I chanced across some programme the other day while I was dressing and the bedroom TV was switched on.   I wasn’t watching it and I never found out what the programme actually was.   In it, in the brief section I saw, some personable soldier, an officer probably, was escorting a journalist on a good will mission to a market of a village in Afghanistan.   The gist of it appeared to be that things were getting better in Afghanistan and now they were able to go out and promote peace and good fellowship to local citizens.

I’m not  saying it’s not a worthy objective.   Better by far you should enter a village for the purpose of good will and not for warfare.   I have every sympathy for our armed forces, and confidence in their good conduct in by far the majority of incidents.

The soldier, as I said, was personable and agreeable.   He walked through the market place, shaking hands with men and patting children on the head.   He was received with grave caution, but without opposition and politely.

But I thought of two occasions when I’ve come across armed forces personally, and I wonder?

Once we were in France, in some Channel port, Calais I think, in a cafe.   Some police came in for a refreshment.   I am not familiar with the various grades of forces in France and their uniforms,  but it was obvious from their fitness and  alertness that these were crack forces, probably military police.   I watched to see if they drank alcohol.   They did not.   We were about to leave and I wanted to go to the loo.   There was no way of accessing it unless one of them moved.   They were deep in conversation and did not hear me when I addressed them.   I tapped the man nearest me – very lightly – on the arm.   They both turned very swiftly.   The man whose arm I had tapped did not look at me in any w ay that I expected.   He assessed me carefully in a manner I was unfamiliar with, while his partner scanned the room.   I realised their first reaction was that I was a distraction, sent to take up their attention while some action happened elsewhere.   It took them only  a few seconds to establish in their own minds that I was simply what I appeared to be – a woman who wanted to go to the loo – and then they were all gallic charm – ‘Je vous en prie, Madame,’ etc.    I could not forget  their instinctive reaction however – they expected to fight wherever they went and would not be distracted by fair face or gentle manners.

Another day I was with Joanna and Alexandra in her push chair and we were passing the Crown Court in Lewis, outside which armed officers were stationed.   We were somewhat shocked to see armed men on our streets, but were picking our way past, when one of the officers, his machine gun in his hand, looked at us.   I don’t mean his eye passed over us.   He looked at us with calculation.   Then I remembered that a notorious paedophile murder case was being tried that week in Lewis and understood that he had seen us – mother and child and grandmother, and wondered if we had come to protest.   I hurried Joanna on, and when he saw us pass on down the street, he withdrew his interest.

In France, my reaction had been of surprise and curiosity.   There, proof of identity can be demanded of you at any time, so France is a country of peculiar custom anyway.   Besides, it is not ours.

But in England m reaction was of outrage.  I thought, how dare you even look at us, with a gun in your hands?    My reaction was of course unreasonable.   The officer was there to protect the court and merely carrying out his duty.   He did not address us, detain us or harass us in any way.   But that was my reaction to one of our own forces.

So, if I were in Afghanistan, and I found a man, a foreigner, who could not speak our language, walking the streets of my village and patting my children on the head with one hand, while in the other he held a machine gun,  what would be my reaction?   Outrage.   Of course I would say nothing – he has the weapon after all.   But I would look at him and think, Go home.   Whatever you do is going to be wrong because you have no business here in the first place.

I do not think it is possible to carry out a good will mission on the one hand, while cradling a gun in the other.