Sarah Sands: A land unfit for heroes: the betrayal of Britain's troops

The treatment of soldiers fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan is a national disgrace
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The Military Covenant, a solemn, resonant vow, was made in the 1990s. Before then, the ethos of the Army did not need to be explicit and codified. Soldiers were expected to share the values of the society from which they came. Qualities of courage, integrity, loyalty, discipline and respect for others were bred. But those responsible for training recruits began to notice that these values had to be taught, because they were no longer reflected in an increasingly self-interested civilian society. The then Chief of the General Staff, Roger Wheeler, set out the ethos of the Army and the corresponding obligations of the nation it served. Our soldiers give up civil rights, including the right to live. In return, we honour and care for them. The word covenant was used rather than contract because it was not a legal undertaking but a moral and ethical one. The current betrayal is all the greater for this.

As General Sir Mike Jackson growled during his Dimbleby lecture, after years of biding his time: "It is our soldiers who pay the cost in blood; the nation must therefore pay the cost in treasure." More soldiers' blood has been spilt in Iraq and Afghanistan than any time since the Second World War. Seven soldiers have been killed in Helmand province in the past 10 days.

Young men passing out from army colleges prepare to take their place. Soldiers ready to serve in Iraq and – more likely – Afghanistan are bemused. They are proud to be called to the front line, to win honour and glory for themselves, their regiments and their country. Yet they are confused about the mission and grimly aware that their country does not back them.

This has never happened before. Soldiers are not equipped well enough or paid properly, or housed adequately, or looked after sufficiently well if they are maimed or unhinged by their experiences. All of these things can be put right, if Gordon Brown will just admit that wars cannot be fought on the cheap. But Tony Blair's government damaged the army ethos even more fundamentally. Just as he politicised the Civil Service, so he tried to appropriate the forces as a private army. It is in the DNA of our armed forces that they are politically non-aligned. They serve the Queen and country. They did not ask to go to Iraq. They understood that it was lawful – Admiral Sir Michael Boyce actually checked with his own lawyer – and it was required of them. How were they to know that their country would shun them when they returned after doing their best in bloody awful circumstances?

Can you imagine what it must be like for a hideously injured soldier to regain consciousness in Selly Oak hospital only to be abused by a Muslim member of the non-military hospital staff? Or to know that our own elected MPs condone attacks on British soldiers in Iraq? George Galloway has praised the insurgents and condemned, perhaps to death, interpreters as "collaborators".

Politicians are fond of mentioning the "morale of the troops". General Sir Roger Wheeler defined it thus: "Morale is ultimately bred of conviction in what is being done and confidence in those with whom and for whom it is being done." So what should our troops make of politicians extravagantly airing their consciences about the effect of the war on Muslim relations in Britain without mentioning its devastating damage to our own injured soldiers? Or the residents who opposed the Army's planning application to buy a house for visiting relatives next to Headley Court military hospital, arguing that such a vale of tears was bad for house prices and might encourage terrorist attacks?

Soldiers returning from fighting the Taliban with bayonet rifles in northern Helmand province are greeted by embarrassed silence. The bureaucratic response to their cry for recognition is that since they have been peacekeeping there can be no medals for exceptional bravery. How would you describe the actions last week of Captain David Hicks of the Royal Anglian Regiment who refused morphine, despite being mortally wounded, so that he could lead from the front against a Taliban attack?

It looks as if politicians are reluctant to acknowledge the intensity of the fighting in Helmand because war is an inconvenient category error. The political mission was clearly stated: not a shot fired in anger. The first principles of a military operation are clarity of mission and preparation for exit. There is no clarity in Iraq or Afghanistan and no satisfactory exit strategy. If Lord Malloch-Brown loves Europe so much, why can't he persuade them to send troops to help us in Helmand? Our soldiers cannot depend on politicians or the spokesmen for the public, but they have not let down their side of the Military Covenant.

Now, they fight for each other. A young Irish Guards officer badly injured by a roadside bomb in Basra the other week was flown back to Selly Oak. All he spoke of was returning to Iraq to be with his men. Soldiers fight for their regiments and die for each other. They need to die for something and we are ambivalent about their wider sacrifice. Meanwhile, many of those who can get out of the Army are doing so.

How can we restore the Military Covenant? In America, servicemen are applauded as they walk through airports and cars carry bumper sticks saying "Back our boys". Seven British soldiers die in 10 days and we say: "Not much news in August." If we cannot find a symbolic way of expressing national support we can at least reflect upon the lives being sacrificed on our behalf. Why the silence from sportsmen and entertainers?

The Queen, who is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, is elderly, but the rest of the royals should certainly do more. Why not a memorial concert for our troops?At least the Prince of Wales was prepared to send Prince Harry to Iraq and perhaps one day to Afghanistan. When I interviewed General Sir Richard Dannatt, last year, he said that he would never send a soldier to a place he would not send his own son.

Does any British politician apply this test? Soldiers continue to pay the price in blood for the Government's foreign policy experiments. Shouldn't we remember them?

Further browsing: army.mod.uk/servingsoldier

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