Racist slur or army banter? What the soldiers say about Prince Harry's comments | UK news | The Guardian
Racist slur or army banter? What the soldiers say
• Critics 'don't understand life in the military'
• No way would I let my children join, says Muslim
* Matthew Taylor and Audrey Gillan
* The Guardian, Tuesday 13 January 2009
In mess halls and parade squares across the country, Prince Harry's comments were being chewed over yesterday. As they pondered the media furore, some insisted his comments pointed to a wider problem of racism in the armed forces, but others were quick to come to his defence, claiming his critics had little or no understanding of army life.
However, no one with first-hand experience of the British military seemed remotely surprised that the 24-year-old, who is third in line to the throne, had chosen the term Paki to describe a fellow soldier.
Nabs, who spent 11 years in the British army, described the interest in Prince Harry's comments as "pure nonsense".
"When I joined the army my first nickname was 'Private foreign bollocks', and it was a relief when people started calling me that because I knew that it meant I had been accepted," said the 38-year-old British Muslim, whose family originate from Oman.
"I have been called a 'spear chucker' and a black this or that but it didn't worry me in the slightest because it is just a bit of banter that you give and take ... What people should be more concerned about is those people in the army who don't say anything to your face but are seriously racist behind your back. It is when you find yourself getting all the crappy assignments or failing tests that you know you have passed that racism becomes a much more serious problem."
But another Muslim who served in the army, Nassir Khan, dismissed the idea that calling someone a "Paki" had anything to do with banter. "This is an incredibly insulting term, it's the sort of thing people from the National Front or Combat 18 say before attacking Asian families and I don't understand why, just because he is third in line to the throne and in the army, we are supposed to accept it."
Khan, who served in the army from 1988 to 1999 before being forced to retire through injury, said he was regularly subjected to verbal and physical attacks because of his background.
"When I took the oath of allegiance the man said to me, here's the king's shilling for a cup of tea and a chapati, and although that might sound humorous it was just the start of the racism I experienced." He added that he had received death threats and had been physically attacked because of his background.
"I was told by other soldiers when I was serving in the 1991 Gulf war that I was on the wrong side and to watch my back because they would shoot me if they got a chance.
"I got death threats through the post saying if I returned to work I would be killed and I was also badly beaten up by two Paras. None of this was banter - it was pure racism, and when someone like Prince Harry is caught describing someone he works with as a Paki it convinces me nothing much has changed."
Khan, who says his family has an association with the British army dating back to the first world war, sued the MoD for race discrimination and received an out of court settlement in 2000.
"I have children who are now talking about wanting to join, but after my experience there is no way I would let then sign up to an institution that accepts that level of racism or tries to dismiss what Prince Harry says as banter."
Other soldiers were more sympathetic towards the prince, claiming people outside the army often failed to understand what life in the forces was like.
James Moulton, a former officer who served in Iraq with the Irish Guards and now works as a security risk adviser in Geneva, said: "It appears to have been borderline banter which went slightly over the mark. I'm in no way saying racism is acceptable but we have to remember he didn't say it in public. It was said to another soldier whom he knew very well and as far as we know it was not found offensive by that person or anyone else around at the time."
Moulton, 33, said it was important to see the remark in context.
"People put up with nicknames and the like in the army - from Irish soldiers being called Paddy to the Welsh being called Taffy - and it is often in the context of fairly intense experiences and perhaps the banter sometimes reaches a level that would not be acceptable outside. But I can honestly say that the black and Asian soldiers I knew did not suffer because of their race or religion or whatever - you have to remember that when people join the army everyone of the same rank is seen as equal ... that is the bottom line."
Another ex-army officer also said that the whole thing had been blown out of proportion, although he said the phrase used by the prince was offensive.
"Paki is a very, very rarely used term as far as I am concerned. It was naive of him to say what he said, and to film it, but it is difficult to extrapolate out of that that there is institutional racism in the army. I never used that language about any of my soldiers, I would never be that crass. Soldiers call each other manky bastard and things like that all the time, but not Paki, that's an unusual mistake."
A senior NCO said he was sure the prince had not meant what he said in a derogatory manner. "I'm not sticking up for him - I am coming from the soldiers' angle here. The boys' reaction is the papers are making a lot out of not a lot.
"I think Harry was very naive but that sort of thing should be kept within the army circle, though I am not saying that racism should be tolerated or that bullying should be in the army. You can tell by the tone of voice that he is not being racist. It's just like somebody calling him ginger. It's exactly the same. It wasn't meant to be racist. It wasn't nice but it wasn't meant to be offensive. That's just the way soldiers are."
He added: "I might call somebody a bent bastard and the guy might be a homosexual but I don't mean it like that. It depends how it is said. If I went up to him and jabbed him in the chest and said "you are a fucking bent bastard" then it would be using the term badly, but if I want to go up to someone and say "come on you bent bastard, get a move on" then that's quite a different thing."
He said all the serving soldiers he had spoken to believed the reaction to the prince's remarks had been way over the top.
"Within the armed forces, because we are dealing with a lot emotionally - seeing your friends killed, people losing body parts - we take things more lightly and you can handle a bit of flak about where you come from or what colour you are. The guy that Harry called a Paki wasn't crying or moaning about it. You don't know if he gave him much stick back and called him a posh ginger twat."