Leading Article: Target that the Army misses

Share
Related Topics
A SECRETIVE organisation has taken control of huge swaths of the British countryside and is determined to keep the people out, using barbed-wire and armed patrols. It sounds like another fantastic mission for James Bond, but 007 would never go into battle against his own side. The villain of this real-life plot is the Ministry of Defence, which refuses to loosen its grip on some of our most beautiful landscapes. The public is banned from 238,500 hectares of land set aside for military manoeuvres, including a quarter of Northumberland and parts of nine National Parks. Most of the land was commandeered by the MoD just after the First World War, when the fearsome guns of the Somme were still ringing in the nation's ears. In those days, when cumbersome artillery was so imprecise it regularly dropped death on its own frontlines, it was necessary that gunners practised.

But that was then. The generals are now fond of assuring us that in this age of guided missile systems and satellite imagery they can bomb targets with accuracy and precision, sending Cruise missiles straight down enemy ventilation shafts from thousands of miles away. Assuming they are right, that modern warfare is a sophisticated electronic pursuit, why does the army still need to fence off so much of Britain and pound it with shells? Why must so many wild open spaces be set aside for target practice with missiles dropped from screaming jets?

Those who are charged with our defence must be allowed to train - but do they really need so much space in which to do so, especially in an age when soldiers are more likely to be acting as peace-keepers, while their generals contemplate a European super army with an entire continent on which to play war games? The trouble is that, as homosexuals and black people have found, getting the British army to agree to change is very difficult - unless it is to do with its demands for money to pay for shiny new weapons.

The army's rigid possessiveness matters, because access to uncultivated land reminds us of our place in nature, and our obligations towards the planet. The population of Britain has multiplied many times since 1918, and our islands are increasingly overcrowded. We are running out of places to wander lonely as a cloud, with the precious exceptions of those parts of Dartmoor, Pembrokeshire and other areas of natural beauty that the MoD guards so jealously. Such areas have a quality that conjures an image - for those few people who have been privileged or daring enough to see them - of what Britain must have been like before the Industrial Revolution.

It is ironic, of course, that in one sense these landscapes owe their wild beauty to the very fact that for decades they have been protected from the despoliation of intensive agriculture by the very guns that also keep the people out. Indeed some environmental experts suggest that dropping the occasional bomb on a landscape is better for wildlife than aggressive farming, or development for housing. Nobody is suggesting that hordes of tourists be allowed to invade the firing ranges, but there must be a case for responsible members of the public to be allowed to walk on, and enjoy, these natural treasures. The MoD warns of unexploded shells, but if its bomb disposal units can clear landmines under the noses of the Khmer Rouge surely they could cope with stretches of Dorset?

So far the MoD's attempts to respond to our changing times have been half-hearted, and, to onlookers, frustrating. The army has a habit of sealing off large areas for manoeuvres that never actually take place. Worse, some sites are hardly used in pursuit of the national defence at all. Thorney Island in West Sussex, for instance, is where military families enjoy a "private" beach and sailing club behind barbed-wire fences.

The recent suggestion that the right to roam will be extended to some military sites at some point in the future is welcome, but experience suggests we should be cautious about MoD promises. In 1943 the army evacuated the village of Tyneham in Dorset, with the pledge that its inhabitants could return to live there once the war was won. That promise was not kept. At the end of a century of war, as we dare hope for peace, it is time the MoD finally kept its word and gave back the land it no longer needs - land that belongs to us all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable