Today, in Britain, it is armed forces day. The cynic in me merely sees a new PR event thought up by a government in deep trouble.
If the British government really cared about the Queen’s armed forces then they would send them into battle with a fighting chance of survival.
My thoughts have been, in the main, about a young man from my father’s hometown in Mayo.
He was a member of our own Defence Forces, but he yearned for adventure.
He decided on the Royal Marines.
By all accounts, even factoring in grief driven eulogy, he was an exemplary young man.
His death, his absence, will be a wound in his family that will never, ever heal.
Given the nature of the West Mayo gene pool I don’t think I would have to go back through the McKibbens or the O’Malleys on his mother’s side to find that Robert “Robbie” McKibben and I shared a few distant relatives.
If memory serves there was at least on McKibben in the West Mayo flying column.
Last November Mayo buried one of our own.
As an indicator of changed times in Westport Robbie’s comrades from the Royal Marines were welcomed. The town came to a respectful halt as his flag draped coffin was borne through the town.
This show of respect would have been impossible when my grandmother’s generation was alive in Westport. She remembered how HM forces had behaved in her town in 1920.
She was as damaged as those young men who had been battered and bayoneted by the Tans in front of her family home.
The Tans were war criminals and, in her opinion, not enough of them died in the Carrowkennedy ambush where they were caught cold by the local flying column of the IRA.
The Tans travelled in open topped Crossley Tenders on a blind corner in West Mayo they were easy targets for IRA rifles.
I hope that Robbie’s family are not reading this-if I thought that they were I would not write the following.
However, I feel I must.
Robbie’s violent death wasn’t just an act of war, it was a scandal of a couldn’t care less bureaucracy that sends young men to their death in shoddy equipment.
Robbie McKibben and his comrade, Neil Duntsan, were among the first casualties in the new “jackal” vehicle.
The jackal was brought in to replace the much criticised “snatch land rover” that seemed a death trap to anyone travelling in it.
The jackal was meant to be IED (Improvised Explosive Device) proof.
The American MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) was brought in to counter the IED threat in Iraq.
Since the US Marine Corps took delivery of their MRAPS they have not lost a single man to IEDs.
Armies who send their soldiers into harms way have a duty of care to them. Too many young British soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan because of equipment failures. Their American comrades look on in pitying disbelief.
British Aerospace have made-I am reliably informed –“billions” from the Jackal deal.
Someone, somewhere in the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) ordered what is, in effect, a dune buggy at £600,000 a pop.
It is a modern Crossley Tender.
The scandal of the Jackal is that, in Britain, there is no scandal.
The evidence of a poorly equipped army stumbling from ambush to ambush isn’t hard to find.
Perhaps the good folk of Britain don’t care about their army and hence today’s special day for the services to encourage them to care.
I simply don’t know.
What is certain is that Britain can’t do this warfare stuff very well anymore. They should stop. The next government-whichever party forms it-will cut the UK’s defence budget anywhere from 7% to 10% across the board.
Britain is losing in Afghanistan as surely as the Shia militias ran the British army out of Basra and as surely as the Tans were run out of Westport by my grandparent’s generation.
Britain’s defeat, thankfully, will not mean the victory for the medieval Taleban in the Hindu Kush.
The Americans will not allow that.
The British will be replaced in Helmand province by US forces within the next 12 months.
Britain can’t do this stuff anymore. In the days of music hall British nationalism one hundred years ago, in the build up to the Great War, there was a song that gave the English language a word to conjure up images of an arrogant warlike society.
It went something like this:
“We don’t want a war,
but I jingo if we do!
We got the men,
we’ve got the guns
and we’ve got the money too!”
In 2009 Britain doesn’t have the money, the guns often don’t work and they can’t afford to pay for enough soldiers.
No more imperial games please for it’s over.
It really is over.
When “jingoism” entered the English language the music hall crowds would be warmed up with a chorus of “Rule Britannia”.
A century ago it was a statement of fact today it is merely a folk tune from a by gone age.
Robbie McKibben is buried in Aughavale cemetery.
I know it well for it is where my own father and his parents rest.
I will give this brave Marine and Mayo man a minute of my silence and all of my respect next time I take flowers to graves of my kin who sleep under the gaze of Naomh Phadraig’s mountain.
The beauty of the vista from the cemetery is beyond my ability to describe.
Robbie is not in a lonely grave by Suvla bay, but his tragic death achieved not a thing for Ireland or for Britain.
It was better to live ‘neath an Irish sky.