Soldiers in war zones like Iraq deserve more understanding and less criticism from MPs, lawyers and others who comment on them from afar, the Defence Secretary, John Reid, has said.
His remarks came just over a week after the world was shocked by video footage of British soldiers apparently assaulting unarmed Iraqi civilians. Three soldiers have been arrested in connection with the incident, which took place two years ago in the southern Iraqi town of al-Amarah.
The Defence Secretary said he did not want British servicemen to operate without any legal constraint. "Soldiers themselves understand better than any of us the importance of being seen to operate legally by the local population," he insisted.
But in a speech at King's College London, he warned that troops in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan are operating in an "uneven playing field", having to respect international law when facing opponents who accept no constraints of any kind. He said "terrorists" made constant use of the West's free media, although they would not allow such freedom to their critics if they had power. Mr Reid said that just under half of 0.05 per cent of the 100,000 soldiers who have served in Iraq have been involved in known cases of abuse.
"It is the very exceptional nature of the offences which make headlines. But wouldn't it be nice, wouldn't it be fair, if the contribution of the 100,000 good and brave acts and beliefs were given equal prominence to the offences of the few.
"Then our screen would be full, night after night, with examples of the freedoms gained, the lives enhanced, the good done by our forces. Night after night. Boring maybe, but better and more balanced."Reuse content