It is one of the most unforgiving environments on earth – a rock and sand landscape that stretches to the horizon where the thermometer is about to reach 50 degrees Celsius. Moreover it is, essentially, a war zone.
There are armoured troops and vehicles everywhere, and today the security level is JAS 2 – ‘a warning of increased likelihood of terrorist activity has been received without any particular target or time of attack being defined’.
I am in the Sheibah logistics base near Basra in southern Iraq. This is where the officers of the Army’s Educational and Training Services (ETS) run the Theatre Education Centre (TEC) – the nerve centre of Army learning in the region.
Here, half a dozen education officers and a couple of civilian education professionals deal with the training needs of about 10,000 soldiers and officers in the field. They provide training ranging from promotion courses, to basic skills, personal development, and cultural and language skills.
Their mission is to improve military capability through education and training. It is a huge task as the employees they look after are currently spread across six ‘theatres’ in an area roughly the size of France.
All this is co-ordinated from a small building containing two classrooms, an internet suite and a student rest room.
The ever-changing security threat makes any kind of training difficult to organise, and it takes two armoured Land Rovers and about eight soldiers to take four of us to a base just 20 minutes away.
Before we leave, news comes in that two soldiers haven’t turned up for a class. One is suddenly off on compassionate leave and the other is stuck somewhere near Basra, but no-one is sure where.
Flexibility is more than just a buzzword here – it is the foundation of the way the ETS works, according to major Tom Ellis, officer with overall responsibility for education and training provision for the Army on operations.
And major Mark Bairstow, who is the officer commanding the TEC itself, says that despite the logistical difficulties, training is an essential task.
“If we didn’t do education here there would be would be a big build-up in demand back home, so it is essential we provide the courses,” says Bairstow.
Permanently on tour
The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment is a case in point. Between April 2002 and February 2005, it was at its home base in Canterbury for only seven months – the rest of the time it has been ‘on tour’.
However, the Army finds that soldiers on tour are primed for education, says Ellis.
“Back in England there are nine million other things they’d rather be doing, but here, there are only so many DVDs you can watch before wanting to do something else,” he says. “At the very least, a change is as good as a rest.”
Since September last year when the TEC arrived, 800 soldiers and officers have been through promotion courses and basic skills courses alone. And academic training is crucial if the Army wants to be successful, as every year it takes on about 6,000 new soldiers and half of them do not have basic reading and writing skills. In the infantry, this proportion reaches 68%.
Specialist basic skills trainers fly out to Basra to run intensive courses over two-week periods every six to eight weeks, for classes of up to 20 soldiers at a time.
Basic skills development officer, Martin Rose, says the key is to approach the issue by not presuming “people are thick”, but that they have “never been shown the rules”. This helps to remove the stigma of illiteracy and encourages soldiers to take on training rather than adopt a defensive position and pretend not to care, he says. It also aids recruitment, as young people see the Army as a place to gain important life skills. But
Rose adds that it is essential that senior officers buy into this ethos and drive it from the top.
This view is in stark contrast to that of general Anthony Palmer, who recently caused uproar back home by suggesting that the Army tends to recruit people who are more stupid than other services, and that this accounts for the recent high suicide rate among recruits.
Held to account
However, to combat any unwillingness at the top, the Army has introduced quotas requiring each regiment to run an administrative audit of the unit every year. This must include basic skills targets as a key indicator.
New guidelines state that everyone recruited after July 2003 has to attain a basic level in reading by July 2006. And the commanding officer has to answer to the top brass for any shortfalls as the education quotas are officially part of their responsibility.
Lieutenant colonel Hugh Lloyd-Jones, commanding officer, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Wales, says: “I have personal views about having to make amends for the state education system, but they are orders and I will carry them out.”
However, there is the unenviable task of overcoming a culture which, for hundreds of years, has seen no need to educate low-ranking soldiers.
But things had to change if the Army was to continue to be successful. “Everything is becoming more challenging,” says Lloyd-Jones. “For example, the infantry will soon be using a new digital communications system and you can’t use it if you can’t read or write.”
More fundamentally, soldiers need to be able to read orders and the rules of engagement, which dictate when they can open fire.
The fact that each regiment is directly responsible for its own education targets is invaluable for the TEC in Iraq. Each has a regimental career management officer (RCMO) who has an intimate knowledge of the regiment and the training needs of its soldiers. They inform the TEC of the training needs of soldiers who are about to enter Iraq and they closely liaise with Bairstow to make sure the courses the TEC offers are relevant.
Bairstow explains that the RCMOs are all experienced soldiers with 18 to 20 years’ service and are specifically trained at the Sandhurst military college.
“Their long service gives them an empathy and understanding of the issues the regiment faces,” he says.
Getting on with the locals
For centuries, the Army has been marching around the world immersing itself in strange new cultures. But it was not until April this year that it started offering proper courses in language and culture.
The loathing some Iraqis feel towards the British occupying forces is well documented and these skills are saving lives and winning over the local communities – there are 26 different tribes in Basra alone.
This task has been given to some of the hardest-working people in training anywhere in the world – the Army’s three unit education officers (UEOs). They travel around Iraq giving soldiers four-and-a-half day courses in cultural awareness and language. Since April, they have trained 896 soldiers and officers.
One of the UEOs is captain Pete Henning. He changes location every weekend to get the greatest reach possible, but says the effort is all worth it. He once spent 14 hours travelling in a Land Rover to get to one of his destinations – I was relieved to get out of one after a 20-minute journey laid down among my kit and wearing body armour.
Avoiding a riot
In Iraq, using the wrong gesture could mean the difference between calming a situation and causing a riot, he tells young soldiers. Sitting in his class – which centres on body language, religion, important dates and ‘general dealing’ – it is amazing to see how natural Western behaviour can easily cause offence.
“Getting it right makes a massive difference,” says Henning. “They are very forgiving of language errors, but cultural mistakes are unforgivable. It’s a ‘hearts and minds’ game. We make soldiers question why the Arabs behave in such a way and question their own perceptions.”
There are no air-conditioned dedicated training retreats for Henning. “It’s nice to have a light-bulb,” he says happily.
The impact of the training is put in more stark terms by major Freddie Grounds, the officer commanding Chindit Camp in Az Zubayr, on the outskirts of Basra. “The reason the guys sleep soundly in their beds at night is because of the rapport we have out there,” he explains.
A final reminder
Just so we do not forget the difficulty of the task at hand for the ETS, on our way back to the airport we are forced to switch from buses to helicopters as the security level rises and the buses are deemed a ‘soft target’. This is risk analysis at its best.
It is not fashionable to praise the Army, but it is beyond question that the work of the officers of the ETS is a powerful force for good. Ultimately, the lessons learned by the soldiers could have far-reaching repercussions.
As colonel Geoff Draper, who is chief of staff at the ETS, tells me: “In the Army, we can’t afford to come second in battle.”
Michael Millar returned safely from Basra last week
Things to remember when patrolling an Iraqi town:
- It is rude to show the palms of your hands
- Arabs are very tactile. If they shake and hold your hand for a long time it is a sign of friendship and men regularly kiss other men
- Saying ‘Shh!’ is seen as aggressive and offensive
- Never show the soles of you feet – make sure they are not up on a desk when you are talking to an Arab
- Do not maintain eye contact for too long – it is considered aggressive
- Do not wear sunglasses – they remind the locals of Saddam Hussein’s secret police who wore them so that no-one would know who they were looking at
- Crossing your legs when sitting is considered an intimidating action
Source: Army Educational and Training Services