Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A General Chorus?

A British Brigadier has echoed criticisms made by the head of the British Army.
Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of 3 Para battlegroup just returned from southern Afghanistan, said the delay in deploying Nato troops after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002 meant British soldiers faced a much tougher task now.

Asked whether the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath had led to Britain and the US taking their eye off the ball, Brig Butler said the question was "probably best answered by politicians".

But echoing criticisms last week by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the army, he added that Iraq had affected operations in Afghanistan. "We could have carried on in 2002 in the same way we have gone about business now.

"Have the interim four years made a difference? I think realistically they have," Brig Butler told journalists in London. Since then, he added, Britain had "marked time" and British troops were now "starting to make up for that time".
This comes on the same day that old-style conservative Max Hastings, who was one of the primary media backers for Margaret Thatcher, writes:
The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan has been marked by two significant statements from the British government. Tony Blair said that soldiers resent relentlessly sceptical coverage of the struggle: "They get fed up, as does everyone else, when it is all presented in a negative light."
Meanwhile, Kim Howells, the foreign office minister for Iraq and Afghanistan, denounced the angry emails dispatched from the battlefield by serving soldiers, and leaked to the media.

It would tax even Alastair Campbell to explain how both these statements can be true. If Blair is right that the media is inventing stories about inadequate manpower, shortages of helicopters and vehicles, poor pay and treatment of casualties, why are so many soldiers complaining about these things?

This is a vivid example of the government's approach to defence in general and to Blair's wars in particular, and I write as a supporter of the Afghan commitment. Ministers are shamelessly committed to stifle debate. They seek to quarantine the soldiers at the sharp end from the media, and to deny the British public information it is entitled to have.

... In June, the dean of social sciences at Durham University, Professor Anthony Forster, gave an excellent and provocative lecture about the stresses facing the armed forces, in which he highlighted the danger of a breakdown in the "military covenant" between servicemen and their political and military leadership.

British Army Review, a service journal, planned to publish a transcript. The professor has now been told, however, that his piece has been "pulled". This is allegedly because of concern that it might prejudice courts martial for alleged offences committed in Iraq. In truth, of course, the issues Forster raises are too close to home.

The people most dismayed about the politically enforced silence are the rank and file. During the feeble tenure of the last group of chiefs of staff, the head of the UK Defence Academy, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, was moved to say that service "voices are insufficiently heard in debate on security issues". Lower down the ranks, people express themselves more bluntly. They want to see and hear those supposed to be in charge. It is not good enough, for service bosses to say that ministers will not let them open their mouths.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, the new chief of the general staff, has committed himself to create a new climate, in which the army speaks out much more openly about what it is doing and where it is going. He himself has already gone public on some of the issues, and received a warm response. The first sea lord, Sir Jonathon Band, is likewise an exceptionally able officer, with a 21st-century view.

...It is the chiefs' duty loyally to carry out the policy of the government of the day. No one seriously suggests that serving officers should be permitted - for instance - publicly to question the usefulness of staying in Iraq. But the chiefs of staff have a duty, as well as a right, to say and do things they think necessary for the interests of the institution they serve, even if these are sometimes inconvenient to ministers.

In recent years the chiefs have allowed themselves to be cowed by a government obsessed with information management into accepting restraints which are constitutionally improper. These have contributed to a serious decline in morale. Professor Forster said in his lecture: "If society is to expect soldiers to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the nation, soldiers must not only expect fair treatment and be valued and respected as individuals ... senior commanders have an obligation to deliver this. Without appropriate action, there is a real danger that defence chiefs will have themselves made an important contribution to the breaking of the military covenant between the army and the individual soldier."

The services need a clear vision for the future. Richard Dannatt and Jonathon Band thoroughly understand what needs to be done. The armed forces are still a great national institution. They will not long stay that way, however, unless their leaders are once again allowed to lead them, and to tell the truth even when this discredits the prime minister's sunshine fantasies. [All emphasis mine - C]
One can only hope that American generals read Hasting's words and think for a while. The problem - that of a broken covenant of reciprocal duty between individual soldiers and the military command placed over them - is not a peculiarly British one.

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