Out of Iraq – but will army ever recover?

Thursday Dec 18

Out of Iraq – but will army ever recover?


Gordon Brown in Iraq, where he said UK troops would leave by July Picture: Getty Images

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By Tanya Thompson
IT WAS never a war that would capture the hearts and minds of the British public, or of the brave men and women who have risked their lives for the cause in Iraq. Fought on foreign soil, with an ambiguous set of goals, it was never going to muster the patriotism witnessed during the Second World War.
Yesterday, in a historic statement made in Baghdad, Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, said our military personnel had "completed their tasks" and would be out of the country by July next year. All operations, including patrols, will end in May and security in the Basra region will be handed over to US forces.

His pledge heralds the end of a six-year campaign that has cost the lives of 178 British service personnel – and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – leaving veterans to reflect on the lasting damage caused to the armed services by fighting such an unpopular war.

Regarded by critics as the most shameful episode in modern British history, it was described last month by Lord Bingham, until recently the UK's most senior law lord, as a "serious violation of international law" and a humiliating fiasco for the invading powers.

So, what of the long-term damage to the British Army from our travails in Iraq? Clive Fairweather, a former lieutenant-colonel in the SAS, has deep concerns about the impact on morale, and retention, within our armed forces. After numerous tours of duty all over the world, he cannot recall another conflict in which personnel have been at a loss as to what they were fighting for.

He said: "We knew why we were in Northern Ireland, we knew why we were in Korea and the Falklands. But after the regime change, when you kicked out Saddam and there were no weapons of mass destruction, you had six years of scratching your head thinking, 'what are we doing here?'

"The plus side is that the army has learned how to deploy in harsh conditions and how to use modern technology. But there are huge costs. This has been an open-ended commitment and it has had a huge effect on marriages and on the mental health of soldiers.

"Successive governments have gone to the well too often, and if they want to be involved in conflicts on that scale, they will have to have a bigger army, and that's not something that will happen overnight."

Former servicemen and women continue to pay the price, suffering psychological trauma after harrowing tours in combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. About 8,000 veterans across the UK are receiving treatment from the charity Combat Stress; more than 140 of them are veterans of the current conflict in Iraq. Hollybush House, in Ayrshire, is one of three centres run by the charity.

With back-to-back tours of duty for many soldiers, Mr Fairweather fears for the future of the army. He believes politicians have to learn that, if they are going to embark on a war of this magnitude, they simply have to invest.

Worryingly, he has seen the "backbone" of the army lured away to private security work, after years of serving Queen and country. "They have traded their experience in Iraq for private security work, where they get better paid, with less time away from home," he said.

"The lasting damage is for retention, because we will have lost far more experienced junior leaders that are the future; they have quietly walked away."

While military leaders and politicians presented a united front during previous conflicts, this was a war that saw deep divisions come to the fore.

In November last year, a leaked internal report from General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, voiced concern about poor morale among troops and the strain placed on resources by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. An internal survey of views at all ranks of the army prompted him to stress the need for improvements in accommodation, pay and medical services.

Sir Richard said troops felt "devalued, angry and suffering from Iraq fatigue", and he claimed the "military covenant is clearly out of kilter". The military covenant states that British soldiers should always expect their commanders and the nation to treat them fairly, and to value and respect them as individuals.

The treatment of our troops was brought into sharp focus earlier this year by the author Frederick Forsyth at the launch of the interim report of the Military Covenant Commission. The report warned that the relationship between government, society and the armed forces was "under serious and unprecedented strain" because of complaints over accommodation, healthcare, leave and military overstretch. Forsyth said the treatment of servicemen and women was "inadequate" in virtually every respect.

While at the end of the Second World War, politicians promised a land "fit for heroes", today, government ministers are forced to quietly usher in legislation to stop people abusing and discriminating against British servicemen and women. Numerous examples of negative attitudes towards troops in uniform have been cited in recent years, including an army officer refused entry to Harrods when he arrived in uniform after a Remembrance Day ceremony.

Nor do soldiers enjoy anything like the compensation given to civilians, despite the risks they face on a daily basis. This disparity was graphically illustrated by the award of only £152,000 to paratrooper Ben Parkinson, who lost both legs after being blown up by a landmine in Afghanistan. His payout was pitiful compared with the £484,000 awarded to an RAF typist who developed repetitive strain injury in her thumb.

In the United States, troops have always enjoyed an honoured place in society. They are cheered in the street and given priority in queues and on public transport. The British public's failure to show the same appreciation for our veterans of Iraq – whatever the rights and wrongs of their deployment – is something servicemen find hard to stomach.

Andy Black, who served in the first Gulf war, believes Iraq has left the armed forces damaged. "The government is not showing its appreciation and that creates a knock-on effect with the public.

"When you sign up for the army you know there's a chance you won't come back. Everyone knows that, but it's galling when you return and nobody is interested in what you've been through. If you're a soldier in the States, you come back to a ticker-tape parade. You just never see that kind of appreciation in this country," he said.

IN NUMBERS

6
years British forces spent in Iraq

178
British servicemen killed in Iraq

136
British deaths as a result of hostile action

42
deaths as a result of illness, non-combat injuries or accidents or pending the outcome of an investigation

4,100
British troops in Iraq

200 to 300
military advisers likely to remain in place to help the Iraqi government deal with continuing insurgency and terrorism

25,000
civilians killed since the invasion, according to a study by a non-governmental organisation

100
civilians a day killed in violence in Iraq, according to the United Nations

30,000
extra troops sent to Iraq from the United States in 2007, as commanders tried a military "surge" to stamp out resistance

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