How the Army exercises its 'duty of care'

It could be argued that the pernicious dereliction of ethical responsibility can be seen in most of the Army's troubles
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The Defence Select Committee has delivered a sensitive and far-reaching report into the issues thrown up by the deaths of young recruits at the Deepcut and Catterick army barracks. The Duty of Care report, published yesterday, offers not just clear analysis and workable solutions, but also - between the lines - provides a vivid snapshot of the society we have now, the kind of army it generates, and the implications for us all that this process entails.

The report does not endorse the anguished cries for a public enquiry that continue to be made by the parents of the young people - mainly teenagers - who died in such odd, disputed, unexplained circumstances. But at least, if its recommendations were to be fully and properly implemented, no parent would again find themselves so isolated and disdained in their loss and grief as these ones have been.

This is partly because the report's recommendations are so straightforwardly sensible. It advocates that the military should not be expected any longer to police itself in this matter, instead relinquishing responsibility to an independent, civilian-led, complaints commission.

It suggests that there should be more vetting for instructors at training establishments, itself an acknowledgement that those who accuse the Army of getting rid of troublesome individuals by placing them in training barracks are right. It also asks the Army to reconsider its policy of recruiting 16 and 17-year-olds, a British practice which breaks the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN convention against the recruitment of child soldiers

But it also, right from the start, pinpoints the root of where much of the trouble has come from. The Ministry of Defence itself is lambasted from the outset. It is accused of shamefully hiding behind bureaucracy in its attempts to avoid its duty of care, by continuing to insist that while legal obligations are important and binding, moral obligations are not.

This is absolutely correct. Indeed, it could be argued that this pernicious dereliction of ethical responsibility can be seen in most of the Army's troubles. From the stubborn resistance to the very idea of Gulf War Syndrome, to the provision of battlefield equipment prescribed by official edict but universally reviled by those using it, there is evidence of a love of rules and lack of enthusiasm for people that is worrying indeed.

Now, the pattern of blind-eye-turning disengagement is becoming awfully clear. It does not take a genius to link the photographs we have seen of naked Iraqis being forced to simulate sex acts, with the allegations of abuse - 173 of them - contained in a Surrey Police Report into Deepcut, including eyewitness evidence of naked recruits being forced to simulate sex acts.

Common sense tells us that those who perpetrated those acts against Iraqi prisoners may have either been replicating what was done to them, without challenge, or repeating what they did to their own comrades, again without challenge. Either way, the message is that any combination of the above is hardly appropriate, especially nowadays, when our peace-loving army of liberation is expected to save most of its battle-readiness for the winning not of combat but of hearts and minds.

Such expectations are high indeed, and, until the Iraqi abuse scandals came along, the British Army was proud to consider itself almost unique in the world in its ability to deliver peace-keeping, trust-building strategy. Interestingly the report suggests that, despite all of the Army's troubles, this reputation is largely deserved.

At its heart, the report is encouraging about the Army's ability to forge careers for people who may have been let down by civilian life, although it is critical of the Army's inability to provide any sort of breakdown of the socio-economic groups that its recruits tend to come from. The general gist of the report's argument suggests though that many of them are drawn from disadvantaged or vulnerable backgrounds. The report implies that there may be cause for particular concern over recruits who have left local authority care. These young people, it suggests, should be treated as having special needs. In the absence of family members - usually encouraged to be involved in recruitment - they should, the report recommends, continue to have access to social workers.

The report implies too that many of the young people joining the Army may be people who have been failed by the educational system as well. It praises the Army's ability to take those without impressive educational records and advance their intellectual achievement. But it also says that remedial education programmes need to be extended and that Army literature written for new recruits needs to be put in simpler language. The implication appears to be that many Army recruits are functionally illiterate, as was the former SAS man and best-selling writer, Andy McNab.

This, I think, is where the report surpasses itself. It manages to criticise harshly the failure of the MoD, and the top brass in the Army, to act decisively to understand and communicate what kind of culture was causing deaths at Deepcut and at Catterick. But it manages also to emphasise at the same time - perhaps more successfully than something of a whitewash might - just what an astounding job the Army often does.

We hear a great deal about the lack of discipline in schools, and the educational failure that dogs boys in particular within mainstream education. There is a sense in this report that these problems are being passed on to the Army, which is expected to be a place of last resort for people that no one else will take on. (Ex-local authority children, for example, have often, physically and emotionally, suffered highly abusive childhoods.)

In the end, the picture is of an army that does not want to turn people with such huge problems away, but perhaps prefers to allow teenagers with great difficulties too much freedom to sort out these difficulties in their own ways - possibly in ways that impact fatally on their less aggressive peers.

But it is a picture also of an army command that is too willfully detached from the powder-keg implications of leaving young people with aggressive emotional problems in a harsh environment to sort out for themselves who is the dominant personality.

The report suggests that the vast majority of the bullying in the Army is among recruits rather than from further up the chain of command. But it emphasises also that in this regard - particularly as far as understanding the duty of care is concerned - the chain of command is weak.

For many, this report will present a dichotomy. Among the cynics, who may until now have ruled the roost, the idea seems to be that the task of turning vulnerable people into skilled army operatives will not be without casualties. These are the people who will abhor the report's language of counsellors, vulnerability and sensitivity, seeing this sort of approach as the problem, rather than the solution.

At the same time, others will perhaps be persuaded that, rather than taking desperate people without other options and turning them into cannon fodder, the Army does in fact offer an empowering alternative for young people who have not thrived in an educational environment.

In the end, the value of this report is not just that it tells us much about what the Army has to learn from civilian procedures. It is also that, strangely enough, the opposite might just be true as well.