Soldiers and cheapskates

IN THE mid-Seventies, as editor of The Times, I visited Belfast, to be shown the British Army’s work in Northern Ireland. I was taken around the back streets of the Falls Road area by a group of what had been the Durham Light Infantry. We were in a Land Rover; some ten-year-old boys shouted insults at us and threw gravel at the vehicle. The soldiers were patient; the gravel bounced off the windscreen.

By William Rees-mogg

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Published: Tue 27 Feb 2007, 8:55 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:51 PM

I cannot be sure that the Land Rover was the same type as the Snatch vehicles that are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. They certainly look much the same. Even 30 years ago, we seemed to be lightly protected against anything more formidable than boys throwing pebbles. The Snatch vehicles give virtually no protection against roadside bombs.

By the beginning of this year, 23 British soldiers had been killed by hostile action when riding in Snatch vehicles in Iraq. Last autumn, better-armoured vehicles, called Mastiffs, were paraded on Salisbury Plain; it was said they would be operational in Iraq by the end of the year. They were not.

Four Mastiffs have been shipped to Iraq; whether they are yet operating in theatre is uncertain. However, the old Snatch vehicles, designed to keep out pebbles, continue to be used in considerable numbers. The hope that Mastiffs would have replaced them by now has not been fulfilled.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair opened his reply to Commons’ questions with what I am afraid has become a Parliamentary ritual. ‘I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Private Luke Simpson from the 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, who died in Iraq during the Parliamentary recess.’ Private Simpson is the 24th British soldier to be killed in a Snatch in Iraq.

If he had been in a Mastiff he might well have been safe. He died because he was sent into a war in a vulnerable vehicle without adequate armour. The Prime Minister has had four years in which to provide betterprotected vehicles, some of which are available for purchase on the world market.

On Wednesday, Blair announced what appeared to be a reduction of British troop numbers in Iraq. That was how the media reported it; when one reads the Prime Minister’s statement, the media can hardly be faulted for doing so.

Yet when one analyses what Blair actually said, he was not making an announcement of troop reductions, but of a deferment of reductions that had previously been announced.

Last November, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had stated there would be a pull-out from Basra city by April as part of a major reduction of British troops. That has been postponed. In January, the statement was that there would be a reduction in total numbers of 1,500 by the end of May. The Prime Minister’s statement promises a reduction of ‘roughly’ 1,600, ‘over the coming months’.

The soldiers’ families cannot know where they stand, or when the soldiers can expect to come home. Perhaps eventually, the number of British soldiers will indeed be reduced to 5,500 as Blair promises. But his statement withdrew the target date for that reduction. In the same week, the Ministry of Defence announced 1,000 extra British troops would be sent to Afghanistan.

Of course, the news that more troops were being sent to Afghanistan was left to the MoD; there was no admission of the unwelcome news in the Prime Minister’s statement on Wednesday, though he must have already known an announcement would be made on Friday. He was economical with the truth.

Everyone is rightly proud of the professionalism and courage of the British forces, but this sort of political spin must undermine their morale. Iraq has been a long war —it started in 2003. There has been a failure to provide the best available equipment at every level.

This includes the main vehicles the soldiers use; there are too few helicopters, too few and too ancient transport aircraft, too many Snatches and far too few Mastiffs. This deficiency includes the most minor items as well as the most important; most of the soldiers had to get through the Iraqi winter, which was cold enough for those operating at night, without being issued winter gloves.

There is an iron rule of the political management of wars. If a government wants to go to war, which sometimes has to be done, it must give a new level of priority to its forces. They must have the best equipment —obviously the vulnerability of the old Snatches has cost lives ñ but also they must be properly paid, they must have fair promotion prospects and they must be sure that their families will be properly cared for.

In particular, the families must not be given the expectation that soldiers will be returning home on a due date and then have their expectations changed without clear operational reasons. The government has failed when judged by each of these criteria.

A war on two fronts in the Middle East has unquestionably overstretched Britain’s military capacity, as many senior officers have reported. In Afghanistan last year, British forces came close to losing control of the battlefield. This overstretch has not been in any way the fault of the soldiers; it is the fault of the government, which has not been willing to pay for the consequences of its strategic decisions.

Blair lives in his own rhetorical world of objectives and ideals, not in the real world of capacity and resources. He is responsible for the commitment of Britain to the war on two fronts in a relatively distant region. His government, ruled by a cautious Chancellor who has little enthusiasm for the war, is trying to fight the war at a cost of two per cent of the national income. Napoleon won his early wars, but he spent 50 per cent of France’s income to gain his victories.

Lack of proper funding means lack of resources. Inevitably, the lack of resources is damaging to morale. It is always a dreadful mistake to try to fight a war on the cheap. This has been made worse by the over-use of political spin, in which every favourable announcement gets repeated several times and setbacks are concealed or deliberately confused.

The government must give greater priority to the soldiers, who are risking their lives, and to their families. At present, the government does not even arrange timely inquests for those who die in battle. Perhaps they think inquests make bad public relations. Over the past four years 101 members of the British forces have been killed on active service in Iraq. More than 50 of their families are still waiting for inquests.

There is no closure for them. Blair’s condolences must be little comfort.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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