Bruce Anderson: Gordon Brown bears some responsibility for these deaths

The only time he took a positive attitude to defence was when it involved his constituency

Monday 13 July 2009 00:00

There are only two reasons for advocating withdrawal from Afghanistan: hatred of the West and thoughtless cowardice. Those who hate everything the West stands for – which still applies to many British lefties – would rejoice in its defeat. At least they are being rational, unlike those who are feeble-minded enough to assume that our mortal enemies would be appeased by our weakness, and who would inflict pale Ebenezer's fate upon the rest of us. 'Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight. Roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right.'

It must be remembered that in 2001, President Bush's decision to invade Afghanistan was widely supported. The Taliban and Al-Qa'ida had turned a failed state into a training-camp for terrorists. There was little difficulty in persuading other Nato countries to support the mission, and the arguments which convinced them then remain valid now. If the West pulled out, the Taliban would regain control.

In Swat and other troubled areas, the government of Pakistan is not only displaying courage and determination. It is being much more successful than many observers expected. But a defeat for the West in Afghanistan would have drastic consequences in Pakistan and throughout the region.

And elsewhere. Confronted by the difficulties of rehabilitating criminals, those who believe in the widespread use of imprisonment will cite the merits of incapacitation. Those in prison cannot commit fresh crimes against the public. There is an analogy with Islamic terrorism. Those who are attacking Western troops in Afghanistan find it much harder to plan outrages in Western cities. Although Afghanistan is a long way from home, we are still fighting a defensive campaign.

The case for war is as strong as ever, and we must be realistic. Casualties are inevitable. Politicians are sometimes naïve enough to think that battles can be won without bloodshed. Soldiers know better. There is a phrase, regularly used by Wellington, which soldiers will repeat and which always makes civilians quail: "the butcher's bill". Soldiers have been there.

That does not dispense with the need to keep the bill down. War imposes moral obligations, especially upon those who send men into action. If they will the end, they must will the means. In Afghanistan, this would not necessitate vastly expensive space-age technology. It would merely require the basic tools of modern warfare, such as armoured vehicles whose armour is worth something, and helicopters. Without them, we are effectively reduced to Second World War methods.

The helicopter is a force-multiplier. While it cannot literally enable troops to be in two places at once, it could often feel like that to an enemy under the cosh. Rupert Thorneloe, the CO of the Welsh Guards, was driven to his battalion's front-line positions, as he would have been in 1945. If a helicopter had been available, he might still be alive. It is not as if there had been no warnings. In the House of Lords, the retired Service Chiefs have regularly expressed their dismay. In private meetings, they have reinforced the same points. Up until now, the Government has taken no notice.

In one respect, the army's greatest virtues have left it open to abuse. It is too loyal, too wedded to its duty, too reluctant to complain. Soldiers are used to operating on the basis of make-do and mend. Orders must be obeyed, tasks completed. If the right kit is not available, grab whatever is to hand. If this means additional risks, that is what soldiers are for. The battlefield is no place for committee meetings.

All that is ingrained in all three services. It has earned a gratitude too deep for words. It deserves awed admiration. This government has expressed its gratitude in cynical exploitation.

Wherever there is out-dated equipment, whenever men's lives have been endangered by a failure to spend small sums, one man's fingerprints are always to be found: Gordon Brown's. After 1997, the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Charles Guthrie, offered every Cabinet minister a briefing on defence. All but one accepted. Gordon Brown could not be bothered. The only time he took a positive attitude to defence was when there was a prospect of some warship construction at the Rosyth shipyard, in his constituency. Otherwise, Mr Brown was uninterested, negative and surly.

In part, this was just another way of wreaking his resentments on Tony Blair. Mr Blair came to admire the forces, and wanted to fight wars. Mr Brown did what he could to avoid paying for his rival's pleasures. Here, Tony Blair was greatly to blame. Well aware of Mr Brown's weaknesses, he chose to indulge them, at the cost of soldiers' lives. He expected under-equipped soldiers to stand and fight in Afghanistan, when he was too wet to stand up to his Chancellor. It is a stain on Mr Blair's reputation.

But he at least fell short of hypocrisy. Since Mr Brown became PM, there has been talk of services' days and a minister for veterans. The new PM has regularly tried to wrap himself in khaki, whenever he thinks that there might be votes in it. Yet he has done nothing to remedy the deficiencies which he spent ten years creating. His interest in military matters is on a par with his talk about values and Britishness: a contemptible abuse of language and decency.

Not that he is the only source of abuse. When 'H' Jones was killed in the Falklands, commanding 2 Para, the battalion had an obvious replacement. He was in the Falklands three days later. The Welsh Guards also have an obvious replacement for Col Thorneloe: an outstanding young Major who served in the SAS and won a DSO. He is still in the UK. These days, there are rules. Anyone going on active service must have a fortnight's training. Otherwise, there could be health and safety issues.

Imagine if someone had explained to Churchill that a much-needed and superbly qualified officer had to hang around for a fortnight, because Mr Jobsworth had invoked the Penpush Bill. There are moments when only one conclusion seems appropriate: that our machinery of government has turned into a lunatic asylum.

To be fair to the new Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, he would not claim to be Churchill. When John Hutton shamefully deserted his post, there was no obvious replacement. So Mr Ainsworth had to do. To paraphrase the First World War song, he is there because he is there, and it is not as if Gordon Brown would allow him to take any decisions. But Bob Ainsworth is a decent man with patriotic instincts, who could not be accused of wetness. He might be the man to stand up to the PM on behalf of the forces.

Labour MPs often talk about corporate manslaughter and the need to prosecute company directors whose employees are killed in accidents because of low safety standards. So what about an outfit where safety was known to be deficient and which had received repeated warnings from many experts? Could it begin to mount a defence? Gordon Brown must be aware of the consequences, yet he chose to perpetuate a regime of neglect which was bound to lead to unnecessary deaths. He is morally guilty of corporate manslaughter.

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