After weeks of headlines about Afghanistan, this valet has been reflecting on what it is and is not reasonable to ask of the members of our armed services. Coming from a family with a history in the armed forces, I am sure of one thing: that the bravery of those who volunteer includes a conscious commitment to hazard their life, if necessary, in the service of their country. This, in turn, confers an awesome responsibility upon the nation’s leaders. Politicians have a sacred trust: Men and women have placed their own lives in their hands.
Obviously, this means that the government of the day needs to look after troops in the field. They must have sufficient equipment. Tony Blair has shown a still acute antenna in picking this up.
It is vital that Labour does not screen out the concerns of officers, even if they do often insist on airing them in blustering tones in the pages of the Telegraph… The concerns raised in the Sunday Mirror that territorial army soldiers are losing their employment while on assignment demands immediate action. It is also vital that we take a look at pay, especially for those who are deployed in war-fighting, or peace-keeping in a hostile environment.
However, there is a far greater duty that politicians owe service personnel too. That is, put simply, to ensure while they may undertake actions that risk the lives of soldiers, sailors, marines and aircrew, they never gamble with them. David Blunkett said, in a Guardian interview about the failures of Iraq’s occupation: 'All we could do as a nation of 60 million off the coast of mainland Europe was to seek to influence the most powerful nation in the world,' he said. 'We were not in charge.'
Blunkett is being superbly honest but he misses the fact that what he describes is not acceptable. If Britain is as powerless to influence the strategic situation as he suggests, then we simply should not have sent in troops. To commit troops, without having a grip on the strategic situation, is to gamble with their lives. There is a difference in kind between the moral burden of risking lives in a cause and that of gambling them in some one else's cause.
This difference requires that we test our involvement with the US in Iraq, and NATO in Afghanistan. What are the realties of both deployments? Are we, as a nation, sufficiently happy with the overall strategy? Is each sufficiently resourced? If we are not happy with that both deployments pass this test, then perhaps the time has come to look at doing one, doing it right and doing it in our own terms. For those are the only terms under which we can hazard the lives of our troops.
We should also look to develop a doctrine, as a medium-sized military power, that we only commit to the use of force when we are authoring the whole strategy, or where we are part of an international effort that has transparent decision-making process, and agreed aims.