The Soldiers Preferred Margaret

Article excerpt

Can Tony Blair be an effective war leader? Only if he accepts that armies can't worry about political correctness

I once heard a brigadier gently reprove a subaltern's disobliging remark about Margaret Thatcher: "One must never forget that Mrs Thatcher is a very good commanding officer." Army officers thoroughly disliked the then prime minister's assault on collective loyalties - those were the days when the organised working-class and the traditional officer class were both suffering accelerated disintegration - but they admired her moral courage as a leader.

Servicemen seem to view Tony Blair differently. Blair describes himself as part of "a new generation of leaders in the United States and in Europe who were born after the second world war, hail from the progressive side of politics, but are prepared to be as firm as any of our predecessors, right or left, in seeing this thing through". Yet, while claiming to measure up in war leadership terms to Churchill and Thatcher, Blair appears to be disproportionately concerned with the risk of casualties.

His approach to the war, as is true of Clinton, has been one of hi-tech, low-bodybag. He has claimed to feel "humble" before those who will fight; and his demeanour in addressing the issue of potential casualties has been apologetic throughout. One of his colleagues said openly that he would not be able to look his constituents in the eye if any of their sons were killed.

This attitude, despite the shifts in policy, with hints of intervention on the ground, cannot conceal a viscerally anti-militarist Labour Party.

General Philippe Morillon, who had been the French commander in Bosnia, emphasised that the American theory of "zero deaths" was the best way to end up totally ineffective. "Who are these soldiers," he demanded, "who are ready to kilt but not ready to die?"

The British army is still fortunate to have officers and soldiers whose thinking on the subject is pretty straightforward. But can we be sure that this will still be the case with all the pressures on the armed forces to be an equal-opportunities, health-and-safety-at-work, politically correct employer?

Soldiers, whether peace-keeping or engaged in conventional war-fighting, are liable to encounter horrors for which no civilian profession is prepared. Potential recruits and their training must measure up to the nature of the task. Thus, the "beasting" in old-fashioned basic training, whatever its unenlightened origins, is part of a very necessary toughening process.

In today's politically correct new Labour climate, though, "beasting" and the concomitant weeding-out of oversensitive flowers are frowned on as a form of institutionalised discrimination. …