Leading article: Our soldiers deserve better treatment

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown came out of holiday purdah to take control of the foot-and-mouth outbreak and to co-ordinate the Government's response to gun crime, but on matters of war and peace he remains silent.

Last week three British soldiers were killed by friendly fire from a US air strike in Afghanistan, and two of their comrades badly wounded. Accidents are bound to happen in combat, and total British forces deaths in Afghanistan (70) and in Iraq (168) are low in historical terms. But the fighting in Afghanistan is fierce, and the fatality rate is higher than that for any engagement of the British military since the Second World War. And the mission in Afghanistan is for the long term, even if that in Iraq is not.

In the face of such sustained danger, Britain's armed forces deserve every support. For that reason, this newspaper has made much recently of the Military Covenant. The idea behind it is simple: that in return for asking our service personnel to risk their lives on our behalf, the nation is under a solemn obligation. Through the Government, the people of this country undertake to give our troops the resources they need, and to ensure that if they are injured they will receive the best possible care, including long-term care, and if they are killed their families will be looked after.

Until it was publicised by The Independent on Sunday earlier this year, few people were aware that this obligation has long been codified in writing. One of the groups that did know about it, the Royal British Legion, now plans a campaign to hold the Government to account for fulfilling its side of the bargain. And last week David Cameron, the Conservative leader, delivered a speech that could have been copied out of this newspaper's leading articles on the subject. He said that the covenant "needs to have a far wider understanding and appreciation throughout our country". And he asked if we were fulfilling it today. "I believe we would be hard pushed to answer yes," he said. "I want us to ask as a country what more we can do to recognise that our armed forces, now engaged in two long military operations overseas, need to have that covenant renewed."

Today we try to begin to answer that question. First, we report the 30,000-signature petition organised by military families demanding better medical facilities. It is an issue that this newspaper has highlighted for some time. One of the features of the current wars in which our troops are engaged is that survival rates are so much higher than they used to be, thanks to advances in battlefield medical science.

Unfortunately, for what seemed like good reasons at the time, a decision was taken to close dedicated military hospitals, which meant that growing numbers of wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan have been cared for in NHS units that were unprepared for them. In some cases, mixing civilian and military patients has caused friction.

This is yet another example of poor planning, lack of foresight and a failure to think through the implications of long-term obligations. Mr Brown's predecessor as prime minister was good at promising, with a catch in his throat, that this country would not let the Afghan or Iraqi people down, or that military chiefs would have whatever resources they needed. But he was not so good at ensuring that those promises were followed through in the long term.

Now we need to hear from Mr Brown about how he will make good that deficiency.

First and foremost, though, we need the Prime Minister to be clear about war aims. Before military hardware, medical services or social after-care, the support our troops need is clarity and unity about what they are fighting for. As we report on page 17, Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, is being robust in resisting American pressure to delay the pull-back of troops from central Basra to the base at the airport. But we need to hear from Mr Brown about how the retreat from southern Iraq is compatible with our obligations to the Iraqi people.

Our troops in Iraq need to hear the Prime Minister explain that they are not simply the sitting ducks in a deadly waiting game played by the Bush administration as it readies itself for the verdict of General Petraeus on the success or otherwise of the troop surge. And our troops in Afghanistan need to hear him explain, once again, what the strategy is, why it is achievable – and therefore why it is worth the lives of the three soldiers that died last week.

Mr Brown has gone a long way since he took over by not being Tony Blair and not sounding like him. But on matters of war and peace, he is under an urgent obligation – to us, to the Afghan and Iraqi people and above all to our armed forces – to spell out exactly how he is different.