Comment: Our forces deserve more than pieties from politicians

Politicians' tributes to fallen service personnel are creating a dangerous cult.

By Richard Heller

"Mr Speaker, I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in paying tribute to Private John Everyman of the Midshire Regiment who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan. He was a very brave and dedicated soldier, deeply respected by all his colleagues, and we owe him a deep debt of gratitude…"

We have been hearing tributes like these at prime minister's questions since the Iraq war, and sadly, we can expect more of them this year. Of course, the most important aspect of these tributes is their impact on the comrades and friends and families of the victim. No one would deny them in their loss any comfort and pride which they might take from hearing the name put on record in the House of Commons.

But all the rest of us are entitled to our feelings at such moments, and I wonder if I am alone in mine.

It makes me angry to hear politicians – whoever they are – reading out prepared phrases about soldiers they pretend to have known. I cannot stop thinking that these tributes have other agendas, which serve the interests of the politicians rather than their listeners. They are helping to create a cult around our armed forces which is dangerous for them and for our country.

When a national institution acquires cult status it commands uncritical admiration. Speakers at public meetings or broadcast panels are cheered automatically for praising it, commercial interests, especially the media, exploit it and, above all, politicians try to enhance their image by associating with it. The danger of this status is that it makes people overlook its shortcomings – and those of its managers and leaders and policymakers.

The Victorians made a cult of their army. Poems and popular songs and illustrations established the image of a Thin Red Line showing steadfastness and gallantry against impossible odds. That image helped the Victorians to forget that their army was repeatedly led by incompetents, and that its veterans regularly died in pain and poverty. In more recent times the police service enjoyed cult status and its critics were marginalized and ignored: this delayed the exposure and correction of inefficiency, corruption and racism.

It is no coincidence that our politicians should be making a cult of our armed forces when the public has lost so much confidence in the wars they have asked them to fight: the Iraq war, unnecessary and unlawful, the Afghan war unending and unprofitable. Fine words and gestures towards our armed forces help to deflect questions about why they were sent into these wars, and why they were so badly prepared and equipped for them. The cult has been assisted by the media: popular newspapers compete to be the paper that supports our boys (while their owners seek to pay as little as possible of the taxes that support our boys).

As it becomes more and more apparent that our armed forces have been misdirected and mismanaged, Britain's politicians have offered them more and more gestures of support and admiration. Armed Forces Day has been added to the calendar, schools have been exhorted to form cadet forces, the town of Wootton Bassett has been renamed. The supreme gesture is the Military Covenant, which wraps a religious term around a collection of pieties.

The Military Covenant means everything and nothing.

All governments have basic obligations to the armed forces and their families, and since our armed forces are voluntary they also have a highly practical motive for offering them decent conditions. If a government falls short of that standard, no words in a Military Covenant will correct it. It is foolish to put the words of the present Covenant into law because they are not contractual matters but words of general principle. Making them legally enforceable will simply put more money into lawyers' pockets, and give the courts another pretext for doing the job that parliament should do.

If it means something for the families of dead service people to hear their names read in parliament, I would suggest that the Speaker should do this – and so should the Speaker of the House of Lords, which currently does nothing. Each House could then be adjourned for a minute of silence.

Members might use that minute to reflect on what service people really need, not pieties and platitudes, but confidence in those responsible for them. They need to know that the defence budget and the defence estate will be properly managed, that weapons and equipment will be delivered on time and on budget rather than late and with massive cost over-runs, and that they and their families will not have to pay the cost of incompetence higher up the line. Above all, they need the assurance that they will be sent to wars which are lawful and necessary, which serve our national interest, with clear and achievable objectives for which they have been properly prepared and equipped.

Service people need politicians to do their job, not to act as another set of pallbearers.

Richard Heller is an author and journalist and a former adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman

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