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
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
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.