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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 September 22; 335(7620): 616.
PMCID: PMC1988975
The Bigger Picture


Mary E Black, public health physician, Belgrade, Serbia

I have mixed feelings about armies. In 1970s Belfast, we Catholic children welcomed British soldiers as our saviours till the tide of opinion changed and we were told to ignore them as they passed by on street patrols. In fake military-style justice thousands of young people had brutal punishment beatings from Northern Irish paramilitaries—a big number for a small country. In the Royal Victoria Hospital I patched up a young father, shot through the spine by an 18 year old from an impoverished housing estate in Glasgow; given an army uniform and a gun he had simply lost it one afternoon.

I grew up near Long Kesh, a dark and secretive place where the innocent, the politically motivated, and the murderous were interned for years without trial and where the prison authorities used the “five techniques” of wall-standing, hooding, subjection to white noise, and deprivation of food and drink. Now, the internet, global news coverage, and documentary films shine light on Guantanamo Bay, follow the British Navy personnel taken prisoner by Iran this year, and show us the rape and murder by US soldiers of a 14 year girl in Iraq. Armies and their workings are more familiar. We can have virtual seats on the world's international front lines, and we can choose to watch, to engage . . . or not.

It was a member of the French Foreign Legion, an abscondee from Belfast, who would let me into the UN compound in Bosnia after curfew. It was the British soldiers in UNPROFOR (the United Nations Protection Force) who would “commission” items for my UN medical evacuation unit in Sarajevo. Decent, practical men all, but I never did ask them what their units had done while serving in Northern Ireland. For armies make me nervous. Armies put people into structures where the individual can be sacrificed for the greater good, where violence can be central to the mission.

Time moves on. Long Kesh may become an International Centre for Conflict Transformation, a national sports centre, and residential and commercial units. I teach with British Army colleagues on planning and logistics in complex emergencies, as they do both so well. In Belgrade, I bring my children each year to Anzac day, Remembrance Sunday, and the French equivalent, bearing the framed photograph of my grandfather in his British Army medical officer uniform, a gas survivor from the trenches in the first world war. We talk about my aunt, a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service in the second world war. We wear poppies and lay flowers on the graves of those brave, scared, and lonely soldiers who died far away from home. Soldiers who had mothers with mixed feelings.

And my prayer? May I never have to watch my children march off to war. May my children do anything else to save the world but pull a trigger.

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