The British Army is Officially Out of the War Business Until Further Notice

In the news today an announcement that families of servicemen killed in Iraq may under the Human Rights Act sue the Ministry of Defence for damages. Call it the apotheosis of post-heroic warfare. Call it reason number 359 why Britain’s participation in the European Convention on Human Rights (the alleged contravention of article 2 of which is the basis of these claims) is among the stupidest and most self-defeating acts of policy in a long while. Call it what you want.

Susan Smith, mother of Private Phillip Hewitt, killed when his Snatch Land Rover was blown up in Iraq in 2005, called it ‘absolutely brilliant’. Moreover, she continued, ‘It’s really important because now they (the soldiers) can’t just be out there with no equipment… As an employer they (the MoD) have got to make sure they’re safe at work, which should have be happening from day one.’ I really feel for the families of those soldiers who are killed while doing their duty. But if that is the legal regime that the Army must work under then you might as well disband it now.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that society does owe a duty of care to towards those who volunteer to put their lives in harm’s way on its behalf. I like the way Colin Powell, who has said very many smart things about war and society, put it in an interview almost 20 years ago now:

They’re [the American people] prepared to take casualties. And even if they see them on live television it will make them madder. Even if they see them on live television, as long as they believe it’s for a solid purpose and for a cause that’s understandable and for a cause that has something to do with an interest of ours. They will not understand it if it can’t be explained, which is the point I have made consistently over the years. If you can’t explain it to the parents who are sending their kids, you’d better think twice about it.[1]

But the test that this ruling establishes is effectively unsurpassable. It is a pacifist charter and, I suspect, makes war undoable on the ground. The Supreme Court’s judgment on this matter reflects what seems to me a quite profound problem. A few years ago in a subtle inversion of the ‘parent test’ the London School of Economics professor Christopher Coker observed in a pointed essay on ‘The Unhappy Warrior’ that a society which fights postheroically will struggle to invest the death of its soldiers with the force of free sacrifice and deprive it of nobility. Even more, a soldier whose sacrifice cannot be reconciled by his own parents as other than a waste of life will find the risk of his or her own life difficult to find meaningful.

So no more of this ancient guff:

Except in the movies, of course. Henceforth, one presumes, it is this sort of war which will meet the accepted level of health and safety provision:

It’s a reminder that the ongoing dronification of warfare is a product as much of social forces as it is technological ones. Probably the really fundamental issue here is the failure of policy, attempting to use military force to achieve things that are unachievable by military force, thus rendering the present wars strategically meaningless. But there’s also something disgraceful and ironically unhuman about the direction that the European Convention on Human Rights is pushing the actual practice of war. I’m sure it is unintended and those involved are well-meaning. But it’s just not really thought through.


[1] From a 1996 interview by Barrie Dunsmore in ‘Live from the Battlefield’, in Pippa Norris (ed.), Politics and the Press: The News Media and Their Influences (London: Lynne Reiner, 1997), p. 261.

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15 thoughts on “The British Army is Officially Out of the War Business Until Further Notice

  1. Quintin says:

    Hi David,

    I share your dismay at this news: not only for the reasons that you’ve highlighted, but also for my disappointment in the performance of the MoD’s legal team. I would like to highlight one example:

    The Supreme Court accepted one of the plaintiff’s arguments that the MoD had neglected its duty as employer by not offering tank recognition training to a Challenger II crew who had shot out another Challenger II. The tragedy of this blue-on-blue incident aside, (that is: on clinical analysis), of the crew of this AFV, the commander and the gunner were both viewing the same target picture since they share the same sighting system (it is of course an entirely different matter if both had actually seen the other vehicle – but that is a question of personal accountability). Of these two crew members, how many years experience do they collectively have of working with the Challenger II – training in it, maintaining it, sitting in its shadow, taking photos of it, showing those photos to family and friends, arguing the merits of the vehicle, and so on, and so forth? These guys live for (and in) their machines and it is not exactly as if they are simply plucked off the streets, press-ganged into tank crews and rushed off to the front – their training takes a considerable amount of time… and the chances are that any Challenger II crew member may see one or two of these vehicles during the course of such training. My point is – if the other Challenger II was parked on flat, open terrain, and this crew could not recognise it for what it was… then no amount of vehicle recognition training will correct that. I’m sorry – for the crew of the other Challenger, as well as the one that shot it out – but this was about the Fog of War… not about vehicle recognition. Of course, the plaintiff legal team would like to argue that Clausewitz was wrong: that there is no Fog of War; that in the heat of battle, everything is crystal clear and everybody is cool, calm and collected. Regrettably, they are ill equipped to argue against Clausewitz. This Challenger II crew did not recognise the other AFV, because it was not humanly possible to do so. Now we can argue about whether the crew should have taken the shot under such circumstances and once again, such arguments point at personal accountability; but to charge the MoD for not providing Challenger II recognition training to Challenger II crews is in my opinion, the height of insanity.

  2. John says:

    Probably the really fundamental issue here is the failure of policy, attempting to use military force to achieve things that are unachievable by military force, thus rendering the present wars strategically meaningless.

    The technology promises bloodless military operations (for the employing force) but fails to compensate for the many factors that frustrate policy, not least the social and legal contexts.

  3. Patrick says:

    I don’t see this as putting anyone out of the war business, but I do see this as an extension of what Martin Shaw described in his book on risk transfer war. There will always be enough reasons to go to war, but now there could be less of a reason, in fact legislated, to expose one’s own servicemen to the risks. “Dronification” notwithstanding, the extension of this this thought process will be to identify the means most likely not to expose service members and most likely to expose civilians to harm.

  4. Patrick, it means that nothing will be done if there is potential loss of life, since they can be sued for allowing the soldier to go into harm’s way. Has there been any operation in war in which all factors were known and risk was eliminated?

  5. Edward Bear says:

    After seeing some of the “health and safety” idiocies being committed in Great Britain over he past few years, I began to think a couple of moderately brassed off elderly nuns could conquer the place.

    Threshold has dropped to ONE.

  6. Pingback: Supreme court MoD ruling 'will have huge impact on military operations' - Page 2

  7. Reminded of this in a subsequent argument about this topic/article on twitter – Stuart Tootal’s book Danger Close has a quite fascinating rant from the paratrooper’s perspective about body armour requirements from the MoD. In a nutshell he said that paras hate being overladen, and dislike the full kit they were now required to wear. For them, speed was more important than all-round protection.

    Mind you, the same could be said of the US personnel in Bowden’s Black Hawk Down who took to wearing only the front-facing ceramic plate on their body armour.

    • Chirality says:

      Tootal’s sentiment eminds me of the excellent piece by Maj Steve Miller in the BAR on the failing U.K. strategy in Afghanistan.

      “…Even as the Army renders itself more and more immobile with heavier vehicles and infantrymen weighing as much as a medieval knight, still the fantasy of the “manoeuvrist approach” is peddled in staff courses”…”There is nothing manoeuvrist about weeks of petty, attritional fire fights within a few kilometres radius of a Forward Operating Base. The reason for all this is clear – zero casualties has become the tacit assumption behind operations.”

      Perhaps Sir Peter Wall’s very recent comments on the increasing aversion to risk over the course of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns, and the need of the public, politicians and armed forces to recalibrate tolerances to risk in future conflicts, signals an effort being made post the recent Supreme Court ruling?

      As Frederick Russell-Burnham, of Boer war fame wrote, ‘As far as we can look back into history, the downfall of any nation can be traced from the moment that nation became timid about spending its best blood.’

  8. El Sid says:

    It is a pacifist charter and, I suspect, makes war undoable on the ground.

    Hmm – not quite what is implied by the following, just before the conclusion :

    ‘…it is of paramount importance that the work that the armed forces do in the national interest should not be impeded by having to prepare for or conduct active operations against the enemy under the threat of litigation if things should go wrong.’

  9. blowthebloodydooroff says:

    As a serving member of HM Armed Forces I am struggling with this decision. On the one hand I am pleased for the families; on the other, dismay for our corporate and professional future.

    We all accept the risks of our trade. In fact the risk is what gives us life; makes us different to bankers, shop keepers, tradesmen – dare I even suggest Academics? I vividly recall flying just a very few feet off the ground in a Chinook, in Helmand, at great speed and at great risk from collision with the ground and RPG from the Taliban. We had to get somewhere fast – the life of someone I never knew depended upon it. But it didn’t matter that I never knew him – he wore the same uniform as me. That was enough. I recall feeling more alive at that moment – excitement coursing through my veins, heart pumping – than at any other time. Its why I joined, its what I am, its why I put my uniform on with pride.

    But that pride and that willingness to take risk has been horribly abused by our political class for years. Matt Cavanagh wrote in the RUSI Journal that Blair, used to civil servants saying ‘no’ did not know how to cope with senior generals who said ‘yes’; never questioned them deeply enough, was perhaps blinded by their bling and ‘can do’ approach. Its not just Blair of course – all politicians love what the military can do for them, for their statesmen like image, but they never really want to pay for it. The UK Armed Forces have had to become masters of ‘doing it on the the cheap’. I sometimes wonder just how good our Armed Forces would be if we had the resource of the US – dammit, I know. We would be the best in the world.

    So the Supreme Court has delivered a ruling that will hurt the Armed Forces. It will allow more health and safety; more rules and regulations; more bureaucracy. These will stifle us, deprive us of the oxygen to complete the job and erode the will to contemplate it. The families will benefit but it is a pyrrhic victory. In the long term we will lose out, as we always do to the vanity and hubris of politicians and senior officers.

  10. Von Luck says:

    You know, initially I had a similar view about this, but reading into it, I don’t think its the end of the fighting edge in the BA. The key part of the judgement ran something akin to the MoD is ‘responsible for taking reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of its personnel.’ It also said that this libaility could not be applied to policy or tactical decisions. So therefore it is primarily aimed at planners and logisticians in the MoD, holding them to account if they make the serious error of deploying troops with dangerously obsolete equipment that endangers their safety. As a former infanteer, I don’t have a problem with that; its better than getting your balls blown off in a Snatch outside Basra because someone didn’t think of front-loading more Warriors…. plus it may actually help procurement… ;-)

  11. Pericles says:

    The main point here is surely to provide recourse for families when the military fails to evolve sufficiently quickly for the war they’re actually engaged in. As the last poster commented, I have no issue with that. The move to reduce risk to the common soldier in the British Army after all began in the First World War, when tin helmets replaced caps and the EU was not even a glimmer in anybody’s eye. Therefore this should logically be seen as evolution, not the end of history. However I would argue that there are two further factors which are really separate parts of the debate:

    (1) The wars we are currently in look like strategic disasters. There are plenty of tactical and operational successes within them, and many displays of skill and professionalism. However the Western public, for very good reasons, has no appetite for prolonged, expensive, non-existential small wars.

    (2) Risk management, as already noted above, can left unchecked produce new contradictions of its own, of which the most obvious is the need to balance protection against the need to retain fire & movement. This has been the challenge behind every design of tank or armoured personnel carrier for example since 1916 (hence again why this is evolution, not revolution). The armed forces will periodically get this wrong, but existential conflict has a habit of then imposing corrections of its own, or causing them to cut corners anyway just to win (witness the Soviet soldiers clinging to the outside hull of their tanks by handles during WW2 in order to transit the battlefield rapidly. No APCs for them). Non-existential warfare by contrast imposes no such pressure, so the inclination to overprotect faces no natural counter, there being no clear idea of what ‘victory’ would look like anyway.

    The issue here is not the legislation but the kind of wars that we are electing to fight, for no clear strategic purpose. The wars themselves by their nature are transforming the militaries involved, with no added help needed from legislation.

  12. A says:

    Excellent piece. I agree completely. There is an excellent fable which US Army Col David Hackworth recounted in his book:

    “Willie Lump Lump was a Private in Basic Training. One day, he went to a class and the instructor told them “”I’m SGT Slasher, and over the next few weeks I’ll be teaching you the finer points of the bayonet. The bayonet is what you use when you don’t have time or ammo to shoot an enemy; instead you simply have to stab, slash, or clobber him to death. The spirit of the bayonet… is to KILL!” PVT Lump Lump was distraught. He wrote home to his mother that they were teaching him barbaric new ways to kill people.

    Mrs. Lump Lump was equally distressed. She wasted no time in writing her congressman, Senator Dogood, to tell him of the situation. “Were not even at war,” she wrote, “so why are they teaching my boy such uncivilized ways?”

    Senator Dogood was appalled. “The bayonet!” he thought. “Isn’t this the day of the missile and the smart bomb?” He called his friend in the Pentagon, COL Yesman. “Colonel,” he asked, “I just heard that you boys are still teaching the recruits to use the bayonet in Basic Training. That seems rather uncivilized, doesn’t it?”

    Colonel Yesman responded “You know, I was just talking to my staff about that very thing, sir. I was wondering why were wasting time on that kind of thing when we should focuse more on gender-separated and respect for others training.” COL Yesman got on the phone to the TRADOC Commander, who called all the training commanders.

    Back in Basic Training, PVT Lump Lump was getting ready for his second class with SGT Slasher when a lieutenant came walking across the field. “It’s out.” The lieutenant told the sergeant. “Out! Bayonet training is out?” goggled SGT Slasher. “Why don’t you do some sensitivity training instead?” suggested the lieutenant.

    One year later, PFC Willie Lump Lump (honor graduate of his class) was on a hill in Korea. Wave after wave of North Korean soldiers were washing around him, but Willie was calmly aiming, firing, and whittling away their numbers. Unfortunately, when he went to change magazines, he realized that his pouches were empty and he was out of ammo. He looked up and saw more Koreans running up his hill, and he remembered SGT Slasher’s class way back in Basic Training. Nervously he fumbled his bayonet out of its sheath and affixed it to the barrel of his rifle… but when he looked up, there was a North Korean three feet away with his own bayonet.

    Mrs. Lump Lump was at home when a soldier in his “Class A” uniform knocked on her door. “How could this happen?” she wailed. She wrote to his commnder, “How could you let my little boy die?” CPT Studly wrote back, “I’m sorry Mrs. Lump Lump, but your boy was a hero. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t trained he just wasn’t trained in how to use his bayonet.”

    Mrs. Lump Lump didn’t bother writing this time- she burst into Senator Dogood’s office, demanding “Why did you send my little boy into combat without training him properly?” The senator was aghast at such military incompetence, and promised to have a congressional inquiry into the Army’s training methodology. “

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