Richard Kemp: Western armies require discipline and openness to fight the enemy

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The Independent Online

Maintaining the good reputations of Western armies demands a culture of openness and honesty among soldiers at all levels, so they are willing to admit their mistakes readily to their chain of command.

For any of this to work, I repeat, our people must be whiter than white. This requires the best of training and the toughest of discipline and it is sometimes even harder among conscript troops and mobilised reservists.

Here I am not just talking about serious abuses and breaches of the laws of war. I include smaller things like trashing people's homes that have been taken over, or are searched or cleared. Like being as courteous as possible to civilians. Maintaining control over soldiers who have just seen their best mates blown apart is far from easy, but it is vital.

Where there is genuine concern over our own troops' conduct or action, we must not hesitate to conduct inquiries and investigations, and if necessary bring people to justice. As far as possible, these processes should be open.

But this involves of course yet another major complication – because we must not confuse mistakes made as a genuine consequence of the chaos and fog of war with deliberate defiance of rules of engagement and the laws of war. Mistakes are not war crimes. We must also know how to explain this.

Most armies do some of these things already. But what we need really is a radical re-evaluation of the effort required to achieve the impact we need. This requires a mindset that is hard to find in most armies around the world. It requires resources and a shift in priorities. And it significantly complicates already highly complex military operations.

It does not answer all of our problems but all the steps I have mentioned are – in my view – essential to countering the strategies and tactics of the insurgents we are faced with today – in Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

They are also, I believe, essential in defending our military policies and objectives and in defending our brave servicemen and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line to defend their country.

Colonel Richard Kemp, CBE, served in the British Army from 1977 until 2006. He spoke at a recent conference in Israel "Hamas, the Gaza War, and Accountability under International Law"