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Analysis | The UK is Way Too Besotted With Its SAS

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A column of armed jeeps, throwing up clouds of choking dust, races across a desert vastness — and across our TV screens. A band of British World War II warriors is shooting its way into streamed action against Hitler’s legions, preceded by warning messages: “Contains strong language, prolonged violence and upsetting scenes. The events depicted which seem most unbelievable… are mostly true.”

The new BBC mini-series SAS Rogue Heroes — based on a bestselling book by Ben Macintyre — portrays the 1941-42 North African adventures of Scottish aristocrat Major David Stirling and the desperados he recruited to form the Special Air Service regiment. The series’ musical accompaniment is modern rock: The Clash’s “I Fought the Law” blares as Stirling’s vehicles roar forward against an enemy airfield.

My cousin Stephen Hastings — a real-life SAS veteran from that era — also wrote of Stirling’s band in his autobiography The Drums of Memory. “Here was an idiosyncratic collection of people, officers and men with the minimum distinction between them, whose only bond seemed to be a reflection of their extraordinary commander’s personality. Six foot five inches in his desert boots with a slight stoop, and eager open face with beetling eyebrows beneath a battered service dress cap, David radiated urgency and confidence.” No soundtrack required.

The successors of Stirling’s men have become one of our biggest-selling brands, alongside the monarchy and James Bond. Many other nations’ covert warfare, bodyguarding and counter-terrorism groups adopt SAS doctrine — and are trained by the regiment’s personnel seconded from their Hereford base.

More contemporary fighters burnished the SAS’s place in modern British folklore. In May 1980, six terrorists seized the Iranian Embassy in London, holding 26 staff and visitors as pawns in exchange for prisoners in Iran. On the sixth day of the siege, after a hostage was murdered, masked and black-garbed SAS soldiers abseiled down the face of the building, shot and grenaded their way in, freed all the hostages save one fatal casualty, and killed five of the six terrorists. All of this before the eyes of mesmerized viewers on live TV. The assault was authorized by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and contributed to her Iron Lady legend. The SAS motto — “Who dares wins” — became world-famous.

Yet, it is frankly weird that the SAS obsesses the 21st Century British public. A recent book proclaimed itself not only “the definitive history of the SAS,” but also “a sensational insight into Britain’s true role in the world for the last 50 years.”  Forget business, industry, science, culture. Europe’s offshore island is best defined by its elite warriors. Such a view is crazy, of course. Yet some British people sincerely embrace it.

The SAS’s legendary toughness comes with a reputation for ruthlessness. Like its Australian counterpart and some US special forces, the British regiment has been the focus of embarrassing scrutiny following several alleged shootings of civilians and prisoners. 

On March 6, 1988, in the forecourt of a filling station on British-ruled Gibraltar, a team from Hereford wearing civilian clothes confronted three members of an Irish Republican Army cell and shot them all dead. The IRA operatives proved to be unarmed. The SAS men would testify that they believed the terrorists were reaching for weapons or a bomb switch. Some witnesses testified that at least one IRA man was repeatedly shot while prostrate on the ground. It is undisputed that the IRA were reconnoitering for a bomb attack on a British parade. A key found on one corpse led to a vehicle in a Spanish car park. It was packed with explosives. 

Misconduct has been part of the unit’s story since its beginnings. In 1980, while preparing a book, I interviewed an SAS veteran who vividly described his love for the regiment and his awe at the courage of his comrades. He told me of one episode during a long, hot firefight on an Italian hillside in 1943, when he shared a slit-trench with a former professional boxer turned commando. That pugilist spotted a cluster of women sheltering under a bridge 50 yards away. He sprang out of the trench, raced across the hillside amid a storm of German fire, and, in the words of my interviewee, “had one of the women and was back inside three minutes.” This was not a description of a rescue but an admiring account of rape.

The veteran I spoke to also thought highly of another SAS comrade, the Ulsterman Paddy Mayne, who won many medals for destroying German planes in Libya. Played by Jack O’Connell in the BBC series, Mayne became notorious for allegedly murdering captives. On TV, Stirling (played by Connor Swindells) explains Mayne’s behavior, saying, “In war we are allowed to be the beasts we are.” His comrade Lieut. Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) has a similar perspective, “Certain men are identified by war itself as its natural executors. They take matters into their own hands.”

Some soldiers have always believed that the SAS’s shoot-to-kill tactics were unethical. Senior officers have often complained that the regiment, and especially its NCOs, are a law unto themselves, borne aloft by reputation and multiple secret commitments, almost unanswerable to the normal army chain of command. The US Army’s Delta Force was formed in 1977 after Captain Charles Alvin (“Chargin’ Charlie”) Beckwith served as an exchange officer with the SAS in Malaya. Still, American commanders were historically skeptical about special forces.

More than a few 1939-45 special forces personnel lost sight of their rightful job — that is, to help win the war — amid their delight in adventure for adventure’s sake. I suggested in one of my books that, after D-Day in June 1944, all such armies should have been wound up and their fighters used to reinforce regular units. The war’s final phase depended upon its heavy metal, not upon the pirates who had so much enjoyed themselves when no big Western allied land campaign was taking place.     

During the war, however, Winston Churchill promoted the theory and practice of private armies — which is what the SAS essentially is. Indeed, the UK has had a weakness for private armies since the 19th century. As a historian, I believe that they worked best when they stayed small. They ceased to be cost-effective when they grew bloated and self-indulgent.

Stirling became notorious after World War II for attempts to mobilize private armies against foreign regimes, including that of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. In Britain, he sought to create a secret organization, funded by his billionaire friend James Goldsmith, to combat militant trade unionism. His activities were childish rather than dangerous, but they emphasized the plight of  warriors who find themselves beached after their righteous wars are over.   

Still, the SAS’s brave bits were very brave. As a correspondent in Britain’s 1982 South Atlantic war, I saw much of that. On one June night, I rode with their then-commanding officer Lieut. Col. Michael Rose on what was, for me, a terrifying helicopter flight through darkness at zero feet, landing with his men atop snowclad Mount Kent, the highest point on the Falklands.

As we contour-chased through the blackness, unable to move inside the hull amidst waist-high baggage of weapons and ammunition, I shouted windily to Rose amid the roar of the chopper: “What happens if the Argies” — Argentine forces — “start shelling the landing zone?” He shouted cheerfully back: “Who dares wins!”

We did indeed descend into a confused little firefight with Argentine troops in which the British quickly prevailed. I then spent the coldest night of my life, shivering incessantly, until dawn finally came.

In the same campaign, the SAS performed a brilliant attack on an Argentine airfield on Pebble Island, conducted close surveillance on enemy positions, and suffered terribly when a big chopper laden with 18 men fell into the icy Atlantic with the loss of all on board.  I was one of many people who returned home with an enduring respect and affection for those men from Hereford. 

My cousin Steve experienced similar adventures and sufferings in 1942. He wrote of a typical massed jeep night attack on parked Luftwaffe aircraft, in which “the whole shattering belching medley of twin Vickers guns opened up down the line. I was crouched over the wheel, striving to concentrate on the slowly moving jeeps in front, silhouetted every few seconds against the crazy flashing streams of tracer.

“A great shape loomed up thirty yards to my right, a twin-engined Junkers 52. The bullets were ripping through its fuselage with a curious swishing sound audible at the same time as the detonation of the guns. The interior of the aircraft glowed red for a second; then there was a dull explosion and the whole body burst into flames.”

 The SAS retired almost unscathed after that attack, but a few hours after their transport was ravaged by German air strafing. The survivors were obliged to spend weeks awaiting rescue under the merciless desert sun, and eventually reached Cairo after an epic passage across the sands. Steve was exhausted and ill. After a long sick leave, he never returned to the SAS. He told me half a century later: “I was proud to have served with them, but they were too wild for me.” 

I admire the SAS as much as most of the UK, and know how fortunate we are to own such an elite force. Yet I am troubled by the SAS-worship which causes the regiment to be the subject of more books than any other in history, and now also of the lavish BBC series. One critic wrote “it’s all a bit of a hoot and quite indecently enjoyable.” Another agreed. ‘This carnival of macho nonsense is packed with gorgeous young men in aviators,” she wrote. “It makes me feel oddly carefree, for all that it’s so full of jeopardy and violence.” 

The wild, often drunken mavericks of Rogue Heroes stand in contrast to the great 2001 US TV mini-series Band of Brothers, which portrayed serious, almost entirely sober professionals of the wartime 101st Airborne Division. From my knowledge of today’s real-life regiment, few of Stirling’s old lot — at least as portrayed by the BBC — would have passed the modern selection course at Hereford, the toughest of its kind in the world. 

Britain’s besetting vice is nostalgia, which leads us to many follies, Brexit prominent among them. Those of us who aspire to live in a country with a future recoil from our exaggerated emphasis on a past built upon some fantasy of military prowess. Britain in the 21st Century faces economic, political and social challenges for which old-fashioned heroics offer no panaceas. We should be celebrating and lavishing resources on our scientific and technological hubs that are woefully underfunded. We should be applauding our outstanding creators, performers, technology geeks, doctors, teachers. 

The SAS is a fraction of Britain’s army and we may take a just national pride in its achievements. But I recoil from its cult, of which Rogue Heroes is only the latest incarnation. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Victory? In Modern Wars That’s an Increasingly Elusive Goal: Max Hastings

Believe It or Not, Putin’s Foes Are Now Nazi Satanists: Andreas Kluth

• Putin’s New Cannon Fodder Won’t Win the Ukraine War: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Hastings is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A former editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, he is author, most recently, of “The Abyss: Nuclear Crisis Cuba 1962.”

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