Gale And Polden Ltd.  /  Aldershot Military Museum
By Jennifer Carlile Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/16/2004 7:22:54 AM ET 2004-03-16T12:22:54

“We’re a military family,” said Edward Maddemmon, as he showed his great-grandson around the Aldershot military museum.

Between mock sword and gun fights with the boy, Maddemmon spoke with pride about his Army service in Burma, his three daughters' time in the military, “and two grandsons out there in Iraq now.”

But, despite his wholehearted support for the British armed forces, Maddemmon said he was strongly opposed to the war and subsequent occupation of Iraq. “They should definitely not be there,” he said referring to his grandsons.

A year after British leader Tony Blair locked step with President Bush in seeking to oust Saddam Hussein, the veteran's views are not that unusual for Britain, even in Aldershot, 40 miles southwest of London, and known as the “Home of the British Army.”

Image: War veteran and great-grandson at military museum.
Jennifer Carlile  /  MSNBC.com
"Old Bush has got a poodle – his name is Blair," said war veteran Edward Maddemmon, pictured with his great-grandson Kyle at the Aldershot Military Museum, in England.
Army influence
Until the Army arrived with over 5,000 soldiers in tow in 1854, “the area was virtually barren land inhabited by highwaymen,” said Terry Genis, senior planning officer for Rushmoor Borough Council.

As troops moved from makeshift tents into wooden barracks, the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough grew up on either side of the garrison.

“The Army is an important part of the social and economic fabric of the area,” Genis said.

Over the last 150 years, millions of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh have passed through the garrison town on their way to wars. While a lot has changed since the days of Queen Victoria’s visits to Aldershot’s “Queen’s Pavilion,” the camaraderie among soldiers has stayed the same.

“Half the garrison has gone, so it’s really affected the families,” Maddemmon said.

Out of the 90,000 people who live in Rushmoor borough, which encompasses Aldershot and Farnborough, about 5,000 are military personnel, 5,000 are military dependents, and at least 3,000 civilians work for the Army, Genis said.

Although the town is used to having soldiers come and go, the large numbers deployed to the Gulf for the start of the “shock and awe” campaign on Baghdad made a noticeable dent in the population.

Tempestuous year for Blair
As the troops shipped out a year ago, Blair’s decision to join the U.S. drive in Iraq without U.N. consent sent shock waves throughout Britain.

In the ensuing months, Blair has weathered anti-war protests, an inquiry into a weapons expert’s suicide, questions over the lack of weapons of mass destruction, and allegations of spying on U.N. officials.

Meantime, in Iraq, more than 50 British soldiers have lost their lives, mostly around the southern city of Basra.

The close-knit community of Aldershot is no different from the rest of the nation in offering a variety of views on the war -- although there's scant evidence of a broad accord with Blair's vision.

“I think the world is safer now in regards to nuclear war, but more dangerous in regards to terrorism," said Peter Ashworth, whose son-in-law recently returned from Army duty in Basra.

“I don’t think there were ever any WMDs in Iraq. It was just an excuse; it was preordained they were going to go in. But, (the war) puts pressure on the rogue states – now Libya’s giving up weapons,” he said.

Carrying the baby his daughter was pregnant with when her husband left for Iraq, he said, “I think we were justified to go.”

Slideshow: Year of conflict However, his wife Wendy disagreed.

“Out of all the lawless dictators in the world, was Saddam Hussein really any worse than (Zimbabwe’s President Robert) Mugabe?

"I think it was just about the two powers, the U.S. and Britain, trying to get more power,” she said.

Questions over missing WMDs
As Blair faced strong opposition during the run-up to the war, he focused the nation on the claim that Saddam could launch doomsday weapons within 45 minutes.

Unlike the Bush administration, Downing Street did not play up “regime change” or a possible “terror” link between the Iraqi dictator and Islamic militants.

After months of hunting for the elusive arms, and former Iraq Survey Group leader David Kay's admission that it was unlikely that any banned weapons would ever be found, many Britons believe that the stated purpose of the war was a lie.

“Do the WMDs really exist?” asked Casey Heaton, 33, another Aldershot resident.

She said that the discovery of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons would justify the war, but, “you can’t do a war on a what-if. And that’s what they did – and innocent soldiers died for that.”

“My son’s father’s a soldier so I’m proud of them, but they shouldn’t’ve been out there in the first place,” Heaton said, adding that the war “messed up” her 13-year-old son.

“He though his dad was going to be blown up.”

Another Aldershot resident, Madelyn Nicholas, said she “couldn’t help but think (the WMDs) must’ve been there. But, if they were there why haven’t they found them?”

Nicholas believes the ouster of Saddam was justified. But she remains worried.

“But then, [Osama] bin Laden is still at large…” she said, adding that “for every one they catch, there’s another one waiting in the wings.”

Britons weigh relations with U.S.
In joining the U.S.-led war, relations within the European Union were strained as Britain, Spain, and Italy pulled away from the countries of “Old Europe” that opposed the war.

Last weekend, the Spanish public delivered a sobering message to the coalition by ousting the conservative government that led Spain into close involvement with Bush and Blair.

And while there has always been a special relationship between the United Kingdom and it’s one-time colony, many here feel that Britain had nothing to gain from the U.S.-orchestrated war.

Ashworth, whose son-in-law returned safely from Iraq, said that although he values Britain’s friendship with the United States, “we didn’t get many contracts in Iraq because they all went to (Vice President Dick) Cheney’s old company, Halliburton."

Image: Aldershot Military Museum Curator Ian Maine.
Jennifer Carlile  /  MSNBC.com
"I think we're more of a target now than we otherwise would've been," said Aldershot Military Museum Curator Ian Maine.

In the future, Ashworth expected Britain to be more involved in a European military alliance rather than siding with the United States.

Since the al-Qaida-linked November attacks on British interests in Istanbul, Turkey, Britons also worry that their involvement has brought terrorism upon their citizens.

British newspaper headlines following the attacks in Istanbul and the recent Madrid bombings wondered, “Is Britain next?”

And this week, security has been noticeably extra tight on the London underground system, with new messages warning passengers to be on the lookout for suspicious packages.

“I think we’re more of a target now than we otherwise would’ve been,” said Ian Maine, curator of the Aldershot military museum.

Maine said that living in a British military town one sees two different elements to the war: “the military and the political side.”

“The armed forces have to do what the politicians say. And when they go to war everybody gets behind them, and the original political purpose, or the purpose of the conflict, gets forgotten while everybody’s worrying about how well we’re going to do.”

The curator’s comments echoed those of many here where there's unquestioning loyalty to the troops but underlying mistrust in the government’s decision. (Many other Aldershot residents were even more critical of the war, but were unwilling to be identified.)

War veteran Maddemmon said that his grandsons never should have been sent to Iraq. But when asked if he wished they were at home, he was unwavering, “No! We’re a military family.”

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