James Heappey retired
from the Army in 2012 after service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Wells. Follow him on Twitter at @JSHeappey.
When Parliament debates intervention in Syria the
legacy of Tony Blair will frame the debate.
MPs will be more interested than ever before in the legality of action
and the evidence that proves Assad gassed his people, not to mention the moral
case for whether we should be ‘meddling’ in the affairs of another state with
no obvious connection to the national security of the UK.
This enthusiasm for absolute rigour in determining whether
we should use force is, of course, no bad thing although it does place our
security services in a difficult position as there is only so much leg that
they can show before our enemies get a dangerous insight in to our ability to
see what they’re up to.
Equally, we must
be careful to ensure that the pendulum of morality has not swung too far in the
other direction. The ‘West’ may have
been quick to intervene in Iraq, but not too long beforehand we were late to
intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia and the consequences were appalling.
However, the part of the Blair legacy that frustrates this
former soldier the most is the idea that Parliament must also worry about the
threat to the lives of the British service men and women who may be sent to intervene.
After ten or more years in Iraq and
Afghanistan we are a war weary nation and the recent drop off in flag draped
coffins arriving at Brize Norton is welcome relief. But if we are honestly saying that any
decision to intervene is going to be based, at least in part, on the risk of
taking casualties in the process; then we may as well give up on any notion of having
expeditionary armed forces altogether.
That’s not to say that Parliament shouldn’t care for the
service men and women who are sent to do their bidding – of course they should
– but combat cannot be prosecuted without risks and every soldier, sailor and
airmen knows that from the moment they pledge themselves to the service of
Queen and country.
They want to know
that Parliament has satisfied itself, on behalf of the British people, that
what they are being sent to do is right and legitimate. Thereafter, it is for our Admirals, Generals
and Air Marshalls to set plans that deliver our nation’s military aims and
manage risks wherever it is possible to do so.
When risk management stops being possible, the courage of those on the
ship, in the cockpit or about to leave the trench takes over.
Moreover, what is the point in having the latest fighter
jets if we are reluctant to put them up against any foe that has a half decent
air defence system? Or in having state
of the art warships if we are unwilling to expose them to the complex
battlespaces that they are designed succeed in?
And why have an Army if we are trying to win battles by missile or bomb
despatched from high altitude or well off-shore? A strategy, incidentally, that cannot ever
really work because an embryonic peace needs to be secured on the ground not
policed by cruise missile from afar.
We hold these forces at great expense so that, yes, we can
defend these islands in the unlikely event that they are ever threatened but
also so that we can be a force for good in the world when it is legally and
morally the right thing to do. The Blair
Wars may have made us all more discerning over when it is legitimate for us to
act but if we start to make decisions also based on whether there is a risk to
the armed forces acting on our behalf; then we are paralysing ourselves because
combat will never be risk free.
War is a risky business and there is almost always a price
to pay in both blood and treasure. If
Parliament decides that intervention is legally and morally the right thing to
do then incumbent in that decision is an acceptance that it is a price worth
paying for the sake of doing the right thing.
Our armed forces, meanwhile, will be ready to execute those orders with
their usual courage and guile. They
always are – It’s what they’re there for, it’s what they train for and it’s
what they joined for.