Those were pretty much the words of a pal of mine as he set off for a few months below the cold waves aboard one of our nuclear submarines – and if he can avoid the all-pervading topic of the moment, I reckon this column can too!
But if our politicians cannot make decisions and fail as leaders, thank God that we still have men and women who can and won’t.
We hear too much noise about ‘the national interest’ at the moment, but think too little about our soldiers, sailors, airmen and security services who defend that interest quietly and modestly.
For instance, this year our submariners celebrated 50 years of continuous, unbroken nuclear patrols. Not an hour has gone by in the last half-century when our ultimate safety hasn’t been guaranteed by the ‘silent service’.
And in those five decades, 50 Christmases have been missed by the ships’ crews. This Christmas will be no different; as civilians bicker and bitch, our sailors will just get on with their business under the icecap a long way from home.
As will our airmen. RAF aircraft have been flying combat missions most days this year against Isis and the Taliban, risking their lives trying to stem a tide of hate.
Again, in desert bases and arid Cyprus, our flyers and their magnificent ground crews will sing a carol or two, cast a glance at turkey and pudding and then arm, fuel and fly their aircraft. For them, it’s simply December 25.
Similarly, all over the world, our soldiers will be alert and ready for action just as we’re opening presents or feasting. Only too recently every Prime Minister’s Questions would start with a list of fatalities suffered over the preceding few days. Mercifully, that’s stopped now, but there has been one soldier killed in action this year – and that’s one too many.
Don’t forget that our security services and GCHQ are also working 24/7 for our safety. I say ‘don’t forget’, but we’re supposed to forget them. Their very existence is meant to be shadowy, to be overlooked, but they’re every bit as much on the frontline as our armed forces.
Be in no doubt that in London, in the regional intelligence centres, in embassies and all sorts of other places that we can only guess at, dedicated men and women won’t be pulling any crackers. They’ll be too busy practising their dark arts, the same dark arts that keep our streets safe.
You’d be disappointed, though, if this column were wholly benign. One hundred years ago, the war to end all wars finished and the overused phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ was coined sometime after. Now, I don’t subscribe to that cheap and poorly researched jibe, but I wonder if it could be applicable today?
Now, I have nothing but admiration for those who put their lives at risk for us – but they are pitifully few. I talked about the importance of our submarines, but if they’re so important why aren’t there enough ratings to crew them properly? Why don’t we have enough aircraft to fly off our new aircraft carriers? Why do the self-propelled guns currently deployed in the Baltic to deter the Russians have fewer live rounds per gun than I have fingers on my hands?
And, most remarkable of all, why does it take a youngster a year to be processed through our modern, Byzantine enlistment system? When I was serving, I was heavily involved in recruiting and we found that a decision to join the Forces was often taken on the spur of the moment. That decision, though, needed instant gratification or it would probably be reversed.
Disgracefully, only just over seven per cent of the 100,000 applicants for the Army in 2017 made it into the ranks. Official explanations are that far too many of the applicants are below standard medically, but a recruiter told me that “we lose half of the kids who apply because the system is too bureaucratic. Whilst they’re waiting they get better offers”. What other organisation would be unwilling or unable to fix its own HR department?
But perhaps the head shed are too busy worrying about virtue signalling? There was an MoD press release recently which showed a panel of warrant and petty officers at a ‘gender balance’ conference where, amongst other things, they were looking at the modification of gender specific military terms. Apparently, a Rifleman will now be a Rifleperson.
It’s particularly worrying that senior non-commissioned officers were caught up in this nonsense. These are the brass-lunged, copper-jacketed, ramrods who are meant to steady the line, aren’t they? They’re just doing what the donkeys tell them to, although I expect they’re not donkeys any more. They’re probably mules now – much more gender-fluid creatures.
Moan over. This Christmas our confused, divided realm should be damn glad that there are people who are keeping us safe from the Queen’s enemies.
Patrick Mercer OBE is a former Conservative MP for Newark.