Stop Your Whingeing, Lads; the Food Is Poor, There's a Shortage of Goggles and Masks ... Complaints Are Pouring in from British Servicemen in the Gulf. but It's All Part of a Rich Military Tradition

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Byline: ROBERT FOX

THE first thing armies do when they go to war is moan - and British soldiers over the centuries, as we are reminded today, have turned moaning into an art form. Twelve years ago in the Gulf the black humour was all based on Blackadder, and if there was a patron saint of cheerful moaning then it was that cheery misery guts Baldrick.

So how seriously should we take the complaints?

Certainly at face value the claims are pretty alarming: that our troops lack proper food, clothing, goggles and other equipment for confronting a chemical attack. These are serious charges, and ones not to be treated lightly. But the general context of the soldier's lot - and his willingness to air his feelings, has to be understood.

First of all the weather has been "gibbering", the catchall term for wet, windy, full of sand storms and unseasonably cold. All the tents blew down in a freak storm shortly after the first troops arrived in Kuwait. As last time round, there has been ice and strange pieces of grass springing up in the desert. Besides, the food has been "gopping" - mucky, cold and nothing like the best the Americans are getting - or at least so you would believe from some of the messages now being picked up by anxious families. Queues for food in the tented barracks have been nearly half a mile long.

Army food, like school food, tends to be a problem. In the first wave it is always a struggle to get field kitchens up and running. Regularly the British Army loves to show off "the bakery that last saw service at Alamein" -- banks of gasfired ovens and rings enough to fry a troop of boy scouts.

But, unless my age and harsh upbringing are getting the better of me, on the whole the standard of cooking and food on operations has been high.

It is said that British soldiers prefer the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that the Americans carry when out in the field (as opposed to back at base).

Frankly this strains credulity.

Unless they have improved miraculously in the past two years, the British field ration pack with its eight variant main menus is infinitely superior.

It is true that many of the rations nowadays are "boil in a bag" and need a fair amount of ingenuity and customisation, but there's no harm in learning to make do.

Experienced soldiers often carry their own embellishments, from Marmite to 57 varieties of pickle. In the Falklands, a Royal Marine colone l regarded one of the key implements of his trade as the large bottle of tabasco he took to spice up Arctic rations.

The technological age has brought its own brand of complaints. Today Kuwait is one of the best places in the world for mobile phone coverage, so younger soldiers have found little difficulty openly complaining of homesickness as the biggest drawback to joining the colours.

Predictably there have been corresponding instant rebuttals from the Government's information machine. …

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