I watched trainee soldiers in their teens fumbling with their rifles in Soldier on TV, and memories were ricocheting around me.
The documentary series shows a platoon of raw infantry recruits put through their paces at Catterick barracks in Yorkshire by, among others, a fearsome training sergeant from north of the border.
Quite appropriate, I thought, with Remembrance Sunday so close. And with the Ukraine war constantly teetering on the edge of breaking out across Europe.
As we pray for the fallen who gave us the freedom we enjoy today – even though many take it for granted without a thought for the sacrifice – it beggars belief that it’s happening again on European soil after what’s gone before.
Other conflicts become even more poignant. For example, we see the faces of thousands of young Israeli reservists called up to fight Hamas, and the children who are dying in droves. Many are pleading to give peace a chance in Gaza.
John Lennon chanted the same mantra as a general warning to mankind in his iconic song Give Peace a Chance. We are talking about him right now, after his voice was lifted by AI from a forgotten track to make a new Beatles song, Now And Then.
It was released on Thursday, after the band initially dropped the song from a Beatles retrospective in the 1990s. People might be reassessing Lennon’s extraordinary life as a result. Sadly, his legendary peace song flaps in the wind as bullets whizz past all over the world.
One source lists 32 ongoing killing fields around the globe – from drugs, terrorism and civil wars to full-blown military battles between states. The UN warns we are in the middle of a new era of danger with the slaughter from these conflicts rising dramatically.
And to think that there were misguided souls who said we should cut our military protection and bin nuclear bombs so we’d all live happily ever after.
Aggressors smell weakness; even the Boy Scouts say “Be Prepared”.
Scotland is more important than ever as Nato’s northern flank against Putin.
Another generation of fresh-faced teenagers marches on
There was something very familiar about watching the hapless, accident-prone recruits in Soldier. They follow in the footsteps of countless generations of fresh-faced teenagers who marched ahead of them. Many of these predecessors have their names carved on gravestones in military cemeteries around the world.
Barely out of school, but instructors warned darkly that they had to prepare for the possibility – however remote – of chucking them into the front line in Ukraine. A sobering thought. Especially as we had just watched one recruit trying to warm up a pizza between two steam irons.
Maybe showing signs of the ingenuity required on the front line? I couldn’t tell.
For those old enough to remember, some of it was straight out of the old 1970s army sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum
They learned the things required by the infantry to instil discipline and attention to detail. Like their socks being folded exactly as per regulations in lockers. How to fire bullets into an enemy’s heart in a neat cluster, no more than 62mm wide. Respect for tradition, badge and rank was drilled in.
One recruit said he’d never heard of showing respect; it didn’t exist at school. The 17-year-old was cycling aimlessly around a grim council estate at home one minute, the next he was handed an army SA80 rapid-fire assault rifle.
For those old enough to remember, some of it was straight out of the old 1970s army sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. But, with Ukraine on our doorstep, there is a heightened sense of danger and urgency.
War is still omnipresent
I always think of my grandad more at this time of year. He volunteered for the infantry at 16 – they weren’t fussy about ages amid the gung-ho atmosphere of World War One starting – and landed in Gallipoli at 17. It was a bloodbath; a British military disaster.
He was awarded a special medal, though, given exclusively to soldiers who fought at Gallipoli or the Somme.
He also had the distinction of arriving at Gallipoli in the Gloucestershire Regiment, but leaving in the Finsbury Rifles. We discovered he was ordered into a battlefield transfer of men between regiments to plug gaps after the Londoners suffered heavy losses.
Lennon was also a soldier, briefly, but only playing one in the 1960s film How I Won the War. Pictures show him wearing round-rimmed “granny glasses” for the part, which became his trademark fashion accessory.
Not surprisingly for Lennon, the film was a surreal black comedy ridiculing the pointlessness and glorification of war. The irony was that they were free to make that statement thanks to the sacrifices of real soldiers. Elsewhere, they might have been jailed.
I, for one, appreciate the young men and women who put themselves forward to protect us.
But, if he came back, Lennon would note that war was still omnipresent. Nothing much has changed – between now and then.
David Knight is the long-serving former deputy editor of The Press and Journal