Crispin Black: For mother and country

There is a sense that this is a war for other people's children to fight

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Recruitment is close to collapse. The numbers of soldiers deserting or going Awol appear to be hitting record highs. Some relatives of the dead and wounded are openly contemptuous of the Government, and question the legality of the war. Iraq is, literally, a bloody shambles. Popular support for the war evaporated long ago.

But now the home front appears to be crumbling too, as the women lobby for their men to come home. This collapse in morale is a direct result of morale difficulties in Iraq. But why should we be going through something so unusual? The morale of modern British military families has withstood greater, bloodier tests - not least the Falklands campaign.

One of the most corrosive aspects of the present conflict is that, for the first time in living memory, we have a ruling élite with no connections to the military. This most warlike of governments contains not a single minister with any military experience. The Conservatives retain strong connections with the armed forces. But the party of the tough Great War artillery officer Clement Attlee and of Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey, who both served with distinction in the Second World War, seems to have few connections with the armed services.

Michael Moore's famous complaint that only one member of Congress had a son serving in Iraq is relevant to us in Britain. There is a sense that this is a war for other people's sons and daughters to fight and that our governing politicians have little idea of the pain, worry and sacrifice involved.

One of the ways they could try tounderstand, at least in part, would be to visit some of the British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. Last week, on a battlefield tour of the Somme, I saw the grave of Raymond Asquith, adored son of Hubert Asquith - prime minister during the First World War - killed in action as a 37-year-old lieutenant in the Grenadiers. Given his age and the fact that he was the most brilliant lawyer of his generation, he need not have gone to the front. His sense of duty made him. Or they could visit the grave of a young Welsh Guardsman killed in the hell of Passchendaele in 1917, the most poignant of all those I have seen over the years. Beneath his name and regimental crest, on the part of the gravestone where families could choose their own inscription - often Latin mottoes or snatches of uplifting verse - it reads simply, "Much missed by his Mam and all at home".

To an extent, the morale of our troops can be protected, even in the face of unsatisfactory political leadership, by a top brass that insists that soldiers and their families are properly treated. Yet, turning to our generals, with the odd distinguished exception they are men of little military experience. Do not be fooled by the chests full of medals - in many cases the only real soldiering they have done is confined to a few foot patrols in Northern Ireland a quarter-century ago. The soldiers in Iraq know, however well they are commanded in the field, that the top brass sitting at desks in London has little military experience.

And while our troops are busy in Iraq, the generals have been busy on the home front disbanding and amalgamating the very regiments that give the British Army its ability to fight in the first place - because politicians, so profligate with public money in other areas, need to save a few million pounds.

It is not the generals' fault that their formative years were spent in peacetime garrisons or in comparatively benign Northern Ireland. But it should have given them some humility. Before further reducing the size of the army and changing the way it has successfully organised itself for generations, why not ask the troops in Iraq what they think? They have, after all, experienced what many of the generals have never done - sustained and dangerous operations.

And there are other changes afoot - unimaginable only a few years ago. Serious attempts are under way to set up some kind of association for soldiers that can protect them and fight for their proper treatment - largely because senior officers have been unwilling or unable to stand up for their men or even ensure that basic equipment such as bullet-proof vests or properly armoured Land-Rovers are available.

A recurring theme in the worries of relatives is the legality of the war. It would appear that the Attorney General (energetic in his prosecution of troops on the ground) changed his mind on the legality or otherwise of the war after some encouraging telephone calls from Washington and pressure from Downing Street. This may be all right in the world of highly-paid lawyers, but it is hardly a comfort for our troops on the ground. If the Awol figures are accurate, it looks as though many of them may have changed their minds too.

The war in Iraq now seems almost decadent - organised poorly, perhaps fought partly for the vanity of our leaders, lied about, and even lightly and wantonly undertaken. But we, too, must beware of decadence. Whatever the rights and wrongs of intervention in Iraq, it seems unlikely that we will escape further military casualties in the dangerous 21st century.

The loss of a child or other loved one in an unpopular war may be impossible to bear, but the burden can be helped by politicians with some knowledge or understanding of the sacrifices involved, and generals who care more about the troops they have the honour to command than their own careers. We must keep the regiments: theirintimate bonds and loyalties are as crucial to the discipline and fighting power of soldiers as to the welfare of families at home.

And whatever the rights and wrongs, we must always honour our dead. If their families wish to say that they died in a bad cause - so be it. But for the rest of us, we must remember their sacrifice and that they died not for politicians but for Queen and country. Despite the lies, we must still say in truth: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."

Crispin Black commanded a platoon of the Welsh Guards in the Falklands War and survived the bombing of the RFA landing ship 'Sir Galahad'

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