Monday, July 03, 2006

Trouble in the British Armed Forces

Plagued by weak leadership and troop disillusionment, the once mighty roar of Britain's military is being reduced to a wimper.

The new British Armed Forces Federation (baff), proposed by members of Britain’s armed forces, highlights a serious morale and leadership problem within the British military. baff intends to represent the interests of Britain’s 250,000 troops, which it says have been ignored and used as pawns in political games. Defense chiefs counter by saying that this new federation would “lead to a dangerous breakdown of military discipline” and could even lead to troops voting on whether to go to war.

The trouble with this war between Britain’s military leaders and troops is that the fight only has one loser: the power and potency of the military itself.

How has Britain, with its once highly regarded, well-decorated and esteemed fighting forces, become so distracted and enfeebled that some of the most ardent fighting it conducts is seemingly among troops and their military leaders? Without strong leadership inspiring personnel to willingly cooperate and follow that leadership, Britain’s armed forces appear to be breaking at the rivets.

Speaking for the average British soldier, disillusioned Col. Tim Collins wrote a special for the Telegraph on
June 4 that pointed an accusing finger at top brass. Among other things, he explained the reasons for poor morale among the soldiery: “Today’s British Army is evidently unhappy with its lot. Overstretched on operations, wounded by the endless rounds of cuts and economy drives, suffering from a number of problems ranging from inadequate medical care to a lack of good quality accommodation, there is a real crisis. The manifestations of that crisis can be seen in the poor recruitment and retention figures, the record numbers of personnel who have gone absent without leave, and a backlog in medical care that sees wounded soldiers returned from the battle front to share wards with frail old ladies.”

The Daily Mail suggests that potentially poorly planned objectives also contribute to the sour mood. One such example is a reported Afghanistan mission. “Britain is allegedly to spearhead a nato commitment to reconstruction, rather than pursue insurgents. But British soldiers will have to bear the most dangerous share of the burden. … A few thousand troops, a woefully inadequate number for this huge, wild country, are being deployed in a pathetic attempt to stem Afghanistan’s descent into the world’s largest narcostate” (
June 7).

Consider the futility of the objective: Outmanned and outgunned, they will be asked to mind the store while thieves plunder it. “When millions of Afghans depend for their livelihoods on the heroin trade, what … are a handful of nato soldiers … supposed to do about it?” (ibid.).

Turn the page and it is suggested that a similar story of unhappiness is being written in Iraq. The Daily Mail writes that British troops face the prospect of court martial from overzealous lawyers scurrying about looking for anything that smells like human rights abuses. Hamstrung by the fear of litigation and public besmirching, soldiers are becoming despondent and ineffective. “The human rights industry is making life a misery for officers and [non-commissioned officers] throughout the armed forces who believe that decisions to prosecute servicemen have been taken out of their hands and are largely politically inspired” (ibid.).

Usually, the decision to proceed with disciplinary procedures is governed by officers and non-commissioned officers, but, as the Daily Mail suggests, an acrimonious element within British society has decided to make skewering soldiers a political agenda. Running roughshod over standard army practices—thanks to weak-kneed generals—ordinary soldiers are being subjected to a court of public opinion. Of course, this practice has angered soldiers, and for good reason. Again, according to the Daily Mail, it is routine to see a soldier at first vilified with trumped-up charges—then later, much more quietly, exonerated of the charges. The soldier, his credibility in shambles and public reputation smeared, is left to pick up the pieces. Witnessing their comrades thus hung out to dry demolishes morale among other soldiers.

Richard Holmes, a television historian and colonel of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, says that troop unrest should be blamed to some degree on weak military leaders being unwilling to fight for the needs of the armed forces. “Politicians control what senior officers say more than they did in the past,” he said. “They simply can’t say what the problems might be. Someone has to do that. … I do think there is a vacuum and it needs filling …” (Times Online,
May 21). An army needs a firm backbone and leaders willing to go to bat for its troops. Yet, the Telegraph writes, “[N]o senior officer since Adm. Sir Michael Boyce has dared speak up in defense of his servicemen and women” (op. cit.).

Soldiers also contend that accommodations are substandard, that they are being placed in harm’s way without adequate military hardware and protection leading to needless deaths and injuries, that their pensions are being undermined by a drive for economic savings, and that medical care has slipped below acceptable levels.

Clearly, the soldiers organizing this new federation have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. Yet, the question remains: Is baff good for Britain?

Consider for a moment what could happen should baff attract a large membership. It is not hard to see how it would acquire political weight, which—regardless of present denials—could be used to influence decision makers.

One could argue that this would produce positive results—but consider the implications of having a fighting force in the habit of revolting against its leadership, using public protests as a means of pressuring leaders to make changes that suit its own interests. If you don’t think this could lead to troops demonstrating in the streets, think again: This very thing happened in Germany with its army federation, the Bundeswehrverband. Like baff, the Bundeswehrverband represents soldiers in legal questions concerning their military service and social rights, along the lines of a trade union. When annoyed with a German government decision to cut 1999 defense spending, the group mobilized itself—taking the protest into the streets—to lobby for an increase in German defense expenditures.

In the end, baff is a political tool that has the potential to heavily influence the future fighting capability, heart and mind of the British armed forces. At the same time, its creation exposes the problems that are festering between weak, inept civilian and military leaders and unhappy soldiers. As the Prophet Isaiah expressed it, “ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint” (Isaiah 1:5).

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