Matthew Norman: Soldiers suffer contempt from all sides

Protests against the military are shameful. But the Government's conduct is no better
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The Independent Online

The cry of "Treason" filled the message boards and phone-ins yesterday, and while mainstream politicians weren't bold enough to go quite so far, their responses hinted at betrayal as well. The targets of this outrage were the 20 or so young beards who abused the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian regiment as they paraded through the streets of Luton.

That these Muslim lads' method of welcoming the soldiers' home from Basra and Afhganistan lacked charm and grace is in no doubt. Placards bearing such legends as "Criminals, Murderers, Terrorists", "Butchers of Basra" and "Baby Killers" were hoisted, we may assume, as much to give offence and garner publicity as express genuine fury, and duly achieved both ambitions.

Whether they were more or less repulsive than the reaction they induced is another matter. Personally, I do take offence at this abuse, because the soldiers were transparently the wrong targets. You cannot sensibly apply Nuremberg principles to teenage squaddies, and to lacerate them for following orders seems a less trivial version of getting snippy with the Sky call centre drone after the 90 minute meander through the switchboard labyrinth. In the absence of Rupert Murdoch's mobile number, that poor soul is the only representative on whom the steam can be released. This was an act of transference too, and small wonder given the outlawing of protests in Parliament Square.

Equating obnoxious contempt with treason is another error of judgment, meanwhile, and one made by more than 20 people. "When will we see the treason laws used against some of these extremists?" asks Chris from Ashford, Middlesex, capturing the national mood on a newspaper web site.

The answer, Chris, is never. The statute books are clear about what constitutes treason, and waving stupid, malevolent slogans is nowhere mentioned. Those whose advice to the protesters is "Go Home!" have had more luck. Already they will have made the short journey to their homes, stored somewhere in which will be the passports that make them precisely as British as the Queen, Chris from Ashford, Nick Griffin of the BNP, the PM and the rest of us.

The point, of course, is that nationality is indivisible, and confers the absolute right to hate this country and its foreign policy, and to cause offence by publicising that hatred within the law. As Tory defence spokesman Dr Liam Fox points out, "It is only because of the sacrifices made by our armed forces that these people live in a free society where they are able to make their sordid protests." Well said, sir. Or almost. It is also because of the sacrifices made by the armed forces of the Soviet Union, the United States and many other countries, not to mention by any forebears the protesters had in the Indian Army. If Dr Fox, that Aristotelian paradigm of egregiousness, believes Britain defeated the Axis Powers alone, he needs urgent psychiatric help.

But then such delusionally Jingoistic rewriting of military history is hardly unique. Gordon Brown presents symptoms of the same disorder in implicitly trying to spin the defeat in Basra as a victory. "The whole country is proud of our brave servicemen and women who serve ... with great distinction and courage," he said. This was a statement of such idiocy – as if protesters aren't part of that "whole country"; as if he isn't their PM too – that it's hard to decide whether to laugh, weep or fantasise about horsewhipping him the 35 miles from Westminster to Luton.

On reflection, I'm plumping for the latter. A damn good thrashing is what he deserves, because the betrayal of forces in whom most us certainly do take pride belongs to him and his predecessor. The private treachery shown towards those they publicly lionise ranks high among the scandals of the age.

On Tuesday, even as the PM railed against the disrespect shown to the troops, an article in the new edition of the revered military journal International Affairs dealt with the crisis in British defence. Before concluding that the "state of degeneration (is) perhaps more serious than at any time since the end of the Cold War," its authors touched on the "critical shortage" of helicopters in Afghanistan. Whether any of the dozen Anglians, or "Poachers" lost in combat died because of this, insufficient training, useless or non-existent body armour, or inadequate troop strength left them outnumbered, I've no idea. But many British soldiers have lost their lives and been wounded because their Labour overlords failed to equip, prepare and protect them properly, and more will do so in Afghanistan in the years ahead.

Their treatment at home is barely less shameful. As they marched, I wonder if any of them glanced at those marshalling the parade with envy, reflecting that where the police are cosseted with fat wages and fatter overtime payments for doing God alone knows what, the soldiers' reward for having risked their lives is to be shockingly underpaid, poorly housed, degraded by having their injuries treated on civilian mixed wards, and generally treated with a level of contempt matched in its intensity only by the hypocrisy of the rhetoric with which their political masters praise them to the heavens.

If Gordon Brown is remotely sincere about his pride, there are ways for him to prove it. A cabinet portfolio for veterans affairs, on American lines, would be one. Releasing a good few billions from the "quantitative easing" treasure chest for more helicopters and other military hardware would be another, and spending billions more on improved pay and housing another still. We shall see.

It is two and a half years since Sir Richard Dannatt announced his arrival as head of the Army with the unforgettable interview in which he spoke, almost wistfully, about the military covenant this government has broken. "I said to the Defence Secretary that the Army won't let the nation down," revealed this fearlessly candid General then, "but I don't want the nation to let the Army down."

Mr Brown has been PM for most of the intervening period, and in his guise the nation continues to let the Army down grotesquely. Undeniably there is a river of treachery flowing here, and those searching for its source would do well to look not towards Luton but some 35 miles due south.

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