JO - If black men are good enough to fight and die for Britain, why the prejudice?
If black men are good enough to fight and die for Britain, why the prejudice?
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Men and women from the Commonwealth have a distinguished record of service in the British Armed forces. The most notable recent example is Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry from Grenada. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery in Iraq. But recently serious allegations of racism, against soldiers from the Commonwealth, have been broadcast on the BBC.
The background to this is that the numbers of Commonwealth soldiers in the British Army have shot up in recent years. In 1999, there were only 400. Now, there are more than 6,000, which is nearly 10 per cent of the total strength of the army. They come from all parts of the Commonwealth including: Nepal - 3,000 soldiers; Fiji - 2,000; Jamaica - 975; St Vincent - 280; and St Lucia - 225.
This rise in Commonwealth soldiers has been in response to severe manpower shortages. But the increasing numbers of non-white, non-British-born soldiers seem to have triggered resentment among some British-born soldiers and officers. They seem to regard Commonwealth soldiers as second-class soldiers. So some Commonwealth soldiers are attempting to set up a British Commonwealth Soldiers Union.
It will not be a real trade union. It is not officially recognised by the Army authorities and members will not have the right to withdraw their labour. But the people who have set it up hope that it will be a way for Commonwealth soldiers to express their concerns.Commonwealth soldiers are making allegations of abuse that are alarming. A soldier from Belize describes how he was attacked by fellow soldiers dressed as members of the Ku Klu Klan and who threatened to burn him alive. When he complained, not only was nothing done, but he was victimised even more.
A Jamaican-born soldier related how he was routinely asked to do menial jobs, verbally abused and called a nigger. Even officers joined in with the taunts of "Nigger go home". His wife, who was also interviewed, added "They have broken him. He is a broken man". Generally the Commonwealth soldiers complain that they are treated as second class and that, even when promoted, Commonwealth soldiers do not get respect from their white sub-ordinates.
Marlon Clancy, who is one of the people setting up the British Commonwealth Soldiers Union says, "In some units, the white soldiers will be given priority for courses over the black soldiers, and the black soldier - no matter how long he's been in, if he has been in four years longer than the white soldier - he will be put behind the white soldier".
John McKenzie, a British solicitor specialising in military matters, says, "The Government has allowed the army to create a class of Afro-Caribbean soldier at the bottom of the heap with no legal entitlements. The Army has exploited them, abused them and caused them to be in a state of despair. The Government has to be forced to remedy this".
Beharry. awarded the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery in Iraq
An internal study of the Royal Marines revealed that one-third of Royal Marines thought that training black soldiers was more trouble than it was worth; two-thirds thought that racist jokes were harmless and a quarter believed that non-Christian soldiers should not be allowed to practise their religion.
The Ministry of Defence has been highly embarrassed by the allegations. The ministry argues that these are isolated incidents and that there is no evidence of endemic racism in the Army. A spokesman said, "We highly value the part played by Commonwealth soldiers in our armed forces".
But it is unsurprising that the Army should discriminate against Commonwealth soldiers. Although many Jamaicans regard their service during World War II fondly, the record shows that racism was built in to the Army's approach to black soldiers. During World War I, the British were very reluctant to recruit black West Indians. They did eventually recruit over 15,000. But the War Office insisted that black colonial troops should not be allowed to fight white Europeans, presumably because this would subvert ideas of white racial superiority.
Some black West Indian troops were allowed to fight the Turks. But they were mostly confined to menial labouring roles and systematically discriminated against in housing, promotion and pay. Between the wars there was effectively a colour bar in the Army. With the outbreak of World War II, that was relaxed. Small numbers of West Indians joined a few regiments.
But the War office blocked bringing large numbers of black West Indian troops (in the from of a West Indian Regiment) to Britain. Amongst other excuses they claimed they could not fight well. The situation in the Royal Air Force was a little better, perhaps because it was a newer organisation and less steeped in prejudice. So several thousand West Indian men and women came to Britain to serve as aircrew.
With its history of the colour bar, it is no wonder that the Army is struggling to treat Commonwealth soldiers fairly. The incidents of racism may be isolated, but if black men are good enough to fight and die for Britain, they should be good enough to be treated properly in all aspects of their Army service.