Deep underground, morale is everything

Article published in The Times, 26 August 2010. © Richard Kemp

Chile’s miners need military tactics to survive. Identify the ‘corporals’, keep busy and don’t ring home

I was buried alive when a powerful IRA mortar bomb, improvised from a gas cylinder packed with 200lb of explosives, detonated on the rim of the trench above me, blasting down sheets of corrugated iron revetment, earth and rubble. Mercifully, my soldiers managed to dig me out in a few minutes. Minutes that seemed like hours. Even that brief experience in South Armagh of being trapped, isolated, utterly helpless, was enough to make me shudder when I heard about the horrible fate of the 33 miners in Chile.

The terrors they have endured over the past three weeks, and the horrors that they will face over the next few weeks are of an order rarely experienced outside the Armed Forces.

When I heard yesterday that the men sang their national anthem as the rescue team first made contact, I again thought back to that desolate South Armagh hilltop. Private Dale Robbie had taken a direct hit from another of the ten bombs that had pulverised our position and was entombed beneath his destroyed concrete pillbox. He was badly wounded and bleeding hard.

As Robbie’s rescuers worked feverishly to get him out, they could make out from beneath piles of shattered concrete the muffled tones of the battalion song, The Lincolnshire Poacher — an expression of gratitude, relief and hope beyond the power of mere words that became as legendary within the regiment as the miners’ anthem has already become around the world.

It will be a long time before those men again see Chile’s “blue sky” or feel the “pure breezes” described in the first lines of their national anthem. Psychologically, as well as physically, long-term deprivation of daylight is much more debilitating than those who have never endured it might imagine. In the South Armagh observation post that was home for five months to my 34 soldiers, the threat of sniper fire was so great that we were allowed above ground only for essential tasks.

Desperate to get out of their cramped subterranean bunker and into the somewhat less blue Ulster skies, the men eagerly volunteered for menial tasks that would normally send any self-respecting infantryman dashing for cover — such as burning excrement or bagging up rubbish and slops ready to be flown out in nets slung under the ageing Wessex helicopters that were our only life-line.

After daylight deprivation comes the problem of boredom. Though the danger of patrolling through the sniper-infested and IED-laced deserts of Helmand is nerve-destroying, the constant boredom of waiting around before operations can be as bad — and sometimes worse.

Waiting will be the main feature of the miners’ lives in the coming days and weeks. Boredom and inactivity will have them bickering, arguing and losing their temper with each other, as soldiers do, often over nothing. Getting a grip of this friction, which corrodes the team spirit so vital for survival in adversity, is the bread and butter of the experienced army corporal. Among the 33, Luis Urzua, the shift foreman, will not be able to tackle this alone; he will need a small number of deputies skilful enough to calm the men down without themselves becoming the object of attack.

British soldiers get themselves through the most horrific ordeals by constant razor-sharp, quick-fire humour — often at the expense of each other. I have no doubt the miners, in their own way, will do the same. Like soldiers, they will occupy their minds with pointless, made-up games, and the rescue team will need to send down packs of cards, books and whatever other entertainment they can muster. Below ground, the leaders must make sure everyone is included, and find a way of bringing in those who will inevitably drift towards a dangerous introversion.

They will also have to organise some form of physical exercise, no matter how cramped their space is, and ensure every man takes part to a laid-down roster. This will give some structure and help to reduce illness. But among a group of 33 men in such confined and unhygienic conditions for a long period, illness — maybe even serious illness — is almost certain.

The rescue team will have to organise remote medical treatment, in much the same way as troops sometimes have to do on operations. In Helmand a soldier from my regiment, surrounded by Taleban fighters and cut off from medical support, suddenly went down with a potentially lethal illness. The medical officer saved his life by giving precise directions by radio to his comrades on how to treat him.

In such a tense situation, communicating with loved ones will have to be handled carefully. Families have already been advised to keep letters upbeat, as even the smallest piece of bad news will be magnified out of all proportion by the miners beneath the ground. A phone conversation can be so emotionally charged as to push you straight over the edge.

But direct contact is as important to the miners as it is to soldiers. I received a radio message in South Armagh that, back in England, one of my men’s wives had given birth. He was desperate to speak to her. So in dead of night we patrolled off the hill and mounted an operation to clear and secure a public phone box in the nearby hamlet.

The bond of comradeship among his platoon was so great that every man was prepared to take the risks involved in this exercise. A brief call did wonders for Private Eddie Hunter’s morale, which in turn lifted the morale of his brothers-in-arms.

Amid a multitude of pressing concerns, the leaders of the rescue operation in Chile must recognise what military commanders have long understood: morale is important above all else, and in adversity all else is dependent on morale.

The cohesion, discipline and courage that has carried the Chilean miners safely through the last three weeks is an example to us all. No soldier, whatever fire he has himself been through, could fail to be humbled and inspired by their remarkable fortitude.

Image: Wikimedia Commons