Monday, 3 March 2008

Without further details …

For once I agree with Mick Smith, whose current blog posting declares: "That's quite enough about Harry". With well over 5,000 media stories recorded by Google News on the experiences of 2nd Lt. Harry Wales in Afghanistan – and related matters – this is a graphic example of media overkill.

Perhaps the only important information that came out of the torrent of coverage was that typified by the piece in The Sunday Times which recounted how the aircraft returning the Prince to the UK diverted to Birmingham International Airport to allow the two soldiers seriously wounded in a landmine explosion to be taken to the military ward at the city's Selly Oak hospital.

From this story, we learn that: "There were two injured guys who came back on the plane with us who were essentially comatose throughout the whole way," he said. "One had lost two limbs – a left arm and a right leg – and another guy who was saved by his mate's body being in the way but took shrapnel to the neck."

The importance of this, of course, is but for the coincidence of the Prince being on the aircraft and under such enormous media scrutiny, we would never have known that yet another two soldiers had succumbed to a mine strike. It remains MoD policy to give details of casualties only when personnel are killed. Otherwise, we get nothing more than monthly lists of the injured which tell us nothing at all about the circumstances in which the injuries were occasioned.

Yet such information is of more than of academic interest. Those of us who are directly concerned with the welfare of our troops – in the context of calling the Military Brass, the MoD and the politicians to account for their failings in their "duty of care" need to know this information, better to understand whether that duty is being properly discharged.

And we are long past the stage where we can rely on any of these institutions properly to do their jobs, or take the appropriate or reasonable measures to safeguard our people. The experiences of the "Snatch" Land Rovers and the Pinzgauers demonstrate clearly that casualty prevention is not given anything like the priority it deserves.

Thus we see once again, more casualties from a mine strike. Without further details, we cannot comment further, but it adds to our very limited reservoir of knowledge that reinforces our concerns that the Army is not taking the mine threat seriously enough. We know through diverse means that many others have been injured – but not killed – through mine strikes, and thus the toll is significant.

Similarly, in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, we got a piece from Sean Rayment, writing what claims to be, "Basra's last battle: the untold story".

The title is presumptuous, in that it does not tell us anything in general terms that we did not already know – having pieced together the story on this blog – but it has its uses in offering small details which again add to our reservoir of knowledge.

This time it is the detail of Rifleman Stephen Vause, badly injured in an insurgent mortar attack and medics inside the besieged base in the centre of Basra, who had to be rescued by some courageous flying on the part of a Merlin pilot. Rifleman Vause survived and, because he did so, until now, no details of that injury have entered the public domain.

Without further details, we cannot comment further, but it adds to our very limited reservoir of knowledge that reinforces our concerns that the Army was not taking the mortar (and indirect fire) threat seriously enough. This was an issue about which we have written about continuously (for instance, see here), and is one of those great scandals for which both the Army and the MoD have yet to be held properly to account.

We also now know that indirect fire protection at the Contingency Operating Base (COB) in Basra has improved immeasurably – at considerable cost to the MoD, and it is worrying therefore that we get news of the latest casualty in Basra, Sergeant Duane "Baz" Barwood, attached to 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, Royal Air Force, who died as a result of a rocket attack on the COB.

Since December last, after the "truce" with the Mehdi Army, that attacks on the base had fallen off considerably, but that – from a variety our sources – the frequency of attacks has increased recently. Thus, the defences had not, up until now, been seriously tested. Now that they are beginning to be challenged, we have reported the death of Sgt Barwood. What we don't know is how many personnel, like Rifleman Stephen Vause, have been badly injured.

Without further details, we cannot comment further, but it adds to our very limited reservoir of knowledge that alerts us to the possibility that the COB defences may not be sufficient to provide adequate protection to military personnel based there.

To an extent, we know this to be true. Although a great deal of money has been spent on diverse fortifications, and the C-RAM guns (pictured below), passive defence alone can never provide complete protection.

Aggressive patrolling, the use of quick-reaction heli-borne troops, counter-mortar radar, UAVs and conventional air power – as well as good local intelligence from all sources, and “hearts and minds” activities - are all measures which have, from time to time been employed against the indirect fire threat.

Perversely, aggressive patrolling itself would probably provoke a hostile reaction and could, in the shorter term, lead to higher casualties, with troops and their vehicles exposed to IEDs, sniper fire and ambushes. And, as far as security outside the base goes, this in any event, is the responsibility of the Iraqi security forces.

Thus, without further details, we cannot comment further. To an extent, we could have those further details if the media were not so besotted with the offshoot to the Princess Diana "industry" – the activities of one of her sons. That was adequately demonstrated last week by The Observer, but any more news has been subsumed by the soap opera.

That is worth thinking about when we read (and hear) about how much the media is concerned about the safety of our personnel.