like Mercer, with his distinguished military background - MBE, OBE and mentioned in despatches in Northern Ireland - any form of putative trade unionism goes totally against the grain of what the British army stands for - and here he is clearly correct. For him, these voices of dissent were speaking "complete and utter rot" - and, more to the point, were indulging in seditious thought-crimes. Soldiers were there to obey orders. Do that and you will get on well - maybe even die like a hero, if you are lucky. If not, well, be prepared to take your medicine.

So what did Mercer actually say? Well, given the hypocritical nonsense that has been generated over this issue, it is worth quoting him in full. He told The Times online: "I had the good fortune to command a battalion that was racially very mixed. Towards the end, I had five company sergeant majors who were all black. They were without exception UK-born, Nottingham-born men who were English - as English as you and me. They prospered inside my regiment, but if you'd said to them, 'Have you ever been called a nigger?' they would have said, 'Yes.' But equally, a chap with red hair, for example, would also get a hard time - a far harder time than a black man, in fact.

"But that's the way it is in the army. If someone is slow on the assault course, you'd get people shouting, 'Come on, you fat bastard, come on, you ginger bastard, come on, you black bastard.' I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours. I remember one guy from St Anne's (Nottingham) who was constantly absent and who had a lot of girlfriends. When he came back one day I asked him why, and he would say, 'I was racially abused.' And we'd say, 'No you weren't, you were off with your girlfriends again.'

"In my experience, when you put on the uniform then all differences disappear. If you are a good soldier, you will do well. If you are a bad soldier, you will leave prematurely. There is a degree of colour-blindness among the vast majority of soldiers. I never came across a piece of nastiness inside the battalion that was based exclusively on racism'" (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article1484909.ece).

In other words, Mercer's primary crime was - in a foolish bout of honesty - to simply describe the military world as it is, rather than how some would like or imagine it to be. That is, everyone in the army (all the grunts, that is) gets treated in essentially the same way - that is brutally, in order to make them fit for purpose. To kill on order for the British state. And for this there has to be a system of institutionalised bullying - regardless of who you are.

A memorandum from Surrey police made public in 2004 included 173 allegations of racism, abuse, harassment and beatings at Deepcut army barracks, including nine rape accusations. In October 2004, former Deepcut training instructor Leslie Skinner was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail for sex attacks on young male soldiers (see www.bullyonline.org/workbully/military.htm).

Racism exists at every level of the British army - just like in British society itself. And, of course, given the inherent nature of that organisation - dedicated to violence and cut off from society as a whole - instances of racism may well be particularly damaging. The Black Information Link website carries a report of the former paratrooper, Shaka Wallace, who suffered a whole campaign of racist taunting and abuse. "Racism is rife and the army", he says, but the army wants to "just brush it under the carpet" (www.blink.org.uk/pdescription. asp?key=10504&grp=71& cat=316).

Nowadays, of course, the top brass are under constant pressure from the government to make the army look ever more 'modern' and 'inclusive'. If they can get more blacks, Asians, muslims, etc into the army, and performing efficiently, then they are happy - no prejudice about that, you can be assured.

Nevertheless the bullying and racist culture of the armed forces continues. This leads to a kind of mental self-censorship amongst army loyalists. Paradoxically the supportive remarks of Leroy Hutchinson, a black former corporal who served with Mercer for 12 years, confirm this. In Hutchinson's mind, Mercer himself "never tolerated racism in the battalion" and not a "single one of his men would consider him to be racist". Yet, he notes, it is just a fact that "name-calling - whether you be black, white, ginger, red, brown" - comes with the job description. And any abusive insults, Hutchinson adds, do not "come across from an individual as a racist comment", but rather are (normally) accepted as "just part of the culture" of the army (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6431005.stm). Exactly.

For lifting the curtain on normal army life, Mercer had to go - right there on the spot, as a sacrificial lamb to the 'new' Tory party of David Cameron. No wonder that Mercer's friends and colleagues are so outraged. But, petrified that his party could in the slightest be associated with racism, the (former) pot-smoking, hoodie-hugging Cameron declared that Mercer's observations were "unacceptable" and "disgusting" - as we should "should not tolerate racism in the army or in any walk of life". Note that it is not the reality of British army "culture" that is "disgusting" - no, for Cameron, what is genuinely "unacceptable" is that anyone from within his own ranks could dare to be so frank about such a 'delicate' topic.

Of course, Labour officials went into a synthetic fury - huffing and puffing about the evils of racism is one of their specialities. Andy Ingram, armed forces minister, took it upon himself to remind us that the British army is run by "21st century people who recognise that there is no place for prejudice in the modern world" - and castigated Mercer's comments as an "insult" to the "brave men and women who serve in our armed forces with great distinction". Jack Straw, never one to be outdone in the piety stakes, slammed Mercer for uttering "breathtaking" and "dreadful" words. Shahid Malik, MP for Dewsbury, said the Mercer fuss proved that the Tories were still the "nasty party".

So, if we are to believe Malik, the Labour Party is the 'nice party' - the party that, in loyal conjunction with US imperialism, prepared and carried out the brutal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The 'nice party' that has torn Iraq into bloody sectarian shreds, and now has its beady eyes on Iran.

Our movement must demand an immediately end to bullying of all kinds in the army. Therefore, we should back - albeit critically - any rank-and-file organisation within the armed forces, no matter how embryonic. At first complaints may just be about poor equipment, bad conditions or appalling food. But when even the smallest group or circle comes together for some degree of camaraderie and mutual support, this represents a progressive development.

As has been reported in the Weekly Worker previously, we are beginning to see the first rudimentary outlines of such a 'protest movement'. Websites like www.arrse.co.uk - run by ordinary soldiers - are functioning along the manner of a primitive 'soldiers newspaper' and call for some sort of armed forces federation (or 'trade union', if you like). Inevitably at this point, the language used in such forums comes couched in terms of English/British nationalism - any form of coherent class politics or internationalism is still some way off.

But, if encouraged, these outlets for frustration can lead to a wider questioning of military values and in turn help lay the foundations for something far more subversive. Something, you can guarantee, that neither the 'nasty' Patrick Mercer nor the 'nice' Shahid Malik would approve of.