Even if the story is exaggerated, the underlying psychology is convincing. It is reliably reported that last month a woman in her thirties was doing her daily laps of the pool in Leatherhead, Surrey, when she became aware of an obstacle.
A section of the swimming-pool had been roped off to allow 15 wounded soldiers to receive the therapy needed for their rehabilitation. It is hard to know what went through the young woman’s mind, but she must have grasped that these disfigurements had been incurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. She understood in a flash that she was not only being inconvenienced; she was being inconvenienced by the British military, the people who (as she no doubt instinctively conceived it) had brought havoc to the innocent civilians of Third World countries.
In her imagination she suddenly became a victim, and the interruption of her daily yuppie swim was collateral damage caused by the unrelenting stupidity of British military adventurism. So she got out of the pool and started berating the soldiers. ‘I pay to come here,’ she cried, apparently shaking with indignation, ‘and you lot don’t.’
Among the soldiers and their trainers there was, as you might expect, panic. If you are permanently injured, you must reconcile yourself to a lifetime of stares. It surely requires real courage to take off your clothes and expose your mutilated body in a public swimming-pool; and the last thing you expect is to be shouted at by a fit young woman — one of the very civilians on whose behalf you thought you were fighting.
So how did it end, the battle for the Leatherhead shallow end? It is a sign of the topsy-turvydom of our world that this termagant got her way. No one rebuked her. No one told her to shut up and show some respect to people who had lost so much for their country.
The 15 injured soldiers scrambled or were helped out of the pool. The woman got on with her laps. For many people in Britain’s armed forces this is the kind of incident that sums up the relation between the British civilian population and the 100,000 troops who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. I don’t say that it is completely impossible to imagine a ghastly scene like that in America; but it is surely far less likely.
The Iraq operation is Britain’s biggest overseas engagement for 50 years, and yet the people who are fighting it on our behalf seem to inspire nothing much more than apathy, verging on embarrassment, verging in some cases on distaste. How many bumper stickers have you seen urging us to support our boys? How many yellow ribbons, of the kind that are ubiquitous in America?
One of the pledges Gordon Brown made in the run-up to his ectopic election was that the troops would be home by Christmas. That suggestion seems to have evaporated; but even if it had been honoured, it is hard to imagine that we would have turned out, as a nation, to shower them with confetti. A victory parade? Toes across Britain would have curled at the thought. There is a very simple reason for this embarrassment, and for the humiliating deference shown to the tantrums of the female swimmer of Leatherhead; and that is the unpopularity of the war.
In the course of his absurd two and a half hour trip to Iraq last weekend, Mr Brown told the troops that ‘we have managed to get Iraq into a far better place’. Leaving aside the vision this conjures up, of the British army, navy and air force heroically towing blood-spattered Mesopotamia to some happy place of recuperation, such as the Caribbean, we know it is not true.
We know, and the returning soldiers know, that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. We know that the world is not notably safer than before Saddam Hussein was removed, and I don’t think even the great Mark Steyn — one of the most fertile and ingenious defenders of the neocon cause — would pretend that the condition of the Iraqi people has been improved.
In most of the important ways, the war has been a disaster; and things are little better in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, where we have lost 86 British killed, with many more the victims of horrifying injuries. We are now told that we are embarked on a 20-year struggle to wipe out the Taleban, and that we are going to continue to try to eradicate the opium crop.
No matter how brave the British troops, and how magnificent their individual operations, it is clear that these combined objectives represent a pretty tall order. People wonder whether we have thought this through any more systematically than we planned for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion; and their deep doubts about the wars have sadly contaminated their feelings about British troops, and curdled their natural loyalty and support.
That is why we need to make a far more energetic distinction between the rights and wrongs of the war, and the sacrifice of the men and women we send to fight it. I want to be Mayor of London next year, and there is one immediate thing a Mayor could do, to show solidarity with our returning troops. I’d like Londoners to consider it, as a way of showing that our society does not share the brutal indifference of the Leatherhead swimmer.
British veterans are more likely than almost any other group to have poor housing; they have very high rates of mental health problems; one in four rough sleepers in London is estimated to have a military background. Many of them find it very expensive to pay for public transport to receive medical help.
It is high time we offered all veterans returning from current theatres of war the right to free travel on London’s buses — as we do for under-16s. Given what they have been through, and given the way they are sometimes treated, it seems to me the least we can do.
The fee for this article is going to Help for Heroes, www.helpforheroes.org.uk.