Leading article: Discipline and the duty of care

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The Independent Online

It has been a miserable few days for the reputation of the British armed forces. Last week the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay almost £3m to the families of nine Iraqis who were tortured in British custody in Basra in 2003. This was followed at the weekend by news of a military investigation into accusations from an Iraqi teenager that he was sexually abused by British soldiers during the same period. This all points to an outrageous breakdown in discipline among our armed forces after the fall of Baghdad five years ago.

But we ought to remember that the way our troops have been treated by the Government in recent years has hardly been exemplary either. They have been hampered on the front-line by equipment shortages, their families have endured substandard housing, and numerous regiments have been overstretched by successive tours of duty. Morale is low. A mass survey of the armed forces by the Ministry of Defence revealed last week that half of all personnel are ready to leave. Even the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, has gone as far as to argue that "the military covenant is out of kilter".

It would be facile to draw a link between the way ordinary soldiers are treated by their political overlords and the brutality with which some of them have behaved in Iraq. These lethal lapses in conduct are, in large part, due to the failures of senior officers to enforce discipline. But it is not fanciful to suggest that if greater efforts are made to educate and care for the young men and women in our armed forces they will behave better in the line of duty.

This duty of care ought to extend to the period after soldiers leave the forces. Many depart with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress and a shocking lack of preparation for civilian life. This is why the Government's plan to pay for the education of soldiers when they leave the service (or to subsidise those who wish to gain an academic qualification by studying part-time) is a decent one. There is a precedent for this. The American government pays the college fees of recruits. Some have identified this as one of the driving forces behind the creation of a black middle class in the United States.

Actually, the American military recruitment system is far from perfect. Many youngsters from poor backgrounds are effectively railroaded into the service by the promise of a free college education. Any new British military education scheme should seek to avoid this type of dubious incentive system. But as a first step towards re-forging the military covenant, a greater commitment from the Government to educate those who serve their country deserves to be welcomed.