The armed forces seem to have become fodder for public argument of late. The Opposition accuses the Prime Minister of under-funding the military. There are fierce rows about the manipulation of bereaved widows by certain sections of the media. And, of course, bigger arguments still rage about the original wisdom of the military engagements in which the armed services are engaged.
It is easy to lose sight, amid all this sound and fury, of the men and women who actually serve in our armed forces, and just how remarkable some of them are. Two army bomb disposal experts were awarded the George Cross yesterday, one of them posthumously. Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes dismantled seven bombs without any protective clothing in a single engagement in Afghanistan last August. Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid successfully neutralised 70 explosive devices planted by the Taliban before the final one took his life. Many of Staff Sergeant Schmid's fellow soldiers owe their lives to his efforts.
Nor are these isolated examples of courage. Today the Ministry of Defence will publish the full list of honours for last year. Some 150 medals for bravery are expected to be unveiled. But we should not lose sight of the risks that all of our soldiers in Afghanistan face – and the bravery they display in confronting them. Since 2001, 275 UK military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan. 179 died in Iraq. And for every fatality, there are scores of serious injuries. We read about the stories of soldiers killed or injured in action and many virtues shine through: courage, duty, sacrifice. These are not exclusively military virtues of course. But they are especially abundant in our armed forces – perhaps more so than in any other section of our society.
Our servicemen and women do what they do not for the material rewards, but because it is their chosen vocation. Whatever view people might take about the merits of the missions on which British troops have been deployed in recent years, we can all surely recognise the incredible professionalism with which the vast majority do their jobs under lethal circumstances – not to mention the example they set to the rest of us.