ForcesWatch comment


ForcesWatch comment

Last week the Coroner at Working Coroner’s Court delivered the findings into the circumstances of Sean Benton’s death at Deepcut Barracks in June 1995. Sean was the first of four soldiers to die there between 1995 and 2002. ForcesWatch have been monitoring the inquest; this article shares our records from the inquest and notes on the final findings.

It was only on certain days of the inquest – for example, when Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan took the stand, and for the verdict, that the small room at Woking Coroner’s Court was full. On most days, other than lawyers for Sean’s family, for the Ministry of Defence and for Surrey Police, there were few attendees: members of Sean’s family, their legal representatives from Liberty, an independent journalist dedicated to covering Deepcut, and the mother of Geoff Gray, another young person who died there.

Diane Gray was there without fail, listening like the Coroner to evidence from former Deepcut recruits and military personnel who knew Sean. The inquest into her own son’s death will begin next year; the second pre-inquest hearing also took place last week.

Speaking with Diane showed her to be a person with an extraordinary capacity for strength and resilience, fighting to get justice for her son and for others who suffered like him. There was frustration from years of fighting, the failure to get a jury, and the disappointing probability that the inquests will not go to a criminal court. The overwhelming sense was of the exceptionalism of the military with regards to justice and human rights, the feeling of powerlessness and the immense impact of the Deepcut abuse and deaths on individuals and families.

The evidence heard during the inquest included testimonies of abuse impacting many recruits other than Sean. While lengthy and thorough the inquest was far from all-encompassing. Only evidence of physical and mental bullying was heard; evidence of sexual abuse at Deepcut was not included in the remit of the inquest.1 It is also important to note that this inquest, while vital for uncovering and sifting through the evidence relevant to Sean’s death, was not a criminal investigation nor was it a public inquiry. The Coroner noted in his factual findings:

‘This is not a public inquiry into the training of RLC soldiers at Pirbright and Deepcut in the mid-1990s, let alone an inquiry into the wider state of the army at the time. It is not within the scope of my statutory powers to consider or address every alleged adverse event or shortcoming at Deepcut or to make detailed findings about responsibility for any identified or admitted failings in the systems and structures in place. Nonetheless, it is within the scope of this inquest to consider how army policies and systems operated for those entering the RLC in 1995 in so far as consideration of this wider background is relevant to my investigation into the circumstances by which Sean Benton came by his death.’ (p.9)

It was tragically clear that over twenty years later, many people are deeply affected by what they experienced as teenagers or young people in army training. One former recruit said during the Inquest: ‘I sometimes dream about not finding my uniform… once I didn’t have it and I borrowed someone else’s. It didn’t fit me and I didn’t have any tights. I still dream about it sometimes – the fear. It’s never gone away, I’ll never forget it… Not just the night [when Sean died] but the whole time there will stay with me forever. I think of it when I’m with my son, my daughter…they want to join the Army and I won’t let them.’ (ForcesWatch, notes from attending the inquest)

Sean himself, besides his disappointment and shame upon hearing he was going to be discharged, expressed discontent with his treatment in the Army in his final suicide letters. His letter addressed to his parents ended:

‘For ages I been trying to apply for a week’s leave but they wouldn’t let me have it… & they all knew that I needed a break from blackdown and that I was cracking up but they just said I wasn’t entitled to it, so can you see Gill Barwick & ask her if she could see a lawyer to see if you can get anything out of this, ask her to get the lawyer to have a look at my Army Medical reports, thanks. Love, Sean xxx’ (p.92)

Download the full notes

Also see Deepcut – another verdict; still more questions....


ForcesWatch comment

Today is a significant day in the Deepcut tragedy – when a family affected by the loss of their child during training at the army barracks may finally get some sense of understanding and justice after many years of battling against the military's lack of accountability. Attending the inquest it becomes rapidly clear that the army has all the resources on its side and that the Benton family has been up against a culture of secrecy from various authorities.

Two years ago the second inquest into Cheryl James' death delivered a verdict of suicide. While very disappointing for the James family, the coroner did also make extensive comment on the toxic environment at Deepcut and the serious failures in duty of care by the chain of command.

Today, a similar verdict has just been announced in the case of Private Sean Benton, who died aged 20 from gunshot wounds to the chest. News just in indicates that the family will be formally requesting that the police open a criminal investigation. We were at the hearing and will have a full report in due course. See our twitter feed.

The two inquests and two BBC documentaries that followed the verdict in 2016 have brought to light the accounts of many current and former soldiers who claim to have suffered physical violence and/or sexual abuse at the camp. A group of the bereaved families and other victims have renewed calls for a public inquiry into the now large number of allegations made by army personnel about their treatment at Deepcut, the sexualised culture at the barracks, and the serious deficiencies in current legislation covering investigations within the armed forces.

In fact, it has long been known that potentially many more than the 'Deepcut four' were affected. The Deepcut and Beyond campaign group which gave evidence to the two Deepcut inquiries (The Blake Review and Parliament's Defence Committee's inquiry which produced their 2005 Duty of Care report) represented more than 50 families affected by inadequately investigated deaths at army barracks.

What becomes clear on hearing the testimony from individuals affected by the bullying or abuse inflicted on them or those they knew is the life-long impact. Many of the Deepcut recruits were young teenagers away from home for the first time.

Problems persist

While the scale of problems at Deepcut at the time of the four deaths was unusual and the army has instigated a number of reforms in the years since, it is also evident that some of the problems persist and are in fact endemic to a military environment.


The following letter was sent to the Sunday Times and a version is published here.

The packaging of Farnborough International Airshow as both 'the ultimate platform for the aerospace industry to do business' and an event to 'keep the whole family entertained' is troubling.

Much of the business being done will be in weapons. All top ten global arms companies will be present.

At past airshows the Government hosted scores of military delegations from some of the world's most repressive regimes.

The public displays include flypasts, exhibitions and family areas.

The Futures Day is aimed at school and university students and allows weapons manufacturers to promote themselves to young people through STEM activities.

Highlights this year include MBDA's The Enforcer which will encourage school pupils as young as 11 to 'seek, aim and fire at military tanks and buildings in a gaming environment'. How many of them will know that MBDA's missiles have been dropped on their contemporaries in Yemen?

Unfortunately, this is but one example of the numerous ways in which military interests are increasingly allowed to influence young people under the guise of education.

A more ethical approach would be to engage young people's interests in how science, design and technology can contribute to sustainable peace, healthcare, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

Emma Sangster, Coordinator, ForcesWatch
Celia McKeon, Coordinator, Rethinking Security
Mark Curtis, Author
Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director, Scientists for Global Responsibility
Rowan Kinchin, Coordinator, Campaign Against Arms Trade
Jon Nott, General Secretary, Woodcraft Folk
Sophie Neuberg, Executive Director, Medact
Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain
Pat Gaffney, General Secretary, Pax Christi
Oliver Robertson, Development Manager, Fellowship of Reconciliation


ForcesWatch comment

This article is published in The Morning Star on 2 July 2018

Militarism on the streets and in the corridors of power


Kids encouraged to play with military weapons
and vehicles at the national Armed Forces Day
event in Llandudno, north Wales, in June 2018

As support for the military is paraded in streets across the UK at Armed Forces Day events, politicians charged with fighting the military's corner are waging their own war on public and political opinion.

The public row between Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Downing Street over defence spending has caused many to question his political judgement but his calls have been backed by other parts of the defence establishment. The House of Commons Defence Committee last week pre-empted the Modernising Defence report of inquiry due next month with a demand for 'beyond 2%'.

Williamson's unwillingness to wait for that report is partly because the UK’s contributions to global defence objectives will be discussed at the NATO summit in July. Donald Trump's repeated 'requests' for hundreds more British troops in Afghanistan is also likely to be on the agenda.

The government is reported to be reluctant to capitulate to these demands. Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have told ministers that with further money needed for the NHS, the budget cannot withstand increased spending on defence.

Williamson has threatened to bring Theresa May down if defence does not get an extra £20 billion. In his desperation to win more assets he recently suggested that without them, Britain may be forced to use its nuclear deterrence in future battles. At the same time, there is a 'tug-of-war' between those who want smaller, tech focused forces (mainly in Whitehall) and those who do not want to let go of the means of conventional warfare.

These current tensions are put into context in a new report by Professor Paul Dixon. 'Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy' explores how the military's conduct around defence issues since Iraq and Afghanistan has played out 'on the home front'.

Dixon explores how, as a result of the unpopularity of the UK's wars of choice in the Middle East, various actors - including politicians, the media and military elites - have promoted military interests within civil society and politics to the extent that there has been a 'militarisation offensive'. This has enhanced the military’s power in society while not succeeding in dramatically increasing public acceptance of UK involvement in armed conflict.

The report also describes how the military pushed for greater involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, believing that they must ‘use or lose’ their assets and that active warfare would increase their resources and personnel.

Dixon suggests that we should all be concerned about the effect of this heightened power of the military on democracy. The constitutional convention that they do not openly criticise politicians has been broken with public attacks on successive governments since 2006. A week after Corbyn's election to Labour leader, a ‘senior serving general’ publicly said the armed forces would take ‘direct action’, ‘effectively a mutiny’, to stop a Corbyn government – using ‘whatever means possible, fair or foul.’


ForcesWatch comment

The apparent threat by the Defence Secretary to bring down the Prime Minister should she fail to stump up more billions for the armed forces formed the background to the launch of a major new report on 25 June.

Warrior Nation: War, militarisation and British democracy examines the relationship between recent conflicts and the wider power of the military in society and politics.

Written by leading defence academic Paul Dixon, of Birkbeck, University of London and published in the run up to Armed Forces Day on 30 June, the study considers how a 'militarisation offensive' has increased the military's influence on British politics and society in recent years.

From left to right: Professor Joanna Bourke, Marigold Bentley (from QPSW and chair of the event), Professor Paul Dixon and Emma Sangster.

Speaking during the launch at Friends House in London Paul Dixon explained that the Armed Forces Covenant – a moral contract between British society and the military - was 'an invention by the military in the year 2000', which has since been used to promote military interests in wider society such as support for the Afghan war from 2006.

The study looks at how the military actively pushed for escalation of Britain's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but then deflected responsibility for their failures onto politicians.

It focuses on how successive governments have struggled to contain the power of the military and how senior military figures have broken with convention to publicly criticise politicians – and in particular Jeremy Corbyn, since his election as leader of the Labour Party.

Paul pointed out that under Corbyn Labour has now committed to a 2% target on defence spending, but said that 'having achieved that the next goal (for the military and its supporters) is to push it up to three per cent.'

What he called 'the hidden power of the military' had been with us for the long time but has 'bubbled to the surface a bit more since 2003.' For evidence he points to the Chilcot Report which investigated the decision making around the UK's involvment in the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. This report 'produces evidence of the power of the military in pressurising governments to do its bidding.'