Tuesday 4 March 2003

The men who know

This is just superb, a must read.

Amid the debate over whether we should attack Iraq, there is one group whose voice is seldom heard - the veterans of the last war. Sally Weale asked eight British soldiers who were there the first time around how they feel about a second war in the Gulf

Twelve years ago Les McCourt was engaged in what must have been one of the most unenviable jobs of the Gulf war. A private from Gateshead, he was employed in the army war graves section of the Royal Pioneer Corps. It was McCourt's job to recover allied bodies and prepare them to be sent back to the UK; it was also his responsibility to bury any Iraqi casualties, and it was thus that he found himself in the nightmare that was the road to Basra at the end of February 1991.

Thousands of Iraqis, who were fleeing on the main road north out of Kuwait to the southern Iraqi city of Basra, were slaughtered by allied forces in what was described as a "turkey shoot", producing some of the most shocking images of the consequences of modern warfare. McCourt spent four days clearing the terrible debris.

"The only way I could think about it was as a piece of meat. I couldn't see it as a person. If you'd thought about what his name was, was he married, did he have kids, you couldn't have done it. You had to cut yourself off from it, which is what I did."

When McCourt came back from the Gulf, he was stationed in Germany. One day, working on a vehicle checkpoint, a loaded gun in his hands, he broke down. He was sent to the psychiatrist and his career was over. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was medically discharged in 1996. He cannot get a job and, at 40, feels his life is finished.

As a young squaddie, McCourt was not interested in the politics behind the Gulf war, nor was he concerned with the justness or otherwise of the conflict. Others felt the same. Twelve years on, however, McCourt and thousands of other Gulf war veterans, who fought in Kuwait but have since left the armed forces, are now confronting the possibility of a second war in the Gulf from an entirely new perspective. No longer part of the services, they are seeing this war not only as veterans who know the horror of war, but as civilians.

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