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Tim Collins in Iraq

During the second Gulf War in 2003 Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins was a 42-year-old commander of The Royal Irish battle group and delivered this speech to his troops in Kuwait, just hours before they went into battle.

"The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his Nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of Hell for Saddam. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity. But those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others, I expect you to rock their world.
“We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people, and the only flag that will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Don’t treat them as refugees, for they are in their own country.
“I know men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. They live with the mark of Cain upon them. If someone surrenders to you, then remember they have that right in international law, and ensure that one day they go home to their family. The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please. If there are casualties of war, then remember, when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly, and mark their graves.
“You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest, for your deeds will follow you down history. Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood, and the birth of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. You will be embarrassed by their hospitality, even though they have nothing ...
“There may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow. Let’s leave Iraq a better place for us having been there. Our business now, is north.”

Contrast this speech with others such as those of Lincoln, Churchill Bush and others.

This is what Ben McIntyre of The Times said of the speech. Do you agree?

1. The Second Gulf War has already produced its first great work of oratory, a battlefield speech that could stand, in an unassuming way, alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Churchill’s inspiring wartime rhetoric.

2. A century hence, people will still be reading the speech written by Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins, the 42-year-old commander of The Royal Irish battle group, which he delivered to his troops in Kuwait on Wednesday afternoon, just hours before they went into battle.

3. Collins spoke of history, family, respect, dignity, and the individual moral choice between killing justly, and just killing.

4. Collins’ oration echoes the King James Bible, but it is also the language of the Playstation: rock their world. It comes without demons, or plastic martyrs; he does not promise Dulce et decorum, but sharp modern irony: we aim to please.

5. The language of war was changed forever by the First World War. Before 1914, battle rhetoric strictly followed the cadences of Henry V and Henry Newbolt: “We few, we happy few”; “Play up and play the game.” But after four years of carnage, the holy abstractions of honour, patriotism and duty, framed into set-piece epitaphs by Rudyard Kipling and carved on numberless gravestones, seemed grotesque.

6. Collins, by contrast, spoke in an emotive modern vernacular: ferocious, but also slangy, ironic, and gentle. God and country are there, but in undertone. The valour lies not in bloodshed, but in decency; not in winning, but in leaving well. And at its heart, his speech offers this unlikely truth: that war is not glorious, or fun, but complicated and morally messy; not a matter of sacred shrouds, poppy fields and noble deaths, but of dead friends, wrapped in sleeping bags.

7. You will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright evocation of what modern war means.

This is what Captain Doug Beattie, then RSM under Collins, says in his book An Ordinary Soldier. Do you agree?

1. "It pulled no punches, the message was stark."

2. "He had left the men somewhere they shouldn't have been: thinking about home, wondering if they would ever return there again, fearful of the dangers that faced them."

In a later article Ben Macintyre writes: "The Collins speech undoubtedly reminded his men of the reality of war and the possibility of death; it may even have been, in terms of tactics and morale, a mistake." But The Prince of Wales described it as "extraordinarily stirring, civilised and humane."

What do you think? Can it be both humane and a mistake in terms of morale? What linguistic features make this speech resonate? Look at the choice of words and the rhythm of the language - is it formal and classical - even Biblical? Is it modern vernacular? Could it be both?

An Ordinary Soldier by Doug Beattie is published by Simon and Schuster Tim Collin


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