Thursday 17 September 2009

The values of the harlot

One wonders quite what the media are seeking to achieve with the prominence they have given today to a letter from aggrieved relatives directly blaming the prime minister for the death of Sergeant Paul McAleese. He was killed by an IED on 20 August in Sangin, while coming to the rescue of his stricken colleague, Private Johnathon Young (both pictured).

Leading the fray is The Sun, which runs the story on its front page (below right), with the headline "Dear PM, You killed our boy."

This, by its presentation and prominence, goes far beyond straightforward reportage, implying the paper's endorsement of the accusation, an endorsement made more explicit in the body of its story. The Sun, effectively, is accusing the prime minister of being directly responsible for the death of a soldier.

In general terms, of course – in the context of any war – the charge of being responsible for the deaths of our soldiers can be made against any prime minister, the office holder being the notional head of government and thus responsible for the prosecution of the war and its conduct.

This accusation, however, is different in tenor. It makes specific charges as to shortages of "manpower, surveillance kit, vehicles and helicopters", directed specifically at Gordon Brown. "As the Prime Minister, you must accept responsibility for the deployment of our troops," the letter goes. "You have a duty to ensure they are provided with the best equipment available and the operational tactics that are used are sound and sensible," it then declares.

Herein rests one of the crucial issues in the conduct of the war in Afghanistan – and generally – as to where the responsibilities lie between the politicians (at all levels) and the military. But this newspaper is not prepared to address this issue, preferring instead to direct its ire at the prime minister.

In so doing, it fails to recognise that there is, and always has been, a distinction between policy (and the direction of overall strategy), which rightly comes within the political ambit, and strictly operational matters, which are the responsibility of military commanders.

Inevitably, there is often a blurring of the line but, in general, operational matters are left to military commanders. This is territory into which the politicians will not venture and, if they attempted to do so, there would rightly be a media furore, with the politicians condemned for meddling.

The particular issues surrounding Sgt McAleese's death, however, are problematical. McAleese was operating from the Wishtan patrol base on the outskirts of Sangin, about which we know something, not least from Michael Yon's descriptions of operations in the vicinity.

We know, for instance, that Wishtan is a small base, out on a limb, and for some time was cut off from its support at FOB Jackson, to the extent that a major operation had to be mounted to restore access and re-supply the base.

The first question to confront, therefore, is whether the base should have been maintained at Wishtan. And, for such a small base – amounting to a company deployment – this is not something in which politicians would be involved. This has to be considered a military decision.

Then, through the good offices of Michael Yon, but also from other sources, particularly this moving account, we are aware that Army tactics are heavily reliant on establishing remote bases, from which routine foot patrols are mounted – for diverse reasons, not least in pursuit of the "hearts and minds" policy adopted as a core part of the strategy.

Given that McAleese was killed while on foot patrol, the next issue to confront is whether such patrols should have been mounted from Wishtan. Dismounted soldiers are extremely vulnerable and dozens of soldiers have been killed whilst on foot, mainly by IEDs. It must, therefore, at least be questionable as to whether the tactic was appropriate for this base, in the particular circumstances.

On the face of it, this again is an operational matter, which puts it firmly in the military sphere - something for military commanders to decide, based on their appreciation of local conditions. It could not be, and should not have been, a decision made by politicians, especially from their desks in London.

Given that two hurdles were passed – that the military had decided that the base was essential, and that the patrols were equally so – only then comes the question of resources.

In this instance, the question is focused on manpower, surveillance equipment and armoured vehicles. There is also an issue of detection capabilities, as it is alleged that the Taleban had access to the same type of mine detector used by the British and were thus able to devise IEDs which were undetectable with this equipment. Helicopters, although mentioned, are not strictly relevant.

However, before addressing the relevant issues, it has to be noted that a decision to maintain a base in the heartland of Taleban activity, and then to mount foot patrol from it, must be taken having regard to the resources available. If there were insufficient resources to secure the safety of the troops, then it would seem logical that operations should have been curtailed.

This is actually a key element of the whole debate on the conduct of the war. It boils down to the question of whether the military, given overall policy/strategic directions, should plan and execute their operations in vitro - i.e., without regard to the resources available – and then demand those resources. Failing their provision, the question devolves as to whether the Army should undertake those operations anyway, the politicians (or resource providers) being held accountable for any failures or calamities arising from their lack.

Here again, the matter is not completely clear-cut. If, on the one hand, the Army is bound specifically to carrying out a strategy which has been devised and imposed by the politicians, the implementation of which necessarily and unavoidably required mounting foot patrols from isolated bases in hostile territory, and which required certain resources which were asked for and denied by those politicians, then there could be no doubt as to where responsibility lay.

On the other hand, if the patrol tactic was entirely discretionary, under the control of the Army, which could decide whether to maintain a specific base and mount particular patrols, then this perhaps puts a different perspective on where the responsibility lies for any failure or calamity. Lack of resources would not be a political issue, as the command decisions would be taken having regard to resource availability.

Even then, there are complications. We see in this instance, the complaint about the lack of armoured vehicles. But, in the context of foot patrols, this hardly seems relevant. However, should they have been judged necessary, we know that a number of Ridgebacks were available, but the Army had decided to hold them back for issue en masse to the new roulement. This was despite the wishes of the politicians that they should be have been used immediately. Where then, does the responsibility lie?

More relevant perhaps, is the matter of mine clearance vehicles – something not brought up in the relatives' letter. We had our own suggestions for this, and have written on the need for vehicles such as the Buffalo, the Husky and even a variant of the Pookie for more restricted areas.

If we accept that there was an operational imperative which demanded routine foot patrols, such equipment would on the face of it seem appropriate and necessary. But, before attributing responsibility for any failure to supply such kit, we have to return to the questions of whether it was asked-for, by whom, when, under what conditions, and whether any such requests had been refused. If that equipment was available – but was not requested at the appropriate level of command – then responsibility lies where it falls.

Another issue raised was surveillance, the lack of which allowed the Taleban to emplace IEDs without being observed. This is very relevant, and there are several technical means by which it could be provided. The most obvious is the UAV but, for a fixed base from which troops mounted routine patrols, area surveillance might best be achieved by using fixed sensor masts.

Here, there has been some controversy. But before any blame can be attached for the failure to make suitable arrangements, the questions yet again have to be asked – and answered – as to whether such equipment was requested and whether any request was refused.

That then brings us to the vexed question of manpower. Whether more troops, in the short-term, deployed to Sangin would or could have led to a reduction in casualties is moot. One of the issues confronted by the US planners of the surge in Iraq was that more troops, initially, would yield more, not less casualties. More troops in Sangin, likewise, could have led to more casualties.

But again, the relevant issue here must surely have been whether, given the current manpower levels, it was safe and militarily appropriate to maintain the base at Wishtan.

All of these issues, collectively, point to the responsibility for the death of Sgt McAleese – and Pte Young – resting on complex issues and many unanswered questions. Notwithstanding that the soldiers were actually murdered by the Taleban, it is far too simplistic to point a finger of blame at the prime minister.

That then returns us to the question posed at the beginning of this piece – as to what media is seeking to achieve by giving such prominence to a letter from grieving relatives.

One can quite understand their grief and their very natural – and entirely commendable - desire to seek explanations. And it is forgivable that they should lash out at those who they think might be responsible. On the other hand, the writers are neither expert nor informed critics, nor necessarily balanced in their views.

Arguably, a responsible media would take this into account. Furthermore, while there is no restraint on grieving relatives making what accusations they think fit, the media should bear the responsibility for levelling informed accusations, directed at those who could reasonably be found wanting. Promulgating or supporting wild or unsubstantiated accusations – made for whatever reason – should be no part of the media brief.

Yet, no sooner had The Sun published its charges, the story was picked up by diverse other media outlets, including The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Times. But the process of publication is not value-free. Without explanation, caveats or commentary, it implies endorsement. The media is, in effect, exploiting the grief of relatives to pursue an attack on the prime minister, adding to a narrative already in place.

Against that is the marked reluctance of the media to address any of the issues raised in this piece, or even to question the tactics of the Army, or its responsibilities for keeping its soldiers safe. To that extent also, the media seems to be exploiting the deaths of these soldiers, all in the guise of concern for their welfare, when not one of the papers involved is prepared to expend the time or energy needed to understand the issues.

What is so very depressing is that a properly focused and informed media could be a very powerful force in ensuring that our troops are properly equipped and that tactics and strategy are properly scrutinised and improved. Instead, the media have chosen the role of the harlot – power without responsibility – milking the grief and misery of relatives, and exploiting the dead, for their own sterile agendas.

They are always the last to accept any responsibility for their actions but, as with politicians and the military, we should let the responsibility lie where it falls.