What about the squaddies in Afghanistan?

28 Aug

Last night I watched for the second time an episode of Accused, the 2010 series from the pen of Jimmy McGovern, now on Netflix. Here’s an abridged Wiki synopsis of Frankie’s Story:

Frankie and Peter join the army to get out of jail time after a pub assault. In Afghanistan, Peter’s cowardice has him bullied by his battalion, especially by Corporal Buckley, who dubs him “the bitch”.  When Buckley orders Frankie to urinate on Peter’s bed, Peter shoots himself. Buckley tells Frankie to keep silent as Peter is reported KIA. Frankie shops Buckley to the Sergeant, who ignores him. Frankie is now “the bitch”. He kills Buckley. Refusing to reveal his motive, he gets life with a minimum 25 year tariff.

As ever with McGovern, the principals are shown with sympathy but not sentimentality. That includes the bullying corporal, played to perfection by Mackenzie Crook. But before I get to Corporal Buckley, let me make a few general observations.

  • The backbone of the British Army has long been supplied by brutalised elements from the poorest sections of the working class. (Take the Black and Tans, drawn from WW1 soldiers returning not to Lloyd George’s promised ‘land fit for heroes’ but to economic slump, strikes and lockouts; now sent to smash Fenian skulls in Ireland.) The need of a modern army for analytic minds and technical knowhow augments but does not, once the decision has been taken to place boots on hostile terrain, 1 negate this truth.
  • For decades the liberal wing of corporate media in the West has run stories on armed forces bullying. At least once the subject has had the Hollywood treatment: see A Few Good Men, 1992, with Cruise and Nicholson slugging it out in a court martial as Demi Moore supplies eye candy and Love Interest.
  • There is a fundamental contradiction in play here. The qualities needed to kill and die – and even commit acts of unspeakable barbarity 2 – for King and Country 3 are not those most valued in liberal circles, not least because they caution against tolerating weakness in one’s comrades.

Now back to Frankie’s Story. While Jack Nicholson’s Commander Jessup, traditionalist defender of barrack room ‘rough justice’, does get to articulate his position in A Few Good Men, it is in caricature. (And what does Nicholson excel at if not – I speak as one with huge respect for this scene stealing mesmerist – caricature?) We are left in no doubt that dashing Tom Cruise is the hero of the day, the irascibly old school Commander Jessup the full-blooded villain of the piece.

McGovern and Crook – as we’d expect from artists of their calibre, unconstrained by box office diktat – are more nuanced in their depiction of Corporal Buckley. In refusing to caricaturise him, they get at truths of no interest to Hollywood, and superfluous to the requirements of viewers demanding their big screen fix of Good triumphing over Evil.

Let me cite two especially compelling scenes.

In the first, after Peter has placed rifle in mouth to blow his own brains out, Buckley tells Frankie to go with the cover story that his mate died a hero’s death; killed in action while protecting his comrades. Though patently self-serving, Buckley’s logic has undeniable force. Peter, he reminds Frankie, comes from a military family, his father a decorated soldier. Does Frankie wish to bring shame on that family?

The corporal is succinctly eloquent, adding the sweetener that Frankie may accompany the flag draped and – crucial, this – sealed coffin back to the UK:

I can arrange that. Wouldn’t you like a few days at home with the wife?

But Frankie’s guilt – he had taken part in the bullying, on pain of replacing Peter as the ‘bitch’ – only mounts. On his return to Helmand he tells Buckley he intends to grass. Which leads to the second scene in which Crook’s Buckley gets the peachy part.

With Frankie present, the platoon sergeant – a party both to the bullying and cover up – goes through the motions of summoning Buckley, whose words run on roughly the following lines:

Permission to speak freely, sarge? We don’t get many intellectuals here. Our men have very little imagination. If they did, they wouldn’t be so fucking brave – they’d be too aware of the likely consequences of their actions.

But that cuts two ways. They also can’t imagine the consequences of stepping out of line. That’s why every platoon needs its ‘bitch’ – there to remind them of those consequences. Cowards get their mates killed but that doesn’t compute for our men. It’s too abstract. The bitch is needed to remind every soldier of why he needs to man up. I’d go so far as to say that the platoon bitch has the most important role in the whole unit. Sarge.

The force of his argument is amplified by the evident fact that Buckley has the love and respect of his men 4 for a very good reason. In this ferocious environment, he has a deserved reputation for getting the men under his wing back from every mission. Alive, and usually in one piece.

Oddly enough, that counts for more with them than notions of fairness or political correctness.

As for Frankie, well, now the platoon needs a new bitch, innit?


  1. As US economist and political analyst Michael Hudson has often noted, the primary driver of post Vietnam America’s preference for aerial warfare on the one hand, use of proxies (including jihadist groups) on the other, flows from the negative optics of body bags returning to the USA.
  2. In Afghanistan the best documented low level war crimes – at a higher level the entire war on Afghanistan was a war crime – were by 3rd Platoon of Bravo Company, as it sought to establish a US presence around Kandahar. But the Brits were at it too and, like the Americans, seeking on the one hand to limit fallout by pushing responsibility down the chain of command; on the other to demand immunity from ICC jurisdiction. Considered alongside the New Zealand atrocities, these proven barbarities make it safe to assume that all occupying powers committed war crimes there: indeed, that such crimes are inevitable when invading forces are unwelcome, in Afghanistan as in Vietnam, and resistance fighters able to merge with the general populace.
  3. It is my understanding – as one who has never seen military action – that patriotism is not and never was the true motivator of the incredible bravery shown again and again by soldiers. For that we should look to loyalty, with even one’s regiment too abstract a concept in the heat of battle. Rather, loyalty to platoon and battalion – to immediate comrades – is the commonest driver of courage in action.
  4. Love and respect? Though fear and groupthink play a part in explaining why Buckley’s men don’t challenge his seeming cruelty, they explain neither why those men turn up in force at Frankie’s trial, nor their elation at its outcome.

2 Replies to “What about the squaddies in Afghanistan?

  1. I felt the same after watching that.
    This week three things happened to me. I discovered during some research that my dads uncle, from an incredibly poor mining family, signed up in Feb 1915 only to be killed in May 1917 in Flanders. It was the pit or the army,
    On my mam’s side, her uncle died in 1944 in a stone collapse at Choppington ‘A’ pit. Not at war because he was mining.
    I also found the absolute loyalty of a mutual friend invaluable in supporting a group of women bullied, silenced and oppressed within the Labour Party, incredibly moving. Not life and death directly perhaps, but very much so for many the world over if one dreams of the possibility of a socialist government one day.

    • Thanks Terry. On all three counts – deaths of a paternal and a maternal great uncle; Labour Party bullying of which there are now many accounts which go unreported by ‘our’ media if unhelpful to mainstream narratives – Frankie’s Story has clearly pressed buttons for you.

      Two minutes into the drama, I realised I’d seen it before – probably in 2010 when it was first released and neither Jimmy nor Mackenzie were known to me. (I was a latecomer to The Street, though I did review Broken on this site.) And not until The Detectorists – which gets a mention in another review – did I realise how good Crook is.

      Central to me though is yet another playing out of liberal attempts to square the circle. The Guardian has often enough acted as cheerleader for imperialist wars dressed as ‘humanitarian intervention’. And it has voiced on numerous occasions its bleeding heart concerns over army bullying. Nuff said.

      On a deeper level, but tangential to the thrust of my post, Frankie’s Story also raises the question of what constitutes courage and self sacrifice. Once this is asked, Frankie, for all his self doubt and guilt, emerges as the possessor of these qualities in spades. He can’t avoid a long sentence but revealing the full story, as his counsel urged him to do, would drastically reduce that quarter century tariff. At cost of dishonouring his late pal.

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