St Paul’s is a special place at best of times: austere yet stunningly visual and on a grand, national scale. On Friday it was even more special as 2,000 troops gathered to remember the achievements of the Armed Forces in Iraq. I have never attended a service in St Paul’s before, and I felt very humble to have done so, especially in such circumstances.
The hymns were broadly in tune with the mood; reflective and thoughtful. The Royal family were dignified; the Duke of Edinburgh, an underestimated figure, looking with care and kind respect at the soldiers, sailors and airmen and women as he walked down the aisle.
Sadly the Archbishop of Canterbury was woolly, his sermon unclear. He should have focused on the themes of integrity and service, and put politics to one side. Instead he equivocated, flirting with the sort of hand-wringing and vague finger-pointing, the kind of which achieves little and which was very out of place. As the reading from Ecclesiastes told us: there is a time for war and a time for peace. This was a time for remembering. By contrast, Gen Sir David Richards speech at the Guildhall afterwards was spot on. He talked about things that mattered to his audience. He put politics to one side, and spoke of the commitment of the 100,000+ soldiers that served in Iraq. He was both moral and practical.
Talking to senior service personnel, it’s clear there is going to be significant change for the better in the Armed Forces in the next 18 months.
That change has already started. To be fair, there is already a much clearer focus in the MoD on the war in Afghanistan. Improved kit has been coming through the procurement pipeline for the past few years, and new strategies are being evolved. Politically, David Cameron’s commitment to establishing a war cabinet, and Sir Richard Dannatt’s appointment, are signs that should the Conservatives win next spring, a hard prosecution of the war is increasingly likely. Most importantly, the MoD and the Armed Forces will be provided with strong and clear leadership.
One of the most important things to come out of the Iraq war has been the new emphasis on looking after troops that return; the caring of veterans and their families and respecting the military covenant. In addition to the hundreds who died there and in Afghanistan, hundreds more are returning home with injuries. Some have lost limbs, others suffer from potentially debilitating mental conditions such as post traumatic stress, or end up homeless and sleeping rough after they discharge.
Veterans’ concerns have tended to be overlooked in the past in Britain, unlike in the US where vets’ issues are a high political priority. Whilst there has been improvement under Labour, forced in large part due to public pressure, future Governments will need to be ahead of the curve. The veterans’ voice is going to be loud for the next decade, and the media will listen carefully to it. Any perception of slacking by politicians is likely to result in public condemnation – especially from a Conservative Government with a reputation for being ‘pro-Armed Forces.’
Something else which is being learned – again – is the greater intellectual attention which senior members of the armed forces are giving to doctrinal issues. The US’s initial response to the Iraqi insurgency was, as is well-documented, dreadful. Since then, they have learned and improved – fast. The US intellectual response to counter-insurgency, especially the combination of military/civil work, is impressive and well ahead of other nations’ thinking. We are developing the same hinterland of doctrinal development. It is arguably too slow, but it is now happening.
There is an increased focus too on training. UK forces are trained for high intensity combat – that, after all, is the bottom line. But most of the conflicts we are likely to be involved in are complex counter-insurgency operations: the so-called three block war where in one district forces could be involved in high-intensity warfare, a neighbouring area where we are primarily working in support of civilian authorities, and a third where we’re conducting hearts and minds/Influence operations in a medium intensity environment.
These complex styles of operations put, in some ways, greater demands on troops and commanders, especially in reacting to perceived threats, but there is now a clear understanding at the top of the Armed Forces that highly versatile training is the way forward – especially on hearts and minds operations. It is worth remembering that Britain has an unequalled historical reputation for being expert at both insurgency (Lawrence’s Arab Legion, World War II anti-Nazi insurgencies) and counter insurgency (Malaysia, Kenya, Northern Ireland, etc). The task for the next decade is to re-learn these skills in time for their use in current conflicts. We need to learn the lessons of Iraq in time to win in Afghanistan.
One final positive note; at the Guildhall the crush around David Cameron was considerably greater than the crush around Tony Blair. He generated an interest which overrode the normal Service cynicism about politics. Should we win, we will have a honeymoon, but because of what the Armed Forces and the British people have been through, it is likely to be rather shorter than that which Labour enjoyed. I think that is a good thing, and maybe even a compliment to us. There’s a job to be done, and I believe the people expect us to do it rather better than it has been done so far. For the sake of those who will serve in Afghanistan, we need to learn the lessons from Iraq.