Yesterday marked Britain's first Veterans' Day. Gordon Brown, who came up with the idea, had tea with veterans and schoolchildren at the Cabinet War Rooms in London. The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, met those who had served in the conflicts of the last century. Old soldiers were received in Downing Street. The proud history of the British Army and all those who have served in its ranks was celebrated.
But the mood among those serving in our nation's armed forces is anything but celebratory. In the early hours of yesterday, two soldiers were killed in an insurgent attack in Afghanistan. Yesterday also saw the burial of two soldiers who died in Iraq, including the first servicewoman to lose her life in that conflict. Tony Blair once spoke of the "blood price" that Britain was prepared to pay for our support for the America-led war on terror. We are certainly paying it now.
And all the signs are that our servicemen and women will continue to do so for some time yet. Both Iraq, home to 8,500 British troops, and Afghanistan, where 2,000 are based, are turning into quagmires. Our political leaders continue to talk about the "reconstruction" focus of these missions. But the reality is that our forces are facing a well-organised insurgency in both countries. And in neither does the Government have a clear strategy.
Britain's troop deployment in Afghanistan is projected to rise to 5,700 in the coming months. But there is still no official clarification as to whether their role is to eradicate the opium crop or to destroy the resurgent Taliban. If it is the latter, we should be especially concerned. The government headquarters in the region is reportedly on the point of being taken over by the Taliban, and local elders have made it clear that the Taliban is already in control of much of the district. The situation in Iraq is equally uncertain. Southern territories are being transferred to the Iraqi army, but the situation in Basra is plainly becoming more volatile. Are we winding down operations, or stepping them up?
There is another poison, other than uncertainty of purpose, eating away at Army morale. It is claimed that the "Snatch" Land Rovers which soldiers use to patrol are a soft target for roadside bombs, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, almost a quarter of British soldiers who have died in hostile action in Iraq were killed in this type of vehicle. The cry has gone up for soldiers to be issued with the better-armoured vehicles, of the sort used by the American military.
The response of the Ministry of Defence to these demands sums up what a catastrophe British and American policy has created in Iraq. US-style armoured vehicles are too wide to patrol the narrow streets of Basra. British troops cannot impose order or help with reconstruction without getting close to the population. But they cannot get close without being targeted. The "battle for hearts and minds", if it still exists, is now unwinnable.
The latest recruitment figures for the Army were disappointing. It is not difficult to see why fewer young people are joining up. The effect of Iraq and Afghanistan is feeding through. The bad publicity from various abuse scandals and courts martial is having an effect. But there is more to it than this. There is an unspoken agreement between the armed forces and their political masters. Soldiers will do their duty unquestioningly, but expect not to be taken into morally unjustified conflicts. And no matter where they are sent, they expect to be properly equipped. This agreement is being tested to destruction. While British servicemen and women are - quite rightly - honoured at home, the suspicion is growing that they have been betrayed abroad.Reuse content