Grieving families must not have the last word - our soldiers choose their calling

British recruits are under no illusion as to the likelihood of finding themselves in harm's way
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The Independent Online

Pain and passion can lend a writer wings. Those responsible for educating Miss Maxine Gentle should feel proud.

Pain and passion can lend a writer wings. Those responsible for educating Miss Maxine Gentle should feel proud.

Hers was a powerful, moving, eye-misting letter. Even those who support the Iraq war in which her brother Gordon was killed will have winced on reading it. It dramatised the casualty figures; it made the corpses bleed anew. In controversy, Miss Gentle displays the same courage which led her brother to enlist in the Colours.

Even so, she is profoundly in error. She is wrong about the training which her brother received, she disregards the nature of the commitment that he made, and her account of Tony Blair's response to the deaths of soldiers is a caricature.

Maxine Gentle thinks that her brother was too young and too undertrained. She is wrong. Nineteen is awfully young to die, yet boys of that age have fought and fallen in all their country's recent wars.

But there is one crucial difference. No British soldiers have been sent into action with better training than today's fighting men receive, which is why our casualties have been so low.

British battalions in the Basra section have been reporting hundreds of "contacts" - armed exchanges with hostile forces - for every man injured, let alone killed. If Private Gentle and his comrades had not been so superbly trained, the casualty rate would have been much higher. Despite the training, there is an irreducible, inevitable minimum beyond which losses cannot be eliminated. That said, we cannot expect a 14-year-old girl to take an actuarial attitude towards her brother's death.

He might have been more realistic. Though soldiers do not join up to die, British recruits are under no illusion as to the likelihood of finding themselves in harm's way. Recruiting officers point to the sporting facilities, the broadened horizons, the opportunity to learn a trade. But there is no attempt to conceal the Army's basic purpose. Nor would it be necessary to do so.

Young men are still drawn to the Army because they want to prove their manhood. Youngsters who have never been in battle still have the same anxious exchanges with their elders as Wellington's men, Marlborough's men and Henry V's men did, and they still fear disgrace more than death.

They receive the same reassurance: "Nothing much to worry about, lads; you'll be fine; you'll come through." Most of them are, most of them do, to join a thin red line of courage which links all these islands' fighting men down the ages. But it is a red line, because red is the colour of blood.

Yet there is a difference between Private Gentle's comrades and earlier generations of private soldiers. In the First World War, ordinary soldiers were regarded as automata; they could not be disciplined for failing to use their initiative. But if it became clear that an officer had left his men in a situation from which they could only extricate themselves by thinking, he would be in trouble.

All that is now as obsolete as the cavalry charge. Today's soldiers are thinking soldiers, as anyone who has met them in the field will know. They expect their officers to explain what is going on and they are a critical audience, especially on the eve of combat.

These days, a surprising number of soldiers turn out to have a lot of education. There are more A-levels and even degrees among the other ranks than since the days of conscription. But thoughtfulness is to be found even among those who come from the traditional recruiting-ground of the educationally rejected, and whose main contact with the classroom was to terrorise it. I have often wondered if the education system could learn something from the Army, which regularly manages to inspire more intellectual quickening in a few weeks than tens of thousands of public expenditure on education have over 11 years in school.

Gordon Gentle will have thought about why he was in Iraq. He would have discussed it with others. Whatever view he took of the war, he was no mere hapless victim.

Nor would Tony Blair regard him as such. It is possible to disagree with Mr Blair's decision to go to war. It is also possible to believe that the PM was right to go to war - gloriously right - but wrong - abominably wrong - to deceive the British people about his reasons for doing so.

He refused to trust them, which is why many of them will never again trust him. But even if we convict Mr Blair of a most grievous breach of faith, there is no reason to think that he has an uncaring attitude towards his soldiers' deaths. Politicians rarely do. The very high-ranking servicemen who dealt with Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands War rapidly became aware of a fundamental divergence between civilian and military perspectives. Throughout the campaign, almost until the verge of victory, they were worried about the strategic difficulties. From the outset, however, they expected significant casualties.

Mrs Thatcher never seemed to worry about strategy. Her Majesty's Forces had gone into action; there could only be one outcome. But the deaths along the way made her heart bleed. I doubt if Tony Blair is very different.

It matters little whether Prime Ministers' hearts bleed. It is undesirable that public opinion should do so. For the foreseeable future, we will be living in a dangerous world. Unless there is an adequate supply of Gordon Gentles, it could become uninhabitable. We will need young heroes to stand between our society and mortal peril. But if the rest of us become too squeamish about the resultant casualties, we may discourage the very warriors on whom we rely. They are prepared to die for us, but only if we are committed to the justice of our cause.

Back in 1990, when the now Field Marshal Lord Inge was Commander-in-Chief, Germany, he visited the Gulf shortly before the first war against Saddam Hussein. The men had only one question: "Is the country behind us, Sir?'' Peter Inge was able to reassure them. Today, it would be harder for his successors. Yet, if the fighting men come to believe that the country which they are defending is racked by dissension and guilt, we will be in danger of undermining our troops' morale and effectiveness.

Nor is this merely a matter of one controversial war. How many female relations, insensate in misery, would ever believe that the cause which claimed their son or brother could justify their grief?

So the rest of us must have the fortitude to refuse the wailing women the last word. Gordon Gentle chose to serve his country and to wear his Queen's uniform. In so doing, he kissed the sword. He embraced a noble vocation. If we salute his bravery, which we should, we must also honour his sacrifice, and on his terms. He chose his calling. It is not for us and not even for his family to belittle and patronise and devalue that choice.

Private Gentle has gone over the hill to glory. We can only hope that the trumpets are sounding for him on the other side.