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 ministerReuse content