Sarah Sands: The brave wear a uniform, the coward wears a suit

Troops come under attack on an unexpected frontline, home soil, while their paymasters shrink from their duty of care
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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, once spoke of the difference between the war in Iraq and the mission in Afghanistan. He described the first as an unpopular war and the second as misunderstood. We "kicked the door in" in Iraq but came by invitation to Afghanistan. The fight against the Taliban is direct retribution for 11 September; the cause is just and vital.

I wonder if the public's disillusionment over Iraq has spread into a generalised cynical pacifism. All wars are bad and those who fight them do so from their own bloodlust rather than on behalf of the country. Thus University College London has banned the armed forces from its campus. The message from those students to our soldiers in Afghanistan, serving in harsh and dangerous conditions on low pay, is that their peers regard them as moral lepers. The advice by RAF Wittering to servicemen and -women to disguise themselves in public to avoid abuse is a new low in the relationship between civilians and the armed forces. The spectre of Vietnam, where returning soldiers were jeered in the street, has become real. It is almost worse that it might be an overreaction by Wittering.

The RAF is making a presumption about public opinion, that it regards it as shameful to fight for your country. Iraq has turned this warrior nation into Switzerland. The largely sneering reaction of the commentariat to Prince Harry's short service in Helmand province was revealing. The prince was accused of glamorising conflict, of glossing over the hopelessness of the Afghan situation, and of demonstrating our superior firepower and thus distressing British Muslims. George Galloway lasciviously gloated that Harry would pay for his actions. Interestingly, it was British Muslims who were most generous about Prince Harry's motivation. They said it was a good thing for a young prince to want to serve his country and compared Harry with spoilt and cowardly princes in the Middle East.

Prince Harry certainly provided a little blip of optimism in a slow and bloody war of attrition. I have spoken to soldiers leaving for and returning from Afghanistan. I have not seen one treat the tour of duty as an adventure holiday. Ross Kemp's series on the armed forces in Afghanistan, which was greeted by our sophisticated columnists as another piece of artful propaganda, caught the tone exactly. Afghanistan is a call to arms that makes soldiers nervous and proud. They know they will be tested and they may not return. Spouses and parents are fearful and uncomplaining. There was no glossing over the reality of war and its consequences. The series ended with the agonised gaze of a bereaved mother. She blamed herself for a lapse in the parental contract. A mother should be with her son when he needs help.

In war, this cannot be so. Sons and husbands, daughters and wives, are sent by this Government to the frontline, but they are hardly ever ours. So there has been little public anger about the poor treatment of troops and their families.

I was talking the other day to a senior army officer who was considering leaving the services. He did not believe that improvements would come. The kit, the accommodation, the aftercare for the wounded, the support for the families would not get better because Gordon Brown knows "there are no votes in defence". The Prime Minister may pay tribute to the heroism of our troops but he has no intention of paying for them. As chancellor he was merciless towards the Ministry of Defence.

Schools, hospitals, transport affect us all. We want to see more police on the streets. But it does not mean much if British troops are sent to foreign hellholes and return shot to pieces.

A wounded soldier's young girlfriend described to me her first visit to Headley Court Rehabilitation Centre: "The first time you see it you feel sick with shock seeing all these wheelchairs and amputees and bandaged-up heads, all these terrible injuries hidden from the public." The young woman, alone, nursed her boyfriend who was partially paralysed and in permanent pain. When he was jostled on the Tube, she wanted to shout: "Don't you know what this man did for his country?" Instead she learned to shrug: "These people go to fight, to risk their lives and then when they return nobody wants to know."

There are no votes in defence, but there may be votes in honour. John McCain has fought a persuasive campaign in America, despite his backing for the Iraq war. He is seen as champion of the troops rather than a warmonger. It helps that he, very unusually among the ruling class, has a son who has served in Iraq. It is a paradox that Americans have no trouble separating their military from politicians even though their President is also commander-in-chief.

David Cameron may be rethinking the electoral advantage of supporting the troops in the light of John McCain. In the past he has shown little interest in the armed forces. But he has talked a great deal about a decent society, and it is hard to square this with our indifference towards the treatment of our troops. Cameron spoke last week about honouring the Military Covenant. This is a simple unwritten contract between Britain and its armed forces. The 184 battle honours awarded on Friday give a sense of the soldiers' part of the bargain. The army captain who returned three times under Taliban fire to rescue wounded comrades. The private who returned to the front line five days after being seriously wounded because his platoon was undermanned. The female helicopter pilot who made a hazardous landing in Basra to rescue a casualty. The sergeant who was awarded a posthumous Military Cross after leading his men through heavy fire to bring back a comrade's body. Captain David Hicks, who refused morphine although mortally wounded so he could lead his men out of an attack.

These people put military honour before their own lives. Are we saying that those who survived and their comrades should not wear their uniforms with pride? The implications of RAF Wittering are too horrible to contemplate.

If we abuse those who would lay down their lives for us, we are not a society at all. I prefer to think that we have been thoughtless rather than cruel. We must visibly honour our armed forces and – anathema to Gordon Brown and David Cameron – we must pay for them and their families. Their blood, our treasure, according to the Covenant.