Friday 13 April 2007

The faces of Britain

The picture shows two servicemen, of similar age, both having been stationed in Iraq. The soldier, photographed by Michael Yon* - unnamed and unrewarded by the media – is still there and actively engaged in operations. He, unlike his Navy contemporary, Arthur Batchelor – who blubbed because the nasty Iranians stole his Ipod - we would like to think is the representative face of the British military.

The soldier pictured had recently taken part in a vicious gunfight in Basra, and the strain shows on his face. And not for him is there mummy and auntie to hold his hands.

The action is one on which we reported briefly and which has been clothed with more detail by Thomas Harding of The Daily Telegraph, based in part on MoD reports.

But what brings the account to life is the superb report by Michael Yon who is entirely open in his admiration for the skill and professionalism of the soldiers engaged in the action. There would be no better way of returning the compliment than going to his site and reading the graphic narrative in full.

At a different level, Yon also conveys the constant indirect fire harassment of the soldiers at their base in the Basra Palace complex, something about which we have written many times. Another issue is the absence of helicopter support (although fixed wing surveillance would have been just as useful), which again we have written on many times.

Clearly, neither of these issues have been resolved and, if there was to be criticism of the MoD, it is there that the attack should lie. Better that than the unremitting scattergun approach that relies on the constant, tedious repetition of the sacred mantras "overstretch" and "underfunding".

For instance, in terms of airborne surveillance – the lack of which Yon points out - whatever happened to the Britten Norman Defenders which were purchased for Basra and would be admirable for the purpose? Despite extensive enquiries, no one to whom I have spoken - who has been to Basra recently - has seen them.

The more immediate issue, however, is the damage to the reputation of Britain and the Armed Forces, arising from the abduction of the "frightened fifteen" and their subsequent behaviour. It becomes imperative that the issues surrounding that incident should be given the most thorough examination. This time, there should also be a clear commitment to addressing the defects revealed, at all levels.

From the extensive investigations we have conducted, and reported in this blog, we are convinced that the heart of the problem lies with serious operational failures on the part of serving, senior naval officers, going to the very top of the Navy.

For the rest, we are seeing a media frenzy, powered by journalists about whom in the past we have complained so bitterly, for their lack of understanding of things military and for their constant trivialising of serious issues. They are no different now. They will find no end of inconsistencies in accounts we have heard, and blather in their self-important ways about their little discoveries, but what they are producing is meaningless fluff.

Buoyed by self-serving politicians, they are striving to extract political embarrassment, for no other reason than to promote their own idle interests. However much they may wrap themselves in Union Jacks, or parade the coffins of dead servicemen, they are not acting in the national interest and they are no friends of the military.

On Monday, we will see the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, stand up in Parliament and give account of himself and his actions. He is not a brilliant Parliamentary performer by any means but, despite the air of sleaze and corruption that surrounds this present administration, we believe he is an honourable man, trying to do his best in an extremely difficult situation.

We ourselves have attracted no end of vitriol for expressing that view but we – both of us – stand by it. The man should be given a hearing and if, as we confidently expect, there are announced on Monday one or more inquiries, they should be allowed to conduct their work and deliver their reports, so that urgent remedial action can be put in place. Then will be the time to dissect the detail and apportion blame, where it is due.

That is the imperative. That we owe to the unnamed solider, pictured at the top of this post, him and the many brave, dedicated service personnel, who deserve a better deal than they are getting from the media and opposition politicians. With the reputations of the Armed Forces and the nation at stake – on which lives depend - this is no time for partisan sniping or self-serving bickering.

* used with permission. Thank you.