The Irish forces that are part of UNIFIL are on station in the southern Lebanon today, continuing their tour of duty.
I now recall a story first told to me by a friend of mine a while back, that he got from the book Peacekeepers, by Irish Commandant Dan Harvey, who served several tours in “the Leb” during the Defence Forces first, lengthy deployment to the region.
The story, recounted here from the pages of Peacekeepers (published by Merlin Publishing, Ireland 2001, available here) remains in my mind, the epitome of the Irish Peacekeeper.
27th April 1985
Shortly after Chalk One’s arrival, our observation post on 619 Charlie reported an Israeli Army movement of three vehicles approaching from the enclave. Monitored from a long way off, the checkpoint personnel routinely prepared for the vehicles arrival, no doubt seeking passage through the checkpoint. Well used to seeing many kinds of Israeli army vehicle ,movements, the combination of one M113, a Half-Track, and a silver BMW saloon was not an unusual configuration in itself.
Nonetheless, the checkpoint commander felt that something was amiss; it warranted closer attention, and the matter was reported to the platoon sergeant.
Still some distance away, the vehicles high rate of speed and large number of occupants, both in and on each vehicle, was disquieting. Alerted by the platoon sergeant, it was time for me to “walk slowly while thinking quickly” onto the roadway checkpoint. I contemplated ordering our armoured personnel carrier across the road, but instead, I opted for a low key approach and remained on the roadway with Sergeant Paddy. We decided to halt the lead vehicle, the M113 full track, in the normal way; but it showed no signs of slowing. It was then that I noticed that both of the notorious village militia leaders were among the occupants. They appeared, as did all their companions, hyped up to the last. Now nearer, there was a perceptible wildness, almost a brutal recklessness, which bore all the hallmarks of a mischief making sortie. We were to be their first stop…if they actually stopped.
Despite the fact that we were clearly visible in the centre of the road, the driver of the M113 paid no attention to my upraised hand and did not slow his pace. Not to move would be madness, yet to do so would somehow be a defeat. This was not grand-standing for the sake of those newly arrived, but an expression which gave effect to the principle of minimum force – a micro chasm of the entire peacekeeping effort – by literally standing up to intimidation.
Options were being lost by the second. It was fast approaching commitment point, that threshold when the driver of the lead vehicle would either have to slow or be unable to slow in time to avoid us. But there was no sign of deceleration. It was a matter of wills and a matter of pride.
Soldiers are human, and my frontpage of my local newspaper at home, with the headline “Peacekeepers flattened”, flashed into my mind and curiously fortified my faltering courage as an idea struck me.
“We’re moving,” I said.
“We’re not, Sir,” came Sergeant Paddy’s response. “At least not backways, or sideways. – but forward. He won’t be expecting that.”
He smiled a satisfied smile, and together, we took three spaces forward.
It was the last thing the driver expected., and his sheer reflex action brought the M113 to a sudden, jerky halt, causing it to veer sideways amid a cloud of dirt, dust and debris. We were almost deafened, not by the noise of the skid but by the cheers of the platoon members, both new and old. It was a chastening experience but we’d won. At least it was a kind of victory in a typical cat-and-mouse situation, playing out a deeper conflict and testing our level of resolve. It was important to remind them of the fact.
I’ll always remember that image, of a soldier turning an Israeli APC back, armed with little more than an outstretched arm. That’s us, our armed forces, doing their job for very little recognition or thanks.