Tuesday, 26 August 2008

A dose of reality?

Considering the speed and severity with which he took Gordon Brown to task on his blog last June for the heinous "crime" of referring to the "Second Parachute Regiment", you would think that Sean Rayment would take special care to ensure the accuracy of his own work.

However, in a largely sympathetic piece about Sue Smith and her self-imposed "mission" of suing the MoD over the death of her son Pte. Phillip Hewett, Rayment makes the singular mistake of writing that Hewett and the two other soldiers who died with him "were the first of 34 who were to die on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while on patrol in 'Snatch' Land Rovers."

This is slightly more than the slip of the tongue for which Gordon Brown is condemned. The whole point of Sue Smith's campaign – in alleging "negligence" on the part of the MoD – is that her son's death was by no means the first in a "Snatch".

The first, as far as we know, was on 28 June 2004 when Fusilier Gordon Gentle died after an IED explosion in Basra. There were then two more incidents in al Amarah, where Pte. Hewett was stationed. The first was on 2 May 2005 when Guardsman Anthony John Wakefield was killed. The second occurred on 29 May 2005 when Lance Corporal Alan Brackenbury was killed.

Since Pte. Hewett was killed on 16th July 2005, more than a year had elapsed between his death and the first incident, giving the MoD more than adequate warning of the fatal vulnerability of the "Snatch". Further, when on 29 May 2005, L/Cpl Brackenbury was killed, he had fallen victim to a "new" type of bomb, the infra-red triggered explosively formed projectile (EFP)

Then, on 6 June in al Amarah, Captain Simon Bratcher, an Ammunition Technical Officer, identified and disarmed and infra-red triggered EFP cluster which was then retained for examination and evaluation.

By early June, therefore, the armed forces in Iraq were well aware of the nature of the EFP threat and had full knowledge of its lethal effect on the crews of lightly armoured "Snatch" Land Rovers. They also knew that the electronic counter-measures employed were wholly ineffective against this threat.

Had the situation been as Rayment wrote – that Hewett was the first to succumb in a "Snatch" – there might have been some small excuse for the Army deploying this vehicle but, against what actually happened, Rayment does Sue Smith no justice at all. Unwittingly, perhaps, he misrepresents her case.

If Rayment makes a mistake, however, not so Maureen Messent writing for the Birmingham Mail under the title, "Facing up to the realities of conflict".

Messent seeks to position Sue Smith as a bereaved mother affected by "crippling grief" who feels "she must do something – anything to assuage her pain and blame all circumstances surrounding the death of her soldier son in Iraq in 2005."

Clearly, she has neither met nor talked to Sue or this thesis would never have seen the light of day. From an Army family background, Sue is realistic about the hazards faced by soldiers on operations and has come to terms with the death of her son. But, as she became aware of the circumstances surrounding his death, she could not fail to note how unprotected he was, and how unprepared to deal with the threat the Army had been.

Since the "Snatch" is still in use, and the Army continues to field other vehicles of equal or greater vulnerability, Sue is also conscious that others could so easily share the fate of her son – and many have. Thus, she is determined that no others should have to die in the same way, and that their parents, wives and loved ones should not suffer the pain and grief that has been her lot. Her battle is for the living, not the dead.

Nevertheless, Messent refers to Sue's "belief" being that "Snatch" Land Rovers "provide little or no protection against improvised explosive devices," – without conceding that the MoD itself agrees – but then opines that: "This mother seeks to make sense of a heartbreaking incident, but she must not prevail."

"Wars," writes Messent, "cannot be fought with the general public deciding what vehicles are suited to the conflict and terrain, and which aren't. This is civilian meddling."

This point actually reflects the response of some serving soldiers, who resent input from what they term "gob-shite civilians". But what they and Messent fail to realise or understand is that, while wars might be fought in the field by soldiers (airmen and sailors), they are ultimately controlled by civilian politicians. That is the tradition in our society.

In this, Sue Smith's lawyers make the case most succinctly, Jocelyn Cockburn, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, saying: "The use of Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq was not something decided on the battlefield on the day. It was decided as a matter of policy back in Britain."

And that is largely the issue. The fact that, on the day, there were no better protected vehicles available to commanders in the field was the result of a policy decision, if not made then certainly endorsed by the most senior politicians in the UK. Thus Sue's claim centres on the "unacceptable delay" in buying heavier armoured vehicles for use on patrol, and a "failure to recognise that 'Snatch' Land Rovers were unsuitable for the extremely dangerous conditions in Iraq".

Nevertheless, Messent attempts to bolster her case by asking what would have happened in the last war if bereaved relatives had mounted cases against the War Ministry on the grounds that the "little ships" flotillas, which lifted soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches, were unsuited to conditions in the Channel?

She also writes that when the Nazis moved into Poland, thus bringing about the last World War, the Poles tried to withstand the German war machine on horseback. A forlorn act, indeed, she notes, but nobody thought of complaining to the vanquished Polish top brass after hostilities ended.

In the latter event, there would have not been much point, but recriminations there were aplenty. This, in any case, is not comparable with the "little ships" at Dunkirk. They were used on a "one off" rescue mission, rather than forming part of the "core" equipment of the armed forces.

A more appropriate comparison might have been the deployment during the 1944-5 campaign in Northern Europe of the dangerously vulnerable Churchill and Sherman tanks, and the failure by the government to field a type which was the match of German armour or anti-tank guns.

Here, Messent does not know her history. As Max Hastings writes in his book, Overlord, throughout the (Second World) War, "the British Authorities were at pains to stifle any public debate about the shortcomings of their tanks, although these were well known throughout the British Army."

In the House of Commons, the government was constantly challenged by Labour MP Richard Stokes, only to have his entirely justified complaints dismissed with the assurance that "public discussion of this issue was not in the public interest." Field Marshall Montgomery himself quashed a succession of complaints and open expressions of concern, writing at the time of such reports being "likely to cause a lowering of morale and lack of confidence among the troops."

Hastings observes in his book that, "The government lied systematically, until the very end of the war, about the Allies' tragic failure to produce tanks capable of matching those of the Germans". It is also fair to say that, when the "Snatch" issue became live in the Commons in June 2006, the government repeated history, again lying systematically.

Now there is a Sue Smith to challenge the government but, had there been such a person during the Second World War, the government could (and undoubtedly would) have relied on the 1351 Treason Act. Criticisms of equipment could be regarded as "giving to [the King's enemies in his realm] aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere".

Alternatively, there was the common law offence of sedition by exciting disaffection against the government or the constitution, a provision that was also used at the time to suppress "defeatist" talk.

Either way, any Sue Smith of that day, had she pursued her campaign, would have been locked up. Would Maureen Messent return to those times?

Without thinking about such issues, though, Messent launches her own second front, arguing from the particular to the general, noting that "Mrs Smith isn't alone in her quest," and that, "Her lawyers say their firm is advising several other families."

Thus she finds that, "this case underlines how far the British have progressed along that path that finds real life situations unpalatable," then offering:

We have allowed ourselves to be cocooned into the belief that good ultimately wins. Television churns out that mantra. We are repeatedly shown happy ever after. Reality becomes blurred and therefore unexpected. In this social climate, the deaths of young soldiers are tragic and unbelievable: somebody must be blamed because heroes shouldn't end up dead.

It's a common enough mindset among the mourning, this need to find a whipping boy: Psychiatrists all know the syndrome well. When death occurs, violent and unexpected death, attributing blame brings relief to the grieving, gives them the belief they are somehow still honouring the lost.
Amazingly, Messent then tells us that, "…in an age of mass communications, it is now comparatively easy to tackle organisations like the Ministry of Defence," adding, "We all have the right to do this haven't we?" But, had she taken the trouble to follow the case - recounted recently by Booker where, but for the generosity of Sunday Telegraph readers, the case would have fallen – this woman would know that it is anything but easy taking on the MoD.

Then, with an already slender grasp of reality, the woman departs from it completely, intoning: "We have personal responsibilities too, like our duty to the knowledge that, in a hell-hole like the Al Amarah region of Iraq where Phillip Hewett was killed, there will always be arguments over equipment." And with that profound piece of wisdom, she tells us:

This is the nature of war. Split-second decisions can have shocking results if they prove wrong, armaments and vehicles are not always up to scratch but the best available at a certain crucial time.
And it is there her case falls apart, on the very issue that Rayment got so wrong. This was not a "split second decision". It was the result of a considered policy, with decisions taken probably two years previously and not reviewed, putting the troops and their commanders in invidious positions.

Like their predecessors with their Shermans, the troops in al Amarah at the time knew full well of the vulnerability of the "Snatch". Perceiving – not unreasonably - the drivers to be most at risk, soldiers were going home on leave and deliberately setting out to be caught "drunk driving" so that they would lose their licenses and not have to drive the vehicles back in Iraq. NCOs were close to mutiny when ordered to take patrols out in "Snatch" Land Rovers, and from direct testimony at the time, we know of officers in tears when confronted with orders to despatch patrols in these "death traps".

Mz Messent does not know the half of it.

So, imbued with her ignorance, she argues that, "When a proud mother waves her son off to war, it is surely in the knowledge that he will face all the hazards surrounding conflict, that he runs a greater chance of losing his life than he would were he to be a factory worker, say, or a council employee."

What she does not seem to recognise is that, when mothers, wives or husbands do "wave off" their loved ones to war, they do so – and did so – appreciating the risks but in the expectation that the Army (and the MoD) will do its reasonable best to mitigate those risks. Sending soldiers out in dangerously vulnerable Land Rovers, with no protection against known threats, was never part of the deal.

There is not, therefore, as Messent avers, "…a huge gulf among the British, between reality and make-believe." Those who mourn the war dead have not, as she also claims, "apparently forgotten their lost and loved ones' choice to take the risks of their way of life." They simply require, as do we all, that the Army should not waste their lives.

Messent, though, makes the contrast with the "gallant old ex-service people" of past wars. "Ask any of these old stagers was their equipment up to the job and they'll tell you they had to make the best of what was provided," she writes. "They understand the nature of war, they lived through it, grew daily to accept their fate and saw comrades-in-arms dying." She adds, by way of conclusion:

They, and men and women who served in the Northern Irish troubles and in the Falklands, and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, are perhaps the last of the realists. These families seeking to point the finger at the Ministry of Defence should meet these former military men and hear a dose of reality.
What she does not perhaps realise – and almost certainly never took the time to find out – is that amongst Sue Smith's greatest supporters are many of those who fought in past wars. They know full well the limitations of much of the kit with which they were equipped; many of them have seen needless death and mourn the loss all the more for it. Many have realised that so many of the deaths they saw were entirely avoidable.

That is their reality and it is also Sue Smith's. The risk of death is one thing – being sent out, quite deliberately, to die with no chance of survival is quite another.