The indefensible actions of the Ministry of Defence

Again and again, the Government shows little respect for the dead or their grieving relatives
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The Independent Online

Frank Swann, the ballistics expert who has conducted an independent inquiry into the deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut barracks, seems pretty sure of himself. His report, commissioned by the parents of the dead soldiers, holds up to ridicule the Ministry of Defence's line, since the first loss of life eight years ago, that all four young people had committed suicide.

He insists that, on bullet-wound evidence alone, this would be "most unlikely" to have been the case in three out of four of the cases. In an interview with the BBC at the weekend, Mr Swann claimed: "We were left in a situation in one case where the guy would have needed 15-foot-long arms because you couldn't get that pattern unless you were standing 15 feet away from the person who was injured."

Mr Swann's report is so contradictory to all explanations of what happened at Deepcut, that the release of the findings of an investigation by Surrey Police into the deaths, which has cost £1m, has been deferred. Mr Swann will now enter into talks with the ballistics experts who have so far maintained that suicide is the most likely explanation in all four cases. Whatever the conclusions of these discussions, the Deepcut scandal is not going to go away.

The four people whose deaths at Deepcut have caused the controversy, Private Geoff Gray, 17, Private Cheryl James, 18, Private Sean Benton, 20, and Private James Collinson, 17, died of gunshot wounds as they finished night sentry duty. Their bereaved parents have, understandably, found it hard to accept that their children killed themselves.

It has been less understandable that the MoD has been so keen to embrace such an explanation. Yes, the alternative is awful - that some person or persons murdered these youngsters. But even if the suicide verdicts were entirely sound, the MoD should surely have been more curious as to why so many suicides should occur in one barracks.

This is particularly clear in the light of information winkled out of the MoD by the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, in a parliamentary written answer. While previous figures had suggested that there had been five other attempted suicides at Deepcut in recent years, the latest revelation is that 24 soldiers at the Barracks have taken "self-harm" doses of legal drugs since 1995.

Other evidence points to particular problems at Deepcut. Leslie Skinner, 45, a former training officer there, was recently charged with one count of male rape and five counts of indecent assault allegedly committed while he was there, and one officer who served at the barracks has spoken of "a really nasty bullying culture".

But it doesn't stop there. Move the focus away from Deepcut, and endemic problems across the service start to emerge. The problems are so worrying that Amnesty International and a cross-party group of more than 150 MPs called for an inquiry into the deaths of no less than 1,700 servicemen in non-combat situations in the past 13 years. The MoD seems unwilling to oblige.

Again and again, the MoD is accused of the kind of obfuscation and cover-up which suggests that its fall-back position is that the dead can't tell tales. The Deepcut four, whose deaths were never properly investigated at the time, are obvious examples.

There was also the case, in June 1994, of flight ZD576. in which a Chinook helicopter with four crew and 25 of Ulster's top counter-terrorism experts, crashed over the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. Two of the dead were Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook. These two men, posthumously labelled with "gross negligence", have been forced to take the blame for this tragic crash, even though there is little or no evidence that it was their fault.

An investigating board could not find that either of the pilots were negligent, nor could two station commanders who reviewed the board's findings. However, these findings were overruled by two senior RAF officers to whom the report was submitted. The two men, who had exemplary service records, were found to have been guilty of "gross negligence in flying too low and too fast near high ground in bad weather", even though such posthumous judgements are meant to be made "in cases where there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever".

There was a lot of doubt though, not least the doubt which had led the MoD, not long before the crash, to sue Textron Lycoming, the manufacturers of the helicopter's flight system. The whole Chinook fleet at that time had been experiencing widespread and repeated faults caused by fully automated digital engine control software.

Again and again, despite the fact that it should be at its most respectful and sensitive at these times, the MoD has shown little respect for the dead and for their grieving relatives.

Bad feeling is now fomenting among some of those who lost loved ones in the war in Iraq, but who have not received a letter of condolence from the Queen or Prime Minister.

Why doesn't the MoD work out a simple procedure whereby this is done? Maybe because it hates to say sorry. Among complainants who won compensation cases against the MoD - now costing the ministry £100m a year - only 14 per cent received an apology.

And then, of course, there is Gulf War syndrome. The MoD has been doggedly denying the existence of such a syndrome since the Gulf War in 1991, even though a recent court appeal upheld Shaun Rusling's right to have such a diagnosis listed on his war pension. Now, having learned virtually nothing from their experience in 1991, the MoD is already receiving a wave of writs from those claiming to have contracted the syndrome the second time around.

Instead, the MoD prefers to talk in terms of "symptoms and signs of ill-defined conditions". But actually it is the MoD itself which is displaying such symptoms.

From rifles that didn't work in Afghanistan, to radios that didn't work in Kosovo, from the piecemeal ordering of Apache helicopters and equipment to the game of media-tag that led up to the death of David Kelly, all these and more point to the ill-defined condition being a malaise at the MoD.

Maybe some of it is in the name of the department alone, because the MoD is just too defensive. Formed during the Cold War, in 1964, from the war office, the Admiralty, the old ministry of defence, the air ministry and the ministry for aviation supply, it has become shadowy and unaccountable, secretive in all situations.

Its value in the warp and weft of government and policy shaping is as the gatherer of intelligence. Such mundane matters as life and death, troop morale and behaviour, illness or disability suffered in the course of duty, or plain old-fashioned equipping of the forces, all seem secondary to this powerful and mysterious function.

Further, the MoD seems to have developed the idea that all of its functions should be secretive and unanswerable.

If protecting that status means letting the dead take the blame, no one at the ministry appears to mind. The parents of the young people who died in Deepcut deserve the support of us all. Because all of this, not just a local problem in a large anonymous barracks, is what they are up against.