Patrick Mercer: For every Tom, Dick and Harry

The Government has kept our troops perilously short of aircraft and vehicles

Share

The Union Jack that covers a soldier's coffin is designed to be a stark reminder of duty, courage and selflessness. Recently, though, we've been reminded too much. Whilst headlines have been made by affairs in the Gulf and Prince Harry's martial future, in April alone 11 of our youngsters have returned under just such flags. It has to be asked, how long can the British Army continue to accept these sorts of casualties, and how long will morale (the intangible steel at the heart of any army), hold up?

The whole business of Harry's being allowed to fight is more complex than it seems. Certainly, he and those around him will be targeted and any loss would be catastrophic, but this must be measured against the prestige that his presence on the front line would give to the Army. The very real pride that the Household Cavalry and the Army have for Harry is important, and to clip his wings would be a real blow.

When I was commanding an infantry battalion I reckoned we could do anything as long as we had enough time to recover between operational bouts. That is why we should be so suspicious of the Government's claims that troop reductions in Iraq are a real sign of progress. A quick analysis shows that as the Defence Secretary announced less troops for Iraq, so the numbers in Afghanistan increased. Thus,fighting troops are getting no real pause in deployments. Secondly, as we are reducing, so US forces are "surging". If we are both succeeding, why are our approaches so different? Well, both powers must recognise that the game is up in Iraq, but, having learnt the hard way in Vietnam, US commanders know that a withdrawal is the most dangerous phase of war and that more troops, rather than fewer, are the only insurance policy. So why doesn't Britain do the same? Well, the answer is simple, even if we had the political will, we don't have the troops.

Whether it comes from politicians or the MoD itself, we seem to gloss over the fact that our Army and Navy have never been so under-manned and there can be no more confidence-sapping factor than a lack of people to share the risks and the work. Consider this, HMS Cornwall had a helicopter armed with a heavy machine gun, but there was no gunner to fire it! Similarly, an infantry battalion in Basra is so short of men that one of its companies has none of its own troops to dismount and fight from its Warrior vehicles. As well as a lack of manpower, the Government has kept our troops perilously short of aircraft and suitable armoured vehicles. While by no means invulnerable, helicopters provide mobility and deterrence and are loathed by the insurgents. But there are not enough of them. Also, it has taken the MoD an extraordinarily long time to get the new generation of armoured patrol vehicles to Iraq. The Army rumour website shows just how much the troops have resented being told to patrol in unarmoured vehicles. Land Rovers and lightly armoured "Snatch" patrol vehicles (designed for more benign work in Ulster) have had to do. Every day we hear of more attacks by Iranian-designed anti-armour weapons that wreak terrible damage on our vehicles and soldiers. It is so hard for our regiments to do their job confidently when they see US forces in much better protected vehicles.

The officers and soldiers to whom I talk always mention the deep frustration of the type of operations that they have conducted. Many question the validity of the whole operation, citing the fact that they are cooped up in camps under frequent bombardment and seldom allowed to patrol. More worryingly, I have heard many talk about the fact that Basra has been surrendered to the local militias and that the British are there simply to save political face.

The difficulties of having to train local forces always come up. As Iraqi forces are expected to take the strain as British units withdraw, it is devastating for our men to realise that many of the men that they train are actually part of the insurgency. To a young British soldier the situation is impossibly difficult to gauge.

For instance, in Camp Sparrowhawk recently, insurgents in Iraqi uniform tried to abduct an officer. Similarly, when a Warrior from 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment was attacked a couple of weeks ago and four soldiers were killed, the first reaction of the troops was to arrest Iraqi policemen. This situation is desperately bad for morale.

As rogue militias strive to fill the perceived power vacuum in the south, hoping to control not just the political spectrum but also the wealth that oil brings with it, so the British find themselves as the meat in the sandwich. Friends of mine with endless tours in Belfast and Bosnia still say how difficult it is to fight this war with one hand tied behind their backs. If it is a challenge for matured officers, how much more unpalatable is it for lads fresh from the depots? Whilst there have been infrequent cases of brutality by our forces - that cannot be tolerated - we must, from the comfort of England, try to empathise with the frustrations that operations like these impose.

Another crucial factor is any doubt in a soldier's mind about his family at home. Wives, mothers and girlfriends are deeply influential and with email, mobile phones and webcams, they have access to the men at the front as never before. There is no quicker way to alienate a soldier than to make him feel that his family is neglected. The Government must not neglect families.

The Chief of the General Staff said recently: "We should get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems." While this isundoubtedly true, it has been difficult to balance against the need to motivate troops in a dangerous, unpopular campaign. But in my experience most soldiers take a less strategic view and concentrate on the job in hand. A private of The Staffordshire Regiment, just back from Basra, told me: "I just get on with my job and as long as I have got the kit I need and the sergeants and officers in front then I am fine." No problem with morale there, thank God, but the Government needs to remember how crucial and brittle a quality it can be. They tinker with it at their peril.

Patrick Mercer MP is former commanding officer of the Sherwood Foresters and a former shadow security minister

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families