Andrew Murrison, the MP for South-West Wiltshire, was a medical officer in Iraq in 2003 and is the author of Tommy this, an’ Tommy that: The Military Covenant published this summer by Biteback.
Sir William Gage’s magisterial report on the Baha Mousa inquiry is a real door stopper. It is pretty damning. There can be no doubt that values, ethos and leadership in that corner of our military placed under the spotlight by Sir William were, in important respects, lacking. However, it is wrong to generalise from the specific – and if I have a criticism of the otherwise commendable Gage report and the oral statement made by its author yesterday, it would be that insufficient recognition has been made of the overwhelming application of the proper values and ethos of the British Army during the conflicts of the twenty first century. The late Richard Holmes dared to make this point in his 2006 "Soldiers and Society" lecture, in which he pointed out the huge number of opportunities for necessarily tough young men to behave badly against the small number of abuses. Language is important, and those of us sitting comfortably back home must appreciate that the great bulk of the 120,000 men and women that served in challenging circumstances in Iraq did so with the utmost decency and are a credit to their profession and to the UK.
There has rightly been much criticism of the "wall of silence" that we learn attended investigations into the conduct of the Queen Lancashire Regiment. It is unequivocally wrong for any citizen to fail to cooperate with the criminal justice system. Why then might soldiers be tempted to be less than frank? If it is indicative of an erosion of trust, a fear of caprice, concern over judicial and investigative double or triple jeopardy or the belief that the tumbrel may next roll for them regardless of wrongdoing, all parties to the military covenant should be concerned. Richard Holmes and indeed Mrs Justice Hallett in the case of Trooper Kevin Williams in 2005 suggested that the authorities had been somewhat over-zealous in investigating servicemen, the implication being that they had gone beyond what would reasonably be expected given the situation that ministers had placed soldiers in.
If that is so, service personnel could be encouraged to believe that political expediency may see them hung out to dry, and that would be a betrayal of the military covenant. The adverse operation consequences of the ensuing lack of trust and a feeling that reasonable actions would not necessarily be supported by the chain of command and ultimately Ministers was made clear in a leaked report in 2006 from the Land Warfare Centre in Warminster in my constituency, which claimed that soldiers have been reluctant to engage in combat because of concerns over the waging against them of what has become known as lawfare.
But of the new insights offered by the Gage report, most troubling is the corporate failure of the MoD to inculcate the 1972 proscription of stress techniques into Army doctrine. In 2003 they set a low standard for the management of suspects, and it was in this brutalising environment that the horrendous treatment of Baha Mousa took place.
So whilst it is right that individuals implicated in the abuse are dealt with through the criminal and military justice systems, the Government as it conducts its root and branch reform of the MoD must satisfy itself that the inexcusable failure to translate the 1972 ministerial edict into doctrine identified by Gage is isolated and that that structures are put in place to ensure there is no repetition. I have every confidence it will do so, but if it does not it will, like its predecessors, have failed not only the victims of conflict but in its duty to uphold the military covenant in respect of the need to reduce the exposure of soldiers to the consequences of poor training, questionable leadership and the failure to impregnate all units with the values and ethos that the bulk of our Armed Forces instinctively uphold.