Is Our Army Still Able to Fight a War? Following a Stark Warning by Britain's Top Soldier .

Daily Mail (London), August 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Is Our Army Still Able to Fight a War? Following a Stark Warning by Britain's Top Soldier .


Byline: CORRELLI BARNETT

ON HIS return from a visit to British troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, General Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff has given a stark warning that involvement in humanitarian operations must not be allowed to mar the combat efficiency of the Army.

He said: 'The Government says that defence should be a force for good. But being a force for good does not just mean cuddling orphans, and giving aspirins and cups of tea to old ladies.

'It also entails producing a highly effective, well-equipped and trained fighting force. Being a force for good is about being the best fighting troops in the world, too.' This warning is timely. For long-term entanglements such as those resulting from our quixotic interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo doubly damage the over-stretched Army's efficiency.

In the first place, long and repeated overseas postings must disrupt family life and so inevitably wear down morale.

Here is one reason for the worrying trend which sees soldiers of all ranks much more reluctant to sign on for a further term of military service, so worsening the Army's manpower problem.

Even short-term interventions, such as in East Timor, only serve to add to the strain on soldiers and their families.

As Sir Charles Guthrie has admitted: 'One of the reasons we can't retain them is that there is a huge amount of turbulence - and this is especially true of the families.' It may well be that the Government, despite all its photo-call spinning about family values, fails to appreciate this particular human impact of its 'ethical' foreign policy.

Damage Yet the real damage to the Army's ability to fight a shooting war - if need be - lies in the mere fact of garrison duty in a 'peacekeeping' role.

Instead of being grouped in fighting formations, troops are dispersed in penny-packets across the territory being policed.

Instead of training for war, the soldiers are manning roadblocks, carrying out searches of suspect premises, escorting civilians and occasionally acting as riot police.

None of this is a novelty in terms of the peacetime history of the British Army from the 18th century onwards.

For as the imperial 'red' on the map spread out to engulf India and vast tracts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, the Army became an imperial gendarmerie.

Its primary role was to keep the peace among the British Empire's subject peoples.

The Army's current mission in Kosovo and Bosnia would be perfectly recognisable to its Victorian forbear in India, where keeping rioting Moslems and Hindus apart was known as 'aid to the civil power.' Today's Bosnian scene would be equally recognisable to soldiers who served after World War II in Palestine, Egypt and Aden.

Clashes Yet even the Victorian Army's frontier wars against the Afghans or the 'Fuzzy-Wuzzies' of the Sudan were small-scale events compared with such clashes of mass armies in Europe as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Regardless of their ultimate success, British imperial field forces in the Victorian era were all last-minute improvisations, in contrast to the sophisticated military planning and superb logistics under continental European general staffs.

The drawback of this imperial gendarmerie lay in that it was utterly ill-suited to fighting a major war. Even the Boer farmers in the South African war of 1899-1902 exposed its lack of training for modern combat, its amateurish staff-work, and the inadequacy of its commissariat and medical services. …

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