A war of words

Who will rescue the armed services?

A tank transporter A tank transporter
Did you spot the spat? Not content with the latest military opportunity- bombing Libya, two of our military men decided to go head-to-head. Put simply the navy man said we can't go on like this but the army man disagreed, see HERE .

While all this was going on, the RAF bloke was either ominously or sensibly quiet. The public notice things like that. They also wonder at this daft code of discipline that the military adhere to. If, for example, there is a problem then you could say the navy man had a duty to speak up. Then again perhaps the RAF man will wait until he can see the winner of this army/navy fight, then join the winning side. This would be called strategic thinking, the sort of stuff learnt on officer training courses. Mind you he might have learnt this trick from all that effort that's gone into Afghanistan. There the warring tribes do just the same thing, join the winning side, so all that effort wasn't wasted after all. We have posted about this inter-service rivalry before. In late 2009 we wrote -

The UK broadsheets have in recent weeks carried a number of letters from retired military men letting the enemy have a broadside in the form of their opinion. So who was the enemy? Well often it was the other two services!

These public spats never pay off, so why do the military never learn? This question is also dealt with in the 2009 post -

Soon it becomes clear that the real enemy is not the other two services but the very military ethos, “do but don't ask.” Some things are done well but much is done badly, occasionally this is hinted at. But seldom will anyone question costs and never the prime purpose, “why are we there”? Thus the politicians have the armed services over a barrel.

Also in the 2009 post, prior to the general election, we looked into the likely actions of an incoming government; following on from the above quote -

The services will wail that this is their 'duty'. But the taxpayer however no longer sees it as his duty to foot the bill without query. When the politicians talk of government cuts this is what the public want to hear. Getting rid of politicians is easy, don't vote for them. The public will leave it to an incoming government to deal with the armed services and reduce costs in doing so.

Well, the bit 'Thus the politicians have the armed services over a barrel', and the last sentence, are half right and half wrong! For as soon as he became PM, David Cameron made cuts in the services but then set off on the Libyan adventure! As neither the military action in either Iraq or Afghanistan can be described as a success you do wonder whether it bodes well for Libya. What if in terms of disaster it's three in a row?

In a recent article in the Spectator the UK's former Afghan envoy, Sherard Cowper-Coles wrote that -

Years of timidity from politicians have left our military commanders dangerously overconfident

The view from the envoy's office, and remember he is a diplomat and supposed to use language with care, sees a different picture. He sees a military that's got the politicians over a barrel but is still getting things wrong. Perhaps in some ways the military and the politicians deserve each other, Cowper-Coles writes -

The same officers who were complaining to the press about lack of helicopters were riding around Afghanistan on them. In the summer of 2007, an RAF movements officer showed me a pie chart of British helicopter usage in southern Afghanistan: 27 per cent of the hours were for VIP flights, mostly for senior British military visitors from London

It's statistics like that which show how far away from the general public the military and the politicians are. Far from the military taking the politicians for a ride, it's them both taking the public for suckers. And another interesting observation from Cowper-Coles -

In the days of National Service, virtually the whole population had experience of the forces, warts and all. Nowadays, only a minority of politicians have any real military knowledge.

If our envoy has fallen into a trap it is to only see things from the perspective of the military and the politicians. The first part is very apt, 'warts and all'. For the general public, the young men forced to have their time wasted, it was an eye-opener. Most of them loathed the military, ridiculed it, saw through it for what it was. As one such person, an older man I met a work, remarked, "it was like the Goon Show on a bad night. Anyone who has read Spike Milligan's account of his wartime service would understand that. I was also told that most conscripts concluded that it was a miracle the allies won the war based on what they saw.

For the common serviceman (service person?) is closer to the public mood than either the high rank officers or the politicians. The middle and lower ranks are not foolish and can see what's wrong and are doing something about it. They are leaving! EUReferendum has all the detail HERE . And another interesting point from Cowper-Coles -

The kind of mockery of military pomposity seen in films such as Norman Wisdom’s 1959 The Square Peg is almost unthinkable. Audiences almost wholly ignorant of the military wouldn't even find it funny.

Two things need to be said here, first is that humour changes over time so yes a latter day audience would be unimpressed by a film this old. And secondly, Cowper-Coles is out of touch if he thinks that mocking military pomposity is no longer possible. Again time plays a part but it would be wrong for the military to assume they are above derision. That's not what I saw the other day. An army Land Rover had broken down and was towed from a motorway service station by the AA. Actually derision does not quite catch the mood. A funny mix of disbelief and acceptance more described the scene. The public have become accustomed to all the public services, uniformed or not, failing. In fact it's no longer a laughing matter. Final quote from EUReferendum -

when the Army chiefs asks for 25 colonels to volunteer for redundancy and receives 52 applications, it must be agreed that the situation is dire.

None of them motor mechanics I suppose?

Footnote -

The picture above shows a Scammell Commander tank rescue and transporter vehicle, now obsolete. Scammell was a UK based company with a long history. The vehicle the army use today is called an Oskosh and is made in the USA.