Friday, 31 August 2007

My Article for the August edition of Art Of Living

I have been a practising Buddhist now since 1997 and can honestly say that it has transformed my life. This is the transcript of an experience I had publish in the August 2007 addition of Art of Living which is the UK magazine for Soka Gakkai International.

Nothing is more barbarous than war

Steven Cocks relates how Buddhism provided him with a vehicle to confront his demons following the trauma of fighting in the Falklands War twenty-five years ago

As a student with good grades my parents and teachers had assumed I would do my ‘A’ levels and go to university. However, I dreaded the idea of another five to six years of education. I wanted my life to start so I told my parents I wanted to join the Army.

To say this was a bombshell is to put it mildly. My parents are Christian and fervent pacifists. My mother, after much soul-searching, signed my papers because she has always believed her sons must make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. One month after my sixteenth birthday, I was in the Army.

Two years later, in August 1981, I was posted to the Second Battalion The Scots Guards in London. Duties consisted mainly of providing the ceremonial guard for Buckingham Palace and other royal establishments. In March 1982, however, when the Falklands were invaded, we were mobilised. After a brief training session in Wales we boarded the QE2 and, amid emotional scenes, sailed away.

Our action began on 13 June. The battalion was lined up in sticks of eight and as the helicopters landed we leapt aboard and were whisked up to Goat Ridge. As dark fell we moved up to the start line in battle order, literally a white tape pinned to the ground, like the start of a race. I carried a stretcher, a rifle, 100 rounds of ammunition for my rifle and 1,000 rounds for our machine gun. Shell dressings were in every pocket and pouch and I carried a sleeping bag, not for sleeping but to keep the wounded warm. My role was to look after the walking wounded.
We moved onto Tumbledown sometime after 10p.m. in the middle of a snow storm. It was a silent approach and the first objective was seized with no fighting. As the second objective was approached the attack went ‘noisy’ as the Argentine Fifth Marine battalion realised they were under attack.

War has distinct sounds and smells that stay with me today. They include the smell of cordite, blood on wet grass and human excrement. The deafening thump of mortars, artillery, naval bombardment, hand grenades, machine guns and the shouted commands as men work their way through the rocks towards the enemy. All you could do was hug the ground and make yourself as small as possible in the hope that somehow this would improve your chances of not being hit.

When we went into no-man’s land to recover the wounded, our movements attracted the attention of snipers who pinned us down for what seemed like hours. To add to our discomfort, our troops mistook us for enemy and also started firing on us. Bullets zipped all around me. I just froze and hugged the ground playing dead hoping the sniper would lose interest. Then mortar bombs starting to land around us and we were showered with bits of gravel and hot shrapnel. The rounds were landing no more than four to five metres away at times. All that saved us was the soft ground as the mortars buried themselves deep before exploding.
Dawn started to approach and still the objective for my company hadn’t been taken. The company moved into assault positions. Just then there was a big bang no more than three metres to my left. In the silence that followed, the desperate cries of one of my comrades could be heard. He had had part of his leg blown off and was crawling around in the dark crying out looking for his leg.

In the half-light we launched our assault. All I remember were the frantic commands being yelled and crawling around collecting ammunition for our machine gun. My job of being in charge of the walking wounded was no longer needed as we realised that anybody wounded wasn’t going to walk off this mountain. Men in my company were awarded gallantry medals for their actions that night and it is said that they fought the best troops the Argentines had to offer and that victory was the hardest. But it hadn’t been cheap. As a battalion we lost eight dead and forty-one wounded.

In the immediate aftermath two dozen of us were sitting in a circle staring blankly and utterly exhausted into which two young Argentine soldiers hobbled. They looked to be in shock and a lot of pain. They looked at us with great trepidation. Only a few minutes earlier we were trying to kill each other but now our humanity revealed itself and we provided them with a hot drink, warmth, a cigarette and some human kindness. I often wonder what became of those two young men. I hope they made full recoveries.

We came home in August 1982 and were given six weeks’ leave. I spent most of that time getting drunk and trying to get back into my old life. But my civilian friends lived an alien life, to which I had no way of relating. I had seen mates shot and blown to pieces and all they worried about were their school grades. Alcohol became a way of running away from the events I had been through.

At the end of the year the Army posted me to the Queen’s Own Highlanders in Northern Ireland. Just before I left London I met my wife who, as a practising Buddhist, changed my life by taking me under her wing, although it was to be another ten years before I started to chant. Her compassion and love were so strong that I stopped drinking and over Christmas 1983 we got engaged. I then went back to Northern Ireland.

The immediate after-effect of the Falklands was a feeling of inadequacy. I thought I hadn’t done enough as a soldier and would often ask why had I survived. I found it hard to fit into my new unit. I missed the Guards, my mates, my fiancĂ©e. Then my best friend from the Guards died in a car crash in Cyprus. This resulted in a huge character clash with my reporting officer and I applied to leave the Army. Instead, I was offered the chance to move back to the UK, where I trained as a computer programmer. In 1988 I left the Army and set up a computer consultancy.
In 1995 I emotionally collapsed due to burnout coupled with the fact that my safety net had been removed when the office was shut down and my contract terminated. For years I had avoided so many things by just working harder. Now I had nowhere to turn and no answer to my predicament until I was ready to start chanting. I was like a ship without a rudder, obsessed with wanting to provide for my family and make the most out of life, but driven by guilt for having survived the war, for not storming a bunker and for being a hero.

Almost immediately I started chanting, I felt something within me shift. It was though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I at last had a vehicle with which I could confront my demons. No longer forced to burden myself in guilt I have been able to look at the events of my life in a more compassionate way and at last come to terms with my past. Chanting allowed me to put a mirror up to my life and pulled me up short by making me look at what I was doing and the effect it was having on myself and my loved ones. I can honestly say I don’t recognise the person I was then; my practice has completely changed me as a person.

What Buddhism has taught me is to believe in myself. It has given me the strength to tell myself I didn’t fail to prove my manhood in some animalistic blood ritual of death. I have at last come to terms with the fact that my survival on that battlefield wasn’t due to cowardice but to do with my good fortune.

I will never forget the Falklands for it has played a huge part in forging the person I am today. It’s been twenty-five years, but for me it still feels like yesterday. I am no longer riddled with guilt and the echoes of the artillery and whistling of the bullets are slowly dying down in my life and fading into the past. At last I am able to put the Falklands behind me and carry on with life. I can honestly say I am happy.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda wrote:

War brings only suffering and misery to ordinary people, to families and mothers. It is always nameless and unknown people who suffer and moan amidst the mud and flames. In war, human life is used as a means to an end, an expendable commodity. It is said that it takes twenty years of peace to make a man, but only twenty seconds to destroy him. This is why we must always oppose war – neither engaging in it ourselves nor permitting others to do so. All rivalries and conflicts must be resolved, not through power, but with wisdom and through dialogue.[1]

[1] SGI President Ikeda, A piece of mirror and other essays, (Soka Gakkai Malaysia), pp. 4-5.

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