4/29: When Casualties Come Home from War

When the casualty incident described in this piece occurred, it fell to me to tend to the unit’s “family.” Beyond the families directly affected, the rest experienced these events through my messages. They chronicle a small piece of what happens on the home-front when casualties come home. [1] These events unfold regularly in our midst, more so in the last decade of conflict, but most in the general public have no experience of this aspect of war; they should.


Reflecting upon the conflict and mayhem that has been unleashed in Iraq since the instigation of the military operations to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, there are many issues to confront the scholar. As a military historian, most fundamentally for me I never believed regime change in Iraq was a good idea. Breaking states should only be a strategy choice of last possible resort, and even then it is probably best avoided. But as the spouse of a Marine Officer my professional and intellectual opposition would be challenged by personal obligations.

I was not unfamiliar with this internal conflict between scholarly and real world obligations. In 2004, as a Fellow in their Summer Seminar in Military History, I watched the veterans among the West Point uniformed historians experiencing both cognitive dissonance as well as resonance as they confronted their intellectual material. I could tell that they were comparing their experiences with their scholarship, but I did not understand what that meant at the time. Years later, humbled by my own small experience, I have a sense of how they must have felt and thought. My hope is that this glimpse into the wider experience of war and conflict will offer a similar bit of enlightenment for others.

The vagaries of the personnel system meant that my former husband missed the first several years of OIF. He spent its first year “Stop-Moved” in Okinawa – a one year unaccompanied tour doubled at the commencement of hostilities in 2003. Then a B-Billet tour in Newport, RI, followed, because the alternation between line units and administrative jobs is relentless in the Marine Corps, no matter the state of conflict. At the first opportunity, after only two years in Newport, the Fleet Marine Force beckoned once again, specifically for Iraq. After a three months’ preparation, in January 2007, as a Major, he deployed to Iraq in command of a Military Training Team (MTT). As a training cadre the team was small, giving the families in support an intimacy and closeness that would colour the experience of the deployment. Furthermore, I was the unit Key Volunteer, which made me the point of contact between the unit/Marine Corps and the families of the serving Marines and Sailor. For the most part this meant I was responsible for providing official and correct information about the unit’s movements and activities to the families on a timely basis. Secondarily, as possible, I tried to offer some measure of additional information and support, as well as to coordinate any assistance the unit or the families might require. [2] It is the sort of responsibility that anyone not afflicted with terrific arrogance will feel that they have done inadequately.

By way of background on the context of the deployment, Fallujah in the first half of 2007 was roiling. At the time of the casualty event the Marines and the Iraqi Army battalion they were training had already seen significant and regular combat action. Their AOR, an area of the city known as the “Pizza Slice,” was particularly dangerous, with regular and daily insurgent activity. The Lieutenant Colonel commanding the Iraqi battalion was experienced and educated, having served during the Hussein regime. [3] Pragmatic and hopeful that a new start could be made for his country, he was a willing and able partner in the rebuilding of Iraq. The battalion and its training team would endure several months of sustained attacks until the insurgency broke – of its own stupidity and the civilian population’s shifted allegiance – early in the summer.

However, before that break occurred, a sniper ambush towards the end of a day’s activities took the lives of one of our Marines, and wounded two others. On the afternoon of 29 April, an element of the battalion and its trainers had been conducting a dismounted patrol of Marines and Iraqi soldiers with vehicles in support. As the last task of the patrol, they had stopped to conduct a search. With the units’ vehicles deployed along narrow and twisted streets, the dismounted elements cleared a building which had been identified as a potential insurgent base. Finding nothing in the building, as the Marines made their way to their vehicles the attack opened with precision sniper and general supporting fire.

Within short order, no more than five minutes of fighting, the three casualties were taken. The remaining 15 to 20 of minutes combat was fought as the dismounted Marines struggled to safely remove the fallen to the vehicles while those in the vehicles provided cover. Unable to safely extricate from the killing ground on their own, the timely arrival of the QRF (quick reaction force) ended the engagement. It was a close run thing, as the Marines engaged on the ground were running out of ammunition to continue their fight.

I remember the day clearly. I was probably munching bagels and driving home to Newport with my son and dog after a weekend visiting family in New York, while these events were occurring. (Yes, you do stop to note the surreal aspects of such moments.) Or maybe I was reading the Sunday New York Times, which had a story on the turning tide fighting the insurgents in Ramadi. Although the deployment was not easy, things were not terrible, and I had just returned from the annual conference for the Society for Military History conference and was energized for my research. [4] We arrived home, safe and sound. And completely oblivious.

It was later that night when the Major sent me the following email:

Do NOT say anything/tell anyone.  The worst happened.  Notifications are being made.  I’m still alive.

Brevity enhanced, rather than diminished, the impact of the news.

The identity of one of the casualties was the first detail I would receive regarding the incident. Shortly after the email arrived the phone rang. On the other end was the brother of the unit’s corpsman (Doc) who had been wounded the ambush. As awful as it was in its brevity I was now happy to have received the message. While there is no way to prepare for such things it was better not to be caught completely unaware. I spent hours on the phone with the brother that night, talking through what was happening to Doc and trying to get what information I could from the unit in Iraq. This effort was complicated by the fact that when casualty incidents happen a unit goes into communications lockdown – “River City” [5] – so as to avoid the unfortunate circumstance where rumour gets ahead of the official notification procedures of the service. Technically the Major should not have been in email contact with me. But as I was conferring with him on behalf of the family of a wounded service member, judgment and discretion were exercised to provide every support possible.

That night we settled the first round of issues and for the moment Doc’s situation was stable.


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CCLKOW: The 2% Doctrine

Dr. Hugo Rosemont is Assistant Director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King’s College, London.

This week Kings of War and CCLKOW are happy to introduce a new author to the audience and participants, with Dr. Hugo Rosemont discussing British security policy, budgets and priorities as a key part of the impending General Election. Marking something of a departure from the usual, in this case our conceptualization expands beyond defence to consider the implications for policing as well as other facets of the security machine. Although the most obvious nexus lately among these worlds is in the unfolding stories of citizens leaving to join foreign extremists, the wider universe of human and contraband smuggling, money laundering, cyber crime and other transnational “crim-sec” activity is demolishing the neat sense of separation between these state functions which had arisen under modern administrative practices. While it is folly to redefine every problem according to a security framework, it is equally dangerous to ignore the relationship among these sectors and their influence upon the broad terms of security because of bureaucratic boundaries. In governmental policy, I think Hugo is correct to identify the absence of more holistic thinking and approaches as a serious gap in thinking on security. And although the focus is, at the moment, upon the United Kingdom, with an election impending in the US next year these issues will resonate as well. So, enjoy the article, give a thought to the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW. — Jill S. Russell  


Whilst some people might look at the treatment of foreign policy, defence and security issues during the 2015 UK General Election campaign as a farce, is it not now becoming something much more akin to a tragedy? Several commentators have rightly pointed out (for example, here and here) that, with the exception of only a few issues, these topics have not featured prominently during the campaign. This is disappointing for a few reasons.

First, where it has taken place, debate in these areas has focused almost exclusively on the status of the UK political parties’ varying (non?) commitment to allocate 2% of UK GDP to defence expenditure, in line with the country’s stance on the associated NATO guideline, with a sprinkling of discussion emerging more recently on the national security credentials of party leaders, and on the prospects for renewing the country’s nuclear weapons capability. Most notably, the Prime Minister received a high profile grilling on the first issue in a BBC leadership interview last week – his performance was subsequently critiqued by many analysts, including the editor of The Spectator.

The 2% question is a critical issue and it is important that both politicians and public opinion are flushed out in particular around their level of commitment to the UK meeting the NATO guideline (full disclosure: the present author shares the belief of many people – including the 33 Members of Parliament to have signed an Early Day Motion on the issue – that the next Government should commit itself to the NATO figure). But the current, understandable emphasis on this matter is now beginning to do us all a disservice because it leaves little room for consideration of the parties’ approaches to other national security issues. In particular, it is striking how little contemplation there has been to date around some of the more eye-catching security policy ideas to have been proposed in the parties’ manifestos, and indeed on their relative silence towards some of the most urgent issues. With respect to the former, for example, why has there not been a deeper level of interest or more mainstream media attention towards such issues as:

– The Conservatives’ plan to ‘hold’ a National Security Strategy later this year

– Labour’s proposal to abolish elected Police and Crime Commissioners

– The Lib Dems’ belief that intervention is justified by a legal ‘and/or’ humanitarian case

– UKIP’s proposal to establish a new Director of National Intelligence for the UK

– The Scottish National Party’s idea that nuclear weapons are morally offensive

Second, whilst opinion will be likely to split on whether any or all of these ideas are good, bad, or even ugly, unfortunately there is an even bigger problem. It is the apparent lack of detail (consideration?) from the parties on how under their leadership – or as a result of their involvement – the next UK Government would approach such serious current issues as winning the battle of ideas underpinning the radicalization of British ‘foreign fighters’ inclined to travel to Iraq and Syria, and notably in respect of other ongoing crises in, for example, Yemen, Ukraine and Libya. Additionally, a serious connection has seemingly not yet been made by any of the leading contenders in respect of how they propose to handle what Professor Vernon Bogdanor calls ‘The Crisis of the Constitution’ and the impact that policy in this area might have on national security – including the integrity of the country, and its long-term economic prospects. Judging by the manifestos, there also appears to be an ongoing failure on the part of all parties to develop creative solutions for engaging the private sector in addressing many of the most complicated issues the UK faces, upon whom it now depends in numerous areas of national security.

Third, it is concerning that more attention has not been paid in the pre-election discussions to how the next Government should develop its overall approach to national security considered in the wider sense. In other recent election campaigns, most notably in 2010, UK voters were spoilt for choice in being provided with detailed and creative new thinking from the parties (should they want it) around how policies, structures and processes would be developed and implemented by way of a genuinely ‘joined-up’ approach to national security. There have been few such discussions this time but, happily, Charlie Edwards (the author of National Security for the Twenty-First Century, an important pamphlet that originally advanced the need for a ‘holistic’ UK national security strategy) and Calum Jeffray of the Royal United Services Institute have recently co-authored an excellent new paper that adopts such a broad perspective with its analysis on the future for research and development for security and intelligence purposes. It must be hoped that this prompts the UK security and political community into again considering alongside defence the importance of what the coalition Government has called ‘wider security’ issues. For now, it is worrying that, with the possible exception of some attention to limited aspects of police reform and the future powers for monitoring digital communications, deeper discussion on non-military security issues has been largely absent from this campaign to date.

There is clearly very limited time now before 7th May, so the emergence of a renewed emphasis on security issues might be difficult to achieve. It also has to be recognized that, in contrast to high profile proposals on domestic priorities such as health and education, it has often be observed that policies on defence, security and foreign affairs are simply not the same kind of ‘vote winners’. But a case can also be made that two straightforward changes in approach would help to improve the level and quality of the discussions. Firstly, in parallel to any ongoing scrutiny of their policies on defence, the parties could be encouraged (if not pressured) by national security journalists, academics, and any other interested parties, to clarify whether (and how specifically) they would propose to work with partners to develop and fund their approaches to non-military security risks such as terrorism, organized crime and cyber insecurity, at home and overseas. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly at this stage, all those with an interest or voice in the current UK defence funding debate should consider resisting the temptation to add further fuel to the fire on the 2% issue, as important and tempting as it is, or at least contemplate raising in the debate the merits (and importance) of discussing other proposals and obvious (often non-military) security priorities facing the UK.

The reality is that we now have a good idea of where the parties stand on the 2% defence spending issue, however satisfactory or unsatisfactory positions on this matter may be seen to be. Clearly this will need to be revisited after the Election but, in the meantime, it is imperative that answers are also now sought on how the parties would approach other pressing security concerns, including in respect of how (if?) non-military security risks would be genuinely considered in any Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) process held under their watch.

It is against this backdrop that it is hoped that the following questions will help to stimulate some more varied discussion on the future shape of UK defence and security policy in the remaining few weeks of the 2015 General Election:


1 How useful is the 2% NATO guideline as a measure of UK national security capability?

2 How much should the next Government spend on other security capabilities (e.g. cyber, counter-terrorism policing, intelligence etc.)?

3 What ‘security’ issues should/shouldn’t be covered in the 2015 SDSR?

Join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Birth Pangs of a New Order, Volume Whatever

So, to re-cap the past week or so: the two-state solution is (almost) dead (again) after Bibi’s victory in the Israeli elections, the Americans came off the sidelines in Iraq with airstrikes in support of an offensive to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, Yemen’s President has reportedly fled the country and Saudi Arabia has now launched airstrikes against the Houthi rebels, Syria has dismantled 3 chemical weapons sites, Syria stands accused of continuing to use Chlorine weapons, Canada announced that it won’t bother to ask the Syrian government before attacking ISIS, oh and nine British citizens have reportedly entered Syria to work as medics in IS hospitals.

Spot the odd one out. That didn’t stop the nine medics making the front pages, though.

What is the British government to do about British citizens that are willing to travel to Syria and support ISIS? The Guardian called this “a test for British policy” and I agree, but it is a general policy problem that any state whose citizens get involved in irregular conflicts will have to face. I had a good debate on Twitter with Shashank Joshi regarding his argument that this constituted “material support” for terrorism, although the question he was asked was slightly different to its presentation. As I see it, the problem here is that two norms are in direct conflict with one another: the idea that the British citizens shouldn’t support ISIS, and the humanitarian impulse to save lives.

The key problem with any assessment is the same as most arguments about foreign fighters: we don’t really know what they’re up to except via scraps of information and rumours spread via twitter/instagram/the internet. As I see it, however, there are three ways that they could be involved (as medics): as a standard fighter with some medical expertise, as a dedicated medic working in a battlefield role, as a medic working in a hospital or similar facility. The first case is the easiest – even under international humanitarian law medical personnel can carry a light weapon for personal protection but lose the protection of their status if they act like standard personnel. The second is perhaps the trickiest issue. A battlefield medic would be providing material support, but at the same time, although medical personnel are integral to the conduct of military operations, they are commonly protected from attack precisely because international humanitarian law seeks to preserve the ability for medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded while fighting rages. Even though debate rages about what constitutes “direct participation in hostilities” in non-international armed conflicts, this concept doesn’t include medical aid. Fundamentally, in international law there isn’t anything to prevent a person from pulling wounded people from a battlefield or tending to their wounds.

There is little doubt in my mind that the British government could figure out an argument for making it illegal to go to Syria and provide medical support for ISIS, even though this will be fundamentally a British law for British citizens. The question is, do we want to be seen to criminalise the humanitarian impulse? Will nine medical students really make much of a difference? In terms of narrative it seems a needless own-goal. If these students did go to Syria to heal people instead of kill them, the best thing the British government could do is ignore them and focus on something more important. Throw a dart at a map of the middle east, and it’ll probably land on something that should be a priority.


A Crisis in Confidence: Redefining Veterans’ Rights for a New Generation

136902061Welcome to this week’s CCLKOW discussion piece. This time, we are looking at the challenges that ex-servicemen and women face in seeking compensation for a disability, illness etc. Over the past few years, Veterans Affairs Canada has been severely criticized for failing to process claims efficiently and the closure of key offices. Legislative changes have also received widespread disapproval. However, these problems are not unique to Canada. Internationally, veterans are in the midst of redefining their relationship with the state. This process will have important implications for both the present generation of veterans and their successors in uniform. Read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

There is a crisis in veterans’ affairs. Over the past twelve months alone, Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) has come under fire for everything from failing to process disability claims promptly to the closure of nine out of thirty two offices across the country. Late last year, revelations also emerged that the department has returned nearly $1.13 billion in unspent funds to the treasury since 2006.[i] Moreover, the federal government is currently facing a class action lawsuit in connection to the New Veterans Charter (NVC). Passed in 2005, the NVC replaced existing pensions legislation. Originally praised as, ‘the most sweeping change to Veterans’ services and benefits in the past 60 years,’ it has been extensively criticized since it first came into effect.[ii] Currently in settlement talks with the government, the plaintiffs in the Equitas case claim that the NVC denies veterans access to the same level of compensation as they were entitled to under the old Pensions Act and does not meet the standards set in civil court for, ‘accidents or personal injury.’[iii] In addition, they contend that this is unconstitutional and the NVC should be repealed.

In the wake of continued turmoil, Julian Fantino was dismissed as Minister of Veterans’ Affairs earlier this year. Air force veteran and fellow Conservative MP, Erin O’Toole, replaced him. O’Toole’s appointment has been followed by a series of announcements regarding improvements in compensation for reservists and severely disabled veterans.[iv] Despite these developments, both O’Toole and Prime Minister Stephen Harper face an uphill battle. With a federal election looming, Mr. Harper is under significant pressure to address this issue. Continued problems in veterans’ affairs would reflect poorly on his government and provide his political opponents with ammunition.

Historically, the relationship between government and veterans has often proved problematic. By its very nature, the pension system is ‘adversarial.’[v] Governments have to balance the needs of veterans with the limitations of public spending. Given this consideration, pension/compensation systems have been designed with an ethos of independence and self-sufficiency in mind. Throughout the twentieth century, benefits and allowances have evolved to help rehabilitate ex-servicemen and women and assist them in rejoining the civilian workforce. Millions in Canada, the United States and other countries like the United Kingdom have benefited from legislation that grants veterans access to education, vocational training and financial assistance.[vi] However, officials have also struggled to define who should be considered a veteran in the first place and to what rights they should be entitled as a result of military service. Measuring disability has also proven exceptionally difficult. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to mental health problems, which are not directly or easily quantifiable.[vii] As a result, applying for a pension can be an infuriating process. Generations of veterans have encountered a labyrinthine bureaucracy that can be impossible to successfully navigate without assistance. Individual experiences have varied widely depending upon the nature of the veterans’ disability and the pensions’ officials that he or she encounters.

Since the first deployment of troops to Afghanistan in 2001, the Canadian public has become increasingly cognizant of the role that military personnel play and the health risks that they can run in the execution of their duty. Over the past fifteen years, the federal government has significantly revised pensions legislation and attempted to clarify the relationship between soldier and state. When the New Veterans Charter was first brought before the House of Commons in 2005, it received unanimous cross party support. At the time, Senator Roméo Dallaire described the legislation as, ‘a new social contract between the people of Canada and the new generation of veterans of the Canadian Forces.’[viii] However, the NVC has fallen well short of expectations and the government’s relationship with veterans has been damaged by recent events. There is a clear gap between what legislation is intended to do and the reality of how Veterans Affairs operates on a day-to-day basis. While many civil servants and politicians are undoubtedly well intentioned, waiting times remain excessive and the system is overly complex. Physically and mentally disabled veterans who require medical attention are poorly equipped to negotiate these obstacles.

Canadian veterans are not alone in their struggle. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is currently facing its own crisis in connection to the deliberate mismanagement and manipulation of hospital wait lists.[ix] In response, President Barack Obama recently announced the formation of an advisory group, ‘made up of public officials and leaders in the private sector,’ to help improve services.[x] Furthermore, media reports in the UK suggest that veterans still face an arduous process when applying for financial compensation.[xi] Veterans’ groups have estimated that it can take an average of over 200 working days in order to process a claim. While the MoD disputes this, officials do admit that there have been delays.[xii] They argue that these problems are largely the result of a rising number of claims and reduced staffing levels. Figures released last year, ‘show there were 36,000 new compensation claims for those injured, disabled or bereaved through service in 2013-14-an increase of around 16% from 2010-11.’[xiii] The government also contends that the 2010 Boyce review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme had, ‘diverted resources,’ and caused further delays.[xiv]

There needs to be a renewed commitment on the part of both the Canadian government and its allies to translating principles into action. Moving forward, there also needs to be greater dedication to engaging with veterans’ groups across the political spectrum in an open dialogue. As active partners, veterans can help determine the direction of future policy and revitalize efforts to make VAC a more efficient and transparent organisation. In a 2013 report issued by the Office of the Veterans’ Ombudsman, the authors rightly point out that, ‘those who serve in the Canadian Forces do so willingly, knowing that they may be injured, become ill or die as a result of their service.’[xv] They also highlight that, ‘by putting the needs of Canada and Canadians ahead of their own, they forego some of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by other citizens.’[xvi] While service personnel willingly make such sacrifices, they do so with the expectation that they will be treated fairly upon their return home. Not only is it morally right to meet these expectations, it is also vital for the military as an organisation. Recruitment is a difficult enterprise at the best of times. If the next generation is to consider the armed forces as a viable career option, they must be assured of the state’s commitment to their wellbeing. Investing in veterans is an investment in the future.

Questions for discussion include:

How should the word ‘veteran’ be defined for the purposes of government compensation and care schemes?

A multitude of veterans’ charities and organizations have been established over the past decade. Who should represent veterans in negotiating with the state?


*Poppies pinned to Canadian Military. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

[i] Mandy Kovacs, ‘Canadian veterans remain critical of government,’ Global News (28 Jan 2015), http://globalnews.ca/news/1798943/canadian-veterans-remain-critical-of-government/; David Pugliese, ‘The battle for veterans’ votes: Conservatives a target for some former military,’ Ottawa Citizen (2 Feb 2015), http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/the-battle-for-veterans-votes-conservatives-the-target-for-some-former-military; Murray Brewster, ‘Veterans Affairs handed back $1.1- billion in unspent funds: documents,’ Globe and Mail (20 Nov 2014), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/11-billion-in-unspent-funds-at-veterans-affairs-documents-show/article21665655/

[ii] Office of the Veterans Ombudsman, ‘Improving the New Veterans Charter: The Parliamentary Review,’ Government of Canada (Jan 2013), p. 3.

[iii] Kieron Lang, ‘Feds spend $694K in legal fight against veterans,’ CTVNews (28 Jan 2015), http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/feds-spent-694k-in-legal-fight-against-veterans-1.2209816; Murray Brewster, ‘Afghan vets lawsuit over benefits on hold as Tories search for settlement,’ CBC News (13 Mar 2015), http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/afghan-vets-lawsuit-over-benefits-on-hold-as-tories-search-for-settlement-1.2993572

[iv] Gloria Galloway, ‘Ottawa to announce better benefits for disabled veterans and their caregivers,’ Globe and Mail (17 Mar 2015), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/ottawa-to-announce-better-benefits-for-disabled-veterans-and-their-caregivers/article23489674/

[v] Stephen Garton, The Cost of War: Australians Return (Melbourne: OUP, 1996), p. 88.

[vi] Notes on War Pension Schemes of UK, Canada, Australia, NZ and South Africa, Sept. 1945, The National Archives at Kew (TNA): PIN 15/3069; World Veterans Federation (WVF), Social Affairs Rehabilitation, Comparative Report: Legislation Affecting Disabled Veterans and Other War Veterans WVF-DOC/830 (Paris, France: WVF, Sept. 1955), Veterans Affairs Canada—Canadian Forces Advisory Council, The Origins and Evolution of Veterans Benefits in Canada (Ottawa: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2004); Alice Aiken and Amy Buitenhuis, Supporting Canadian Veterans with Disabilities (Kingston, ON: Defence Management Studies Program, Queen’s University, 2011).

[vii] Garton, The Cost of War, pp. 167-169.

[viii] Senator Roméo Dallaire, as quoted in, Office of Veterans Ombudsman, ‘Improving the New Veterans Charter: The Parliamentary Review,’ Govt. of Canada (Jan. 2013), p. 3.

[ix] Reuters, ‘Obama administration to start new group to advise on veterans issues,’ Reuters (13 Mar 2015) http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/13/us-usa-veterans-idUSKBN0M919W20150313

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Graeme Strachan, ‘Compensate our veterans faster urges former army captain,’ Courier (16 Mar 2015), http://www.thecourier.co.uk/news/scotland/compensate-our-veterans-faster-urges-former-army-captain-1.851716

[xii] Sima Kotecha, ‘Injured veterans ‘face delays over compensation claims,’ BBC News (6 Aug 2014), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28656924; Laurence Dodds, ‘Injured veterans facing long compensation delays,’ Telegraph (7 Aug 2014), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/11017500/Injured-veterans-facing-long-compensation-delays.html

[xiii] Kotecha, ‘Injured veterans.’

[xiv] Ministry of Defence, Cm 7798: Review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (Feb 2010).

[xv] Office of Veterans Ombudsman, ‘Improving the New Veterans Charter: The Parliamentary Review,’ Govt. of Canada (Jan. 2013), p. 6.

[xvi] Ibid.


Colonel Panter-Downes: Tending One’s Bureaucratic Garden

Greeting’s readers. For this week’s professional discussion we have a piece from our Colonel thinking about how to tend the military bureaucracies. Often derided for the inanity of the extremes, it must be admitted that but for these internal organizing principles and apparatuses large and complex institutions like the armed forces would exceed human administration. Thus, evil though it might perpetuate, the bureaucracy also means that things really do get done rather than collapsing under the weight of every detail. The challenge is in discriminating such that you preserve the good and manage the bad, identify the flab while maintaining the muscle.  So, read the piece, consider the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


I enjoy gardening. There is something both satisfying and therapeutic about working with nature in the pursuit of growth.  I would not however say that I am a good gardener; in fact my gardening skills have been described as somewhat apocalyptic. In an attempt to improve my green fingered skills I often listen in to BBC Radio’s “Gardeners’ Question Time” a thoroughly British institution. A hardy perennial on this show is the subject of pruning which is often necessary to encourage new growth, and it is with the subject of pruning in mind that my thoughts turned to that of military bureaucracy.

It is a given in every military that military bureaucracy is bad and needs pruning.  The former might or might not be the case but the latter is definitely true.  There is a lot of dead bureaucracy out there, bureaucracy that has served its purpose and is no longer required.  This needs cut back to focus on the essential bureaucracy, for bureaucracy is essential.  Now my well thumbed copy of Charles Handy’s “Understanding Organisations” (an excellent book, every field grade officer should own it) uses German sociologist’s Max Weber’s definition of a bureaucracy as:

  1. A division of labour in which authority and responsibility is clearly defined for each member, and is officially sanctioned.
  2. Offices or positions are organized into a hierarchy of authority resulting in a chain of command.
  3. All organisational members are to be selected on the basis of technical qualifications through formal examinations or by virtue of training and education.
  4. Officials are to be appointed, not elected.
  5. Administrators work for fixed salaries and are career officers.
  6. The administrative official does not own the administered unit but is a salaried official.
  7. The administrator is subject to strict rules, discipline, and controls regarding the official duties.

From this definition it is very clear that we, the military, are indeed a bureaucracy (whether we like it or not). What I want to talk about however, is the manifestation of bureaucracy in the rules, regulations, requirements and paperwork peculiar to our institutions.

The intent of a bureaucratic structure is to enable an organisation to function effectively and efficiently.  Bureaucracy, the manifestation of a bureaucratic structure, is supposed to be the oil that lubricates the cogs of power, not the grit that jams the gearing.  All too often however the means (a bureaucracy) becomes the end; in the British Army we refer to this state as a “self-licking lollipop”. The same is often perceived as true for the forms in which bureaucracy takes, the process seems to become an end in itself.  Yet all those rules, regulations and paperwork we chafe at serve a purpose, or did so at one time.  Where that purpose is redundant the bureaucracy has become dead bureaucracy, the purpose is dead but the process remains; like old growth it too needs pruning.

As a rough bureaucratic gardener’s rule of thumb the more bureaucracy irritates us the greater the requirement for pruning. We chafe most against those elements whose purpose we cannot discern, or whose utility we see as peripheral (at best) to operational output. Few chafe at the requirement to sit a driving test and hold a driving license before driving.  Furthermore that which we chafe against reveals much about our organisation. Bureaucracy is supposed to enable the effective and efficient functioning of the organisation, it assists in minimizing risk; but what kind of risk and risk to whom? Bureaucracy can be a window to the soul of the organisation exposing what is acceptable and what is not, where risk is tolerated and where not.  It can tell us uncomfortable truths about who we are.

In thinking down this path I was struck by elements on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the UK leave for field grade officers and above is self-certified.  For those below field grade an application is made to the chain of command which simply states when you want leave and where you will be spending it.  Here in the US the following are required:  Leave Pass request sheet, Hard Copy DA 31, Leave and Earnings Statement (LES), Travel Risk Planning System (TRiPS) completed and a detailed Travel Plan, Privately Operated Vehicle (POV) inspection certificate (is your car safe to drive), flight itinerary (as applicable), and the AKO MEDPROS printout.  It seems to me a little excessive and I was surprised that anyone let alone field grades, was required to complete this.  Presumably if you have commanded a company or a battalion you can be trusted to plan your leave or does mission command only apply in the field?  In this instance the bureaucracy in camp seems at odds with the command ethos in the field.  Now I can understand the purpose of this bureaucratic requirement, but does one size fit all? What mechanism exists for pruning back this when it is no longer relevant?  When I think of my experience of the US Army’s bureaucracy I think of “bureaucracy by attrition”. It tells me that this is an organisation that does not welcome people “stepping out of lane”; its manifestation and ethos seems at odds with the Army Operating Concept.

Much of the UK bureaucracy that I find irksome, owes as much in my opinion to minimising political and reputational risk as it does to operational effectiveness.  I understand the requirement to maintain an operational training record of all training a soldier receives prior to deployment. I cannot help but feel however, that the bureaucracy that now surrounds this requirement owes more to providing an audit trail in the event of an inquest than it does to ensuring that soldiers are sufficiently trained to deploy. The amount of bureaucracy seems excessive to the (operational) value gained, but guards reputational risk (we train our soldiers effectively) and minimizes political risk (training was resourced correctly).   Likewise I was struck by the bureaucracy regarding working with Personally Identifiable Information (PII).  Successive UK governments have been embarrassed by the loss of PII by different government departments (including the Ministry of Defence).  Naturally this has resulted in a regime to enforce best practice and accountability.  But again, the handling of PII has been normalized, we know how to do it, The annual training and certification programme now seems excessive  to the requirement and indicates the absence of risk tolerance in this area.  It seems to me that the UK bureaucratic emphasis indicates acute political sensitivity and a focus on minimizing (organisational) reputational risk.

We military personnel are largely bureaucrats in a bureaucratic organisation.  We should acknowledge and embrace this, because it is only by doing this that we can recognise the impacts of our bureaucracy on our organisations for good and for ill.  To parody Clausewitz  “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the leader has to make is to establish . . . the kind of ethos on which they are embarking and the bureaucracy to support it.”


So my questions for this week are simple:

What does your bureaucracy tell you about your organisation?

What would you prune?

Where would you encourage new growth?


Veterans, Victims and the ‘Culture of Trauma’*

Welcome to this week’s CCLKOW discussion piece. This time, we are looking at the portrayal and perception of military veterans in the UK and other western countries. In short, veterans are frequently characterised as ‘victims,’ in the media and by the public at large. Moreover, there is increasing concern that they will experience long-term mental health problems in the wake of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. However, veterans are a far more heterogeneous and resilient group than reports seem to indicate. Read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW

In the last few years, media reports have suggested that there are an alarming number of British veterans experiencing service-related psychological problems. Commentators have argued that an increasing pool of ex-servicemen and women are falling through the cracks. As operations in Afghanistan have come to a close, numerous authors have expressed the fear that a record number of veterans will present with mental health problems like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) in the near future.[i] The debate over how best to address their needs and foster a supportive environment for these men and women has become highly politicised. In the process, the veteran has become a hotly contested figure. The popular portrayal of military veterans in the UK and other western countries has only served to further complicate this dialogue.

There is a growing and widespread perception amongst the media and public alike that war is a universally traumatising event and veterans, without exception will be damaged by their experiences. Beginning in 2011, Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft conducted a study to evaluate public opinion of the British Armed Forces. Amongst his chief findings, he reported that, ‘in our poll of the UK public, more than nine out of ten thought it was common for those leaving the Force to have “some kind of physical, emotional or mental problem” as a result of their time in the military; more than a third (34%) thought it was “very common” for this to be the case.’[ii] In a recent article, journalist Max Hastings has also pointed out that, ‘those who have participated in wars are widely perceived not as protagonists…but instead as victims.’[iii] Popular television shows of the past decade frequently depict veterans as broken individuals who can lash out violently at those around them. They are characterised as ‘ticking time bombs,’ who will inevitably experience difficulties in processing their experiences.[iv]

This image is further reinforced when the war in question is unpopular. As historian Helen McCartney has underlined, ‘much of the UK newspaper coverage of the armed forces depicts service personnel as victims, either of failed strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan or of government underspending or MoD incompetence.’[v] In the United States, retired four star General Jim Mattis has also publicly criticized news outlets and politicians for helping, ‘fuel [the] perception that most or all…veterans come back from war traumatized.’[vi] Mattis is but one of many voices within the wider community of American veterans who have expressed concern over public perception.[vii]

On both sides of the Atlantic, the black and white picture that has been presented does not accurately reflect the complexity of the issue at hand and lacks a great deal of nuance. According to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, ‘contrary to many people’s expectations, deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to an overall increase in mental health problems among UK personnel.’[viii] The authors estimated that only around 1.3% to 4.8% of UK Regulars returning from deployment exhibited symptoms of probable PTSD.[ix] Recent reports also indicate that rates of suicide are lower within the military than in the civilian population.[x] In general, veterans who have deployed on more than one occasion are less likely to suffer from ‘subsequent mental health problems.’[xi] Around 18,000 service personnel are discharged from the British Armed Forces every year. While little research has been done on service leavers in the UK, the American literature suggests that, ‘military service for most people, has a positive effect on…life trajectory.’[xii]

There will be those veterans who experience psychological difficulties as a result of their service and will require help in processing their experiences and adjusting to civilian life. Scholars have identified several groups (e.g. combat veterans, reservists) as at higher risk for mental health problems.[xiii] These veterans and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the attention that they require. Be that as it may, the present paradigm of the veteran as victim fails to acknowledge the range of human experience in relation to trauma. Not all veterans are damaged by their experiences of war. Acknowledging this resilience does not trivialize or delegitimize individual suffering. On the contrary, it simply recognizes the complexities of how human beings react to stressful or traumatic events and the difficulties inherent in trying to neatly categorise people into boxes.

Over the next decade, the UK and its allies will undoubtedly continue to face challenges in caring for and adequately addressing the needs of a new generation of veterans. There is evidence to suggest that stigma remains a barrier to those who might wish to seek professional help.[xiv] Furthermore, the military footprint is shrinking in response to cuts in manpower. Consequently, fewer members of the public have ties to those in uniform. There is also a need to continue improving the options available to veterans and their families in connection to services like counseling.[xv] However, this process should not be informed by extreme stereotypes but by a well-rounded and realistic picture of the veteran population. The public should be encouraged to see veterans as they would see themselves, as human beings with challenges to face and reserves of strength upon which to draw. Like civilians, service personnel and veterans struggle with addiction, depression and many other disorders. Equally, they can recover and/or live with those disorders and still have much to offer society. Moreover, they frequently exhibit a remarkable resilience that should be recognized and celebrated.

So the questions for this week are:

Does public perception help or hinder the recovery of veterans who have experienced trauma?

How should the media portray veterans in order to more accurately reflect their experiences?

Is it possible to effectively ‘support the soldier’ without supporting the cause for which they fight?


*’Culture of trauma’ is a phrase that appears to have been coined by Ben Shephard, War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 385.

[i] Sima Kotecha, ‘Care for UK Military Veterans is “Flawed,” Medical Experts Say,’ BBC News, 29 Oct 2014.

[ii] Lord Ashcroft, ‘The Armed Forces & Society: The military in Britain—through the eyes of Service personnel, employers, and the public’ (May 2012), p. 15.

[iii] Max Hastings, ‘Veterans and Mental Health in Contemporary Britain,’ Royal United Services Institute Journal 159, No. 6 (Dec 2014), p. 36.

[iv] Ben Farmer, ‘Army recruitment could be hit by charities portraying troops as victims,’ Telegraph (25 Dec 2013), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10531300/Army-recruitment-could-be-hit-by-charities-portraying-troops-as-victims.html.

[v] Helen McCartney, ‘The military covenant and the civil-military contract in Britain,’ International Affairs 86, No. 2 (2010), p. 424.

[vi] General Jim Mattis, as quoted in, Jim Michaels, ‘Mattis: Veterans are not victims,’ USA Today (5 May 2014), http://www.usatoday.com/story/nation/2014/05/05/mattis-iraq-afghanistan-marines-usmc/8632093/.

[vii] David Morris, ‘Surviving War Doesn’t Turn All Veterans into Victims, Sometimes it Helps Them Grow,’ The Daily Beast (18 May 2014), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/18/surviving-war-doesn-t-turn-all-veterans-into-victims-sometimes-it-helps-them-grow.html; Dave Philipps, ‘Coming Home to Damaging Stereotypes,’ New York Times (5 Feb 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/us/a-veteran-works-to-break-the-broken-hero-stereotype.html?_r=0

[viii] Deirdre MacManus, N Jones, S Wessely, NT Fear, E Jones, N Greenberg, ‘The mental health of the UK Armed Forces in the 21st century: resilience in the face of adversity,’ J R Army Med Corps 0 (2014), p. 1.

[ix] Ibid., p. 2.

[x] MoD, ‘Suicide and Open Verdict Deaths in the UK Regular Armed Forces 1985-2013,’ 27 March 2014; ‘Myth Busters,’ Combat Stress (2015), http://www.combatstress.org.uk/veterans/myth-busters/#VeteransAndSuicide

[xi] James Gallagher, ‘”Violence Risk” after Military Tours,’ BBC News, 15 March 2013.

[xii] Amy Iverson, Vasilis Nikolaou, Neil Greenberg, Catherine Unwin, Lisa Hull, Mathew Hotopf, Christopher Dandeker, John Ross and Simon Wessely, ‘What happens to British veterans when they leave the armed forces?,’ European Journal of Public Health 15, No. 2 (2005), pp. 175-184.

[xiii] MacManus, N Jones, Wessely, NT Fear, E Jones, Greenberg, ‘The mental health of the UK Armed Forces in the 21st century,’ p. 1.

[xiv] Amy C Iverson, Lauren van Staden, Jamie Hacker Hughes, Neil Greenberg, Matthew Hotopf, Roberto J Rona, Graham Thornicroft, Simon Wessely, and Nicola T Fear, ‘The stigma of mental health problems and other barriers to care in the UK Armed Forces,’ BioMed Central Health Services Research 11 (2011), pp. 1-10.

[xv] MoD, ‘Annual Medical Discharges in the UK Regular Armed Forces 2009/10-2013/14,’ 10 July 2014.


Hybrid War (or hypercompetition….)

A while ago – I lose track of when – I wrote about something on KoW which I’d clumsily called hypercompetition. I don’t claim anything particularly original about the notion, but I heard it blaring out of my radio last week under the guise of something now called hybrid war. 

The problem of the conspiracy theory accusations or difficulties with hypercompetition seem to have been politically overcome with the perception of threat provided by Russia in Ukraine. Prior to this a notion that Russian funding of things of influence might be problematic was bracketed under the heading of ‘conspiracy theory’. Money likes to travel.. and in this globalised world money is colour blind.. let it come from wherever it comes. That sort of thing. And it’s not to pick on the Russian money, certainly not in the way I think about this hybridity or hypercompetition. It strikes me that there is rather a large number of states and significant networks of influence leveraging influence.

There are several underpinning follow-on questions:

1) Is this is a paranoid view of the world? Does it too close to conspiracy theory? Two responses: 1) a wise friend of mine noted that all IR theories are merely a myopia or conspiracy built upon the exponent’s preferences. So, this is merely a dissenting voice. As those mainstream conceptions were when they were mooted.

2) Is Western Europe just really bad at this form of warfare or influence? Following media reportage, it would appear that we’re under siege from many external sources. That we’re the timid supplicant… flotsam bounced around by nasty ‘forren’ types. I’m not convinced we’re bad at the prosecution of this kind of activity – afterall, if 500 years of imperialism hasn’t taught us something we should give up and cower at home. However, we seem very bad at countering it at home. Part of this might be the Bronwen Jones line of the coloniser being eventually colonised, but I think our weakness and vulnerability actually stems from the near universal acceptance of a narrative that, for instance, says that third country investment in our core infrastructure is ‘just the market’ rather than representing something political. Afterall, the restrictive rules on FDI in other countries means that we’re not aligned to a brand of universal thought on this. The underfunding of European universities – for example – means that the sector arguably has taken to servicing global elites and seeking out international (non-EU) money (from all sorts of places) that helps to tailor intellectual agendas and allows for foreign-domestic political debates/fights to be had on EU soil, away from the more problematic political environments of those students. This is the sort of political activity that gave European governments the creeps in the 1920s, and whilst the positive externalities of internationalisation are clear to those who work in universities – as anyone engaged in Horizon2020 funding, or in finding research partners in the US will tell you – there is a potential darker side that administrators seem unkeen to think about. Whether these networks pose a risk or not would require the right question, the right data and fine judgments. And of course it might be that we are fine exponents of exporting our own norms…

So, should we be worried about this hybridity as it pertains to Russia. Well, Russian money has traveled, and London’s housing market is partly inflated and propped up by it. Money has traveled into think-tanks and research efforts, and into infrastructure. Leveraging influence is not solely a case of invest and nice things will follow. But it helps. The Economist – which has become increasingly shrill on this issue – plotted Russian connections to European political parties to more than suggest that hybrid war threatened the fabric of the continent and the European project in particular. But most of the scaryness seems to be because of the word Russia, rather than the pattern of behaviour, which is a logic of neoliberal economics and PR/influence. Can we unpick or understand the complex influences on our politics (both organisational and ideological)? No. Should we pay attention to the fine documentary by Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake...? Yes, well worth a watch.

So, I would say this, wouldn’t I… but there is much in the concept of hybrid war. But we are only at the start of really understanding what is meant by it, and a country mile off understanding how to counter it. Particularly when countering it will rely upon a challenge to neoliberal orthodoxies.


Women and children first?

Welcome to this week’s CCLKOW discussion piece. We are looking this time at the complications arising from certain of Isil’s irregular strategic choices. To be brief, contrary to current practice they are weaponising children and women’s domestic functions. Child soldiers are nothing new globally, but they have not figured prominently against the West. And one suspects Isil’s strategic intent is specifically to confound Western forces with this choice. Similarly, the active recruitment of women for the purpose of marrying a fighter and supporting the cause in that manner has overtones of that intent as well. So, read the piece and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.

There is a looming problem in the fight against Isil. As they include recruitment of women and the military training of children in their operating philosophy, we are fast racing to a point of uncomfortable decision regarding how to treat them on the battlefields and in the long run.

Turning first to the children, the greatest issue is at the tactical level. At some point, in the fighting to retake the towns and cities held by Isil, children will be deployed. And let’s be clear. Children are what we make them in large measure. There are no shortage of cautionary tails regarding the potential brutality of children run amok, and we should have all read Lord of the Flies. Now consider what happens when they are trained. At the point of combat, these “young cubs” could well be dangerous. Of course, what children survive those battlefields present the longer term problem of their treatment, whether as victims or prisoners of war.

Giving our attention next to the women, ‎with the story of three young women from East London running off to join Isil’s domestic branch fresh on our minds, the problem is their status in the long term. Much consideration of their intentions, both serious — King’s own Dr. Katherine Brown and Elizabeth Pearson have recently offered their thoughts among many  — and silly (CNN’s “Nutella and Kittens”). While some might try to argue that these young women are being lured on false romanticism which preys on their naivete, please consider that the same must then true for the young men. Furthermore, while taking the step to jihadi bride might not seem like an act of war, they do serve the purpose of holding territory, complicating combat operation as civilians, and providing a next generation of fighter. In a 15 year war scenario, that last is n0t inconsequential. Furthermore, one must also consider their intent in joining, their ideological commitment to the conflict and political culture that Isil wishes to spread. That is, in every respect they have donned the uniform. And it bears remembering that not every male who joins is a trigger puller, neither in Isil nor Western forces – a soldier truck driver is still a prisoner of war. Even assuming these women didn’t pick up a Kalashnikov in the defense, as territory is retaken from Isil, their will not be easy to decide.

So, the question for discussion is simple:

What do you do about women and children in war now? 



Televised Salvation


CCLKOW’s discussion this week offers a different vision, literally and figuratively, to counter the horrors of extremist snuff propaganda and re-imagine the use of modern military capabilities. It challenges our discussants to consider in wholly new ways to approach the public brutality of our opponents, arguing that the best response is its opposite, kindness. Read the post, ponder the questions, and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Last week the world was justly horrified at the notion of the execution by fire of Jordanian Air Force pilot Lieutenant Moath al-Kasasbeh. I use “notion” particularly because the majority of those who stand opposed to the action eschewed exposure to the images. ‎I did not, because as a historian I must be willing to confront that which I seek to understand: the video was awful, but useful. (1) But even as societies shun the video, embedded within the perverse logic that peddles the horrific exhibition of carnage is the kernel of a counter strategy. The spectacle of relief by way of televised salvation; or rather, the operationalization of Combat HA/RTP.

The truth that must be accepted is that behind the gross displays of the ritualized execution of symbolic and specific targets, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have exacted a ruthless toll upon a disproportionate mass of civilians. Whether displaced or under siege, local populations have borne the brunt of the violence and chaos. Sinjar is famous, but it is not alone.

We are much in the habit these days of discussing the strategic narrative. But military operations are still too often reckoned in tactical tallies of sorties and targets. (2) There is little in any of that which portends victory, neither on the battlefield nor among the many audiences of concern in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. If taking control of the narrative in this fight is an objective, then a better story than the extremists’ grisly tales must be offered. Humanity, pursued with vigor, would offer a compelling narrative in contrast to the death cult fare. It would be a narrative sustained by the substance of real action and, better still, conveyed by the images of hope and deliverance.

The US particularly has every capability to manage the human dimensions such conflict-induced crises. In all respects it depends upon the strength of full-spectrum logistics. American forces dominate this field, to include expeditionary air mobility, housing, feeding and medical services, and as well the ability to provide security is a given. (3) I am imagining scalable, deployable units, tasked to protect and defend from environmental and enemy harm. Initial focus of application would be on the refugee and displaced populations, but there would be room to expand such operations to consider the provision of defense to those peoples whose political voice coalesces to request it.

None of this ignores the fact that defeat of the extremists will require some fighting, killing and dying. However, the more that is done to move opinion against them, the easier that task will be. It bears considering that perhaps the most important victories of the Cold War were humanitarian: the mighty strategic and political effort of the Marshall Plan and the symbolic tactical victory of the Berlin Airlift. Both acts of strategic kindness, the latter made famous by the iconic image of nothing more than a chocolate bar on a makeshift parachute. In this fight as well, while we have every means at our disposal to bring destruction, it may be that the better answer is in what salvation we choose to deliver.


So, for this week’s discussion questions:

What are the terms of a strategic narrative to defeat the extremist movements who trade in barbarity?

Do we need to reconsider how we use military forces? Is force their most effective capability?

Are American and Western political audiences willing to sacrifice life and treasure to defend others?



1 The worst of it is not the act, but always the coldness of the enemy in attendance. And, in this case, the bulldozer.

2 The Iraqi announcements are at least about ‎the fight for key strategic terrain, about retaking territory from an invading enemy.

3 In varying degrees the NATO allies share this capacity.


Simulposted at CCL KOW: https://medium.com/@CCLKOW/televised-salvation-f0c01cd3cfee


The Thin Red Line? Determining the Future of the British Armed Forces


Late last month, General Sir Nicholas Houghton delivered the annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. In his speech, Houghton reviewed the past twelve months of operations and expressed his hopes, concerns and anxieties for the year ahead. 2015 is set to be an exceptionally busy one in British politics with a General Election scheduled for May and a Spending Review. Critically for those in the armed forces, it is also time for another Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). SDSR 2015 will help determine the shape of British defence policy and the budget for the foreseeable future.

Houghton addressed many of the military’s perennial concerns (e.g. budget, allocation of resources, and how best to address emerging threats). However, he was most concerned about the state of civil-military relations. Over the past decade, Houghton believes that, ‘to varying degrees, government, parliament and society have become more cautious, nervous and anxious about the employment of military force.’ [1] Furthermore, ‘as a nation we [Britain] could have started to lose some of our courageous instinct: the instinct to risk and make sacrifices for our own security and the common good.’ [2] Throughout his speech, he stressed the need for the government and by extension, the public to clarify what role they wish the armed forces to play. Are they there to ‘mitigate risks from the narrow perspective of national necessity,’ or to serve a ‘grander ambition’? [3]

In the last SDSR in 2010, the government very clearly stated that, ‘our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions. We have a proud history of standing up for the values we believe in and we should have no less ambition for our country in the decades to come.’[4] Be that as it may, the armed forces have felt the sting of severe cuts to both manpower and the budget over the last few years. Simultaneously, they are asked to meet growing security threats from both state and non-state actors. Consequently, the question as to their role remains open for debate.

The UK has long had global ambitions and defined itself within these terms. At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain was a superpower with an extensive empire. Even after the decline of that empire, the country’s leaders remained determined to maintain a place on the world’s stage. Following WWII, the UK entered a period of severe financial austerity not dissimilar to events since the financial crisis of 2008. Nevertheless, the British government still saw itself as a global power and a pivotal ally for new superpower, the United States. Moreover, the UK still had a vast array of defence commitments around the world. Determined to meet these responsibilities, the country fielded a large army that was principally maintained through conscription (National Service). Today, this is no longer politically viable. Since the end of the Cold War, a more transparent and less deferent society has emerged. The British public is no longer willing to enforce National Service. On the whole, we are also much more sensitive to the risks that military service entails, averse to the casualties that inevitably result from operations.

Having said that, the government’s ambitions remain big. Britain still perceives itself as a major partner to the US and a key country within defensive alliances like NATO. The country also remains the fifth largest spender on defence in the world. However, commentators have predicated that spending will begin to fall below 2 per cent GDP over the next few years. It is likely that further cuts will be made to both the overall defence budget and military manpower, with a greater reliance on the Reserves. [5]

The armed forces are currently in a state of flux. Too often, debates about this process remain largely within Whitehall and fail to engage the wider public effectively. As another election approaches, areas like health and education seem more pressing. In contrast, defence spending only becomes a concern when the need arises. However, the public should take an active interest in determining the direction of the armed forces and considering the issues outlined by Houghton. Whether comfortable with the idea or not, the armed forces play a key role in shaping perceptions of British identity internationally and this in turn shapes the state of UK security. Over the past century, the military has projected British ambitions abroad. From imperialism to humanitarianism, the state of the military says a great deal about Britain’s place in the world. What role should the Army, Navy and Air Force play over the next few decades? This is a question that urgently needs to be asked if the armed forces are to effectively reflect the values of the society, which they represent.




1 General Sir Nicholas Houghton, ‘Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture,’ Royal United Services Institute (17 December 2014).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review,’ HM Government (October 2010), Cm 7948, p. 3.

5 Malcolm Chalmers, ‘The Financial Context for the 2015 SDSR: The End of UK Exceptionalism?’ RUSI Briefing Paper (Sept. 2014), pp. 1-9; Ben Jones, ‘UK SDSR 2015: Same Ends, Less Means, New Ways,’ European Geostrategy (5 Nov. 2014); Paul Cornish and Andrew M Dorman, ‘Fifty shades of purple? A risk sharing approach to the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review,’ International Affairs 89, Issue 5 (Sept. 2013), pp. 1183-1202.