Christina Patterson: Just what is the Army for, exactly?

We know we can fight wars to protect sheep farmers on islands 8,000 miles away, though it's not clear why we'd want to

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There is, thank God, one area where Britain still shines. We're extremely good at remembrance. Sunday's was a masterclass. Gentle drizzle. Ram-rod backs. Young men looking handsome and brave in peaked caps or big furry hats. Old men looking weathered and solemn. And then the woman who leads it, the woman who has heard more oaths than many of us have, in a slightly different context, issued, the woman whose face could have been made for this, whose job could have been made for this, whose job, in a way, was made for this.

It felt, it always feels, like a cross between a royal wedding and a royal funeral. Every step was planned, every step was hymned, every step was perfect. When the Queen bent towards the monument that reminded her, and us, and the world, of "the glorious dead", she moved with the grace of someone who has been laying wreaths for nearly 60 years. She moved, too, with the grace of someone whose offspring, and whose offspring's offspring, have served in the armed forces, and, in some cases, still do. If anyone thinks the idea of serving Queen and country is a little bit quaint, it's a fair bet that this 84-year-old grandmother isn't among them.

It's a fair bet that the crowds weren't either, standing, patient and still, behind the railings, gazing out at the men who risk, and have risked, and will continue to risk, their lives, and the men who have lost limbs, and eyes, and sometimes bits of their brains, and whose very presence, sometimes supported by hunks of plastic, and often in extreme discomfort, and sometimes in pain that will never, ever, ever go, is a reminder of the people who should have been there, but weren't.

It was hard to keep the tears back through Nimrod and Dido's Lament, which were, surely, written with the express purpose of plucking the strings of the heart like the strings of a harp, but that, too, is something that we Brits are extremely good at. All around Whitehall, the sea of faces made paler by black coats, and by the tiny splash of red that almost everyone in this country has, for weeks, been wearing, looked sad and sombre and proud. It was those of us at home who could let our faces crumple and the tears flow, as BBC commentators bent to talk to children who would never see their fathers again and parents who would never see their sons.

It's hard to imagine what drives a young man to do a job where the odds of losing a limb, or an eye, or a friend, or a life, are really quite high. Perhaps some of them do do it for that 84-year-old grandmother, or what she represents, or for the people standing patiently behind the metal barriers. Others do it for the reason that young men have always done it: for adventure, for travel, for thrills, for tests of endurance, for camaraderie, for a steady wage. What keeps them going when their friends' limbs and organs are scattered in fragments around them is for them alone to know. Like most tests of human courage, it probably has something to do with love and something to do with loyalty, though you'd imagine, in as far as it's possible, which, for anyone who hasn't been in that situation it probably isn't, that love and loyalty tend to be stronger for people than for countries.

Young men go to war, in countries where there's no conscription, for the same reason that people climb Everest. They go because it's there. The question, the much, much bigger question, and the question that it's hard to ask in the days before or after the day when we so magnificently remember that they do, is why do we send them?

We know why we sent them to Iraq. We did this because two men who think that sincerity matters more than results, or planning, or strategy, or evidence, or anything, actually, thought it would be a good idea, one because his advisers, who were thinking about oil and power, talked to him about freedom and oppression, and he, not having much that you could call a brain, believed them, and the other because he wanted, in the words of his chief of staff, to "get up the arse of the White House", and this seemed like quite a good way of doing it, and it would also be great to get rid of a vicious dictator, because Iraq really ought to be a Western style democracy, though one which happened to have gazillions of gallons of oil.

It looked as though it was all going to be quite quick and easy, and it was amazing when that huge statue of Saddam came toppling down, though it wasn't quite such fun to see the priceless treasures of an ancient civilisation smashed and looted, or all those bombs in market places and shops, or all those factions crawling out of the woodwork and blowing each other up. Still, freedom, as one of the advisers once said, is messy. And both the men who made the war felt terrible when the reason for it turned out to be wrong. One of them still gets tummy ache when he thinks of it now.

And Afghanistan? Well, that was clear. "We" had been attacked. And when you're attacked, the rules are that you have to fight back. It doesn't matter if the attackers are hiding in caves, or deserts, or bunkers deep underground, or if, when one of them dies, 100 more spring up, or if they attack you with pants and parcels and things you've never thought of, or in places you've never thought of, or if no one has ever won a war against them in the country in which you've decided to have your war (though you could actually have decided to have it anywhere, and it was a shame you picked somewhere where the terrain was quite so tricky) but rules are rules and pride is pride and what else are armies for?

Armies do what they're told, so they did what they were told, and they did it as well, on the paltry, but still quite pricey, resources that they were given, as they could, and very, very bravely, but a war you can't win is a war you can't win, and now even the head of the armed forces is saying that it's a war that he or they or we can't win. And the politicians know it too, which is why they've said when the Army is leaving, which you'd have thought would be quite likely to increase the chances of not winning it.

It's hard, in fact, to know what kind of war we could win. Perhaps we could win a war against some other dictators, like the ones in Burma and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Somalia, though we don't seem to want to try. We know we can fight wars to protect sheep farmers who live on islands 8,000 miles away, though not very easily and it's not clear why we'd want to. But we can't win a war on terror, because you can't win a war on terror, although that seems to be the only war we're likely, for quite some time, to face.

On Monday night, our Prime Minister told the guests at the Lord Mayor's banquet at the Mansion House that Britain was still a "key military force" and that it would not be "shuffling apologetically off the world stage". The trouble is, it isn't a stage, or a play, or a game, and even if it was, it wouldn't be a play we could star in, or a game we could win. If politicians still want to strut and fret their hour upon that stage, perhaps they could find a way of doing it that doesn't involve the wilful loss of quite so many lives.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/queenchristina_

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