Magazine article The Spectator

Conduct Unbecoming

Magazine article The Spectator

Conduct Unbecoming

Article excerpt

Actions are being taken in the British people's name which should make us feel appalled.

The government's behaviour towards the British army has been despicable.

In Northern Ireland, there are plans to give an amnesty to IRA terrorists who were never prosecuted because they went on the run. Though an unappealing prospect, that could be regarded as falling within the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. But someone saw a difficulty. What if evidence emerged which could lead to the prosecution of a British soldier, after all the terrorists had won immunity. A bizarre solution was found. It is proposed to re-examine thousands of killings which took place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, including the killings of terrorists by members of the security forces. The intention is that this will lead to a general amnesty. It would also establish a moral equivalence between the British army and the terrorists.

This has caused outrage throughout the army. When the Romans took prisoners, they made them pass under a yoke which normally harnessed beasts of burden. This was not painful, but it was humiliating. The British army feels that it is now being made to pass under the yoke. If the defence ministers were trying to sabotage recruitment and eradicate morale they could hardly have done better.

Yet there is worse. The ministers have not acted out of malice. They are merely guilty of naivety, incompetence and stupidity.

They could not have done anything like as much damage without the help of the generals. Politically, this government is weak and growing weaker. If the generals had been prepared to push their disagreements to the point of resignation, the ministers would have collapsed like a wet meringue. But -- and this is terrible -- there is no evidence that the generals did disagree.

Man for man, the British army is now the best in the world. The principal reason for this is the quality of training. But training is not just a matter of teaching techniques and instilling discipline. Training is about bonding and instilling an ethos. Both of those depend on the integrity of the chain of command and on leadership. However welldrilled the modern private soldier may be, he is a thinking creature, not an automaton.

He will not long follow men whom he does not respect. Those in authority over him win that respect by their confidence, their courage and their commitment to his welfare. That is the unspoken contract between the officer and his men: do what I tell you, and I will look after you as best I can.

That is the contract which the lawyers are now forcing the officers to dishonour. In his dealings with Tony Blair over the legality of the Iraq war, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was so invertebrate that he would go on licking the Prime Minister's boots even while his backside was being kicked. In his dealings with the army, the Attorney General has been consistent. He believes that the armed forces should be a free-fire zone for human rights, political correctness and international jurisdiction. As a result, dubious solicitors who used to chase ambulances now chase khaki. British soldiers in Iraq often come acrosss the slug slime of shyster lawyers .

Senior officers are not seeking permission for their men to run amok. That would be the end of discipline. It is always impressed upon soldiers that they must fight within the Geneva Convention. When troops are in combat, every serious incident is investigated within the chain of command, and this is not a formality. Over the years plenty of soldiers have been prosecuted.

Chain-of-command justice has one advantage. As those conducting the investigations understand the context in which soldiers must operate, they can make informed judgments as to acceptable behaviour. …

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