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Lessons to be learnt before the next war

07 November 2014

ONE of the most disturbing letters I have ever received was from an engineer who worked on one of the much criticised military vehicles designed for use in Afghanistan.

He told of being shouted at by MOD officials, of the chaos of working in an environment where the pressure to cut costs was at odds with the need for ever higher levels of safety, for failures in training soldiers to use the vehicles properly on difficult terrain.

Now that the Union flag has been lowered over Camp Bastion, the post-mortems over our 13-year war in Afghanistan have begun in earnest. Recriminations fly in all directions.

There are those, of course, who argue that we should never have been there at all, either because we had no hope of winning, or because it was not our business to get involved. Matthew Paris, writing in The Times, rages at the politicians and establishment figures who, in their post-imperial pride, thought that with a mere few thousand men they could tame a region that defeated the entire Soviet Army.

He has a point. Even if one believes that the British mission was worth while in principle, there have been deeply worrying criticisms from those who tried to make it work.

Soldiers in the field need to know that they are supported. They need to have a sense that they are genuinely risking their lives for Queen and country. Instead, all too often they were made to feel that they were being controlled by civil servants, vulnerable to the incompetencies of far-away bureaucrats and to the changing priorities of politicians, who seem always to be more preoccupied by the 24-hour news cycle than by saving soldiers' lives.

When I was a vicar in central Cambridge, the East Anglian regiment returned from Afghanistan and paraded in the Market Square. I was struck by how terribly young most of the men were. There was an awful vulnerability about the young harrowed faces, which made one want to weep. The campaign ended with 453 dead, and more than 600 with what are euphemistically known as life-changing injuries.

If there is a case for re-examining whether or not the war in Afghanistan was justified, there is also a case for looking at the relationship between the military on the ground and a Defence Ministry which was clearly dysfunctional for much of the time.

The armed services belong to the nation, not just to the government of the day. They deserved better. 

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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