Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond the Call of Duty

Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond the Call of Duty

Article excerpt

Fortunately, I have never fought in a war or served with the armed forces. I can't say I regret this as I am by no means certain I would have been any good at it. Nor do I know if I would have been capable of acts of courage. Reporting wars is safer, though not without risks of its own. Seeing the pictures of so-called embedded journalists in Iraq makes you realise that they, too, are in the front line and at risk from mortars, roadside bombs or suicide bombers. However, it is combat, whether in the air, on land or at sea, that remains the ultimate test of bravery.

The changing nature of war since 1945 has meant that there are fewer opportunities for solders to be awarded the most coveted medal for valour, the Victoria Cross. As was revealed in The Archive Hour: Brave or Lucky? 150 Years of Winning the Victoria Cross on Radio Four (Saturday) only 11 have been awarded in the intervening years, which is indicative of both the longer periods of peacetime and the remoteness of much of today's warfare, where a soldier might never see the enemy. The presenter, General Sir Peter de la Billiere, ex-SAS and commander of British forces during the first Gulf war, looked at the history of the VC and explored the nature of the courage required to acquire it. This is not a simple matter. Is it a brave act or just luck? He concluded it was both.

It was agreed by the various contributors to the programme that real bravery was not a foolhardy act but was one committed by someone who was aware of the dangers he was putting himself and others through. Those serving with him will be aware that he's doing something above and beyond the call of duty. He doesn't have to be a leader but has to be somebody who is quietly determined that he can help someone in distress and under fire. Lord Carver, former chief of the defence staff, modestly claimed not to have carried out a heroic act but added that there'd been times when he had had to show courage in the face of danger. He'd experienced fear and he wondered whether there was such a thing as a fearless man. He'd known certain people who appeared to be without fear. Some of them, he thought, were simply lacking in imagination, incapable of understanding the risks. The really brave man, he said, was the man who goes on even though in his own mind he's quaking with fear. …

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