Who wants to be protected by an army which runs away? Even worse, by one which runs in several different directions before a shot is even fired?
Such armies have existed in history. One reason Hungary went Communist was because its army ran away from the Germans in 1943, leaving a void of authority. The US insists on making the Iraq conflict more important than it is because Iraqi government troops fled from an inferior Islamic State force – although one incident, it implies that without Americans there to stand and fight, the whole country might collapse tomorrow.
But some armed forces have such successful track records that you can rely on them not doing this. They don’t even lose, let alone run away. The countries they represent have benefited greatly from this – not only in times of conflict, but by being seen as stable as successful partners in peacetime, the countries you want on your side, come what may.
The British Army used to use the phrase “Be The Best” as its recruiting slogan. In the eyes of some, this is an example of national chauvinism equivalent to the US calling its internal sports contests “World championships”, or the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding claiming that every word ever invented came from the Greek language.
But such a slogan was in fact perfectly justified. Its record in conflict, its organisation and training and its contribution to allied operations really has made the British Army one of the best, and quite possibly THE best, in the world – not just in our time, but ever, in the history of armies. The global reputation of the United Kingdom was built by this army, and not simply its success, but what it represented – the British respect for tradition, stiff upper lip and Corinthian values of decency and fair play.
In recent years there have been a number of scandals concerning the British Army. Soldiers in Afghanistan didn’t have enough boots, let alone guns. The lack of support given to veterans has left unacceptable numbers homeless and psychologically damaged. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Northern Ireland, whilst examining the crimes of both sides, has heard a long succession of misconduct allegations, or worse, against members of the British Army stationed there during The Troubles.
But the Army has faced down all these scandals by pointing to its effectiveness at what it is there to do. Individual cases are still considered less important than the positive values and features of the Army. By addressing these issues head on, it shows it is still fighting for these values, just as it does when defending its country.
It is therefore inexpressibly sad to see this justifiably proud fighting force so desperate to run away from enemies which don’t even exist. It is running from itself – its own failures, its own embracing of these failures. But on a deeper level, it is running from enemies far more sinister, even if they only exist in its collective mind.
As each day goes by the British Army shows itself unworthy of the name. No one is doing anything about this because too many other people also want to run away. What they are really running from is exactly why these problems can no longer be fixed by simply changing course over the ostensible issue. To paraphrase Chiang kai-Shek, “Procurement is a disease of the skin, faithlessness is a disease of the soul”.
Guns Without Roses
Military procurement is always a dubious business. Who really pays whom for what, what purpose it is designed for, and whether armies actually get what was paid for has been the subject of many articles in this journal and other international affairs and defence organs.
Military procurement can never be fully transparent, as by definition it involves national security and therefore secrecy. What really lies behind any arms and equipment deal can be very opaque simply because we are not supposed to know why the deal is necessary – and for our own sakes, we are often better off that way.
But again, we think we know who the culprits are. Dodgy arms deals are supposed to be the preserve of Third World countries, particularly those with political outlooks and structures contrary to the norm. Respectable countries and successful armies don’t need to do those sorts of things, as they can obtain everything they want ethically, (in an accountable way), and don’t have dodgy friends.
The United Kingdom has purchased the Ajax tank, which is supposed to be one of those regular upgrades in equipment you use to pump prime more funding, and thus more wars in which to justify the spending.
It is designed by the United States, and built in Merthyr Tydfil, the once great iron manufacturing town in South Wales which has been synonymous with mass unemployment and poverty for over a century – and is therefore full of people desperate to work, to prove themselves, to build a better future rather than disrupt the present.
The Ajax tank can only be driven at half speed. Its guns can’t be fired whilst moving. It is so noisy and rickety that crews suffer tinnitus and swollen joints, and worse. Put simply, it doesn’t work – it’s a grand waste of money which should be scrapped like the Canadian Bomarc missile system, which ruined the career of that country’s now legendary Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
The UK won’t get rid of this national embarrassment though. It just throws more money at the problem, hoping it can somehow make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This is public money, taken from the pockets of the taxpayer. These are real soldiers, supposed to be serving their country, trapped in tanks which will make them sitting targets and ruin every operational plan they could be deployed as part of.
No one is prepared to publicly admit that millions have been wasted on these tanks. No one is prepared to say how the procurement process, with all its implicit checks and balances, produced this fiasco.
We don’t know exactly who made which decision, on the basis of what, and whose head should roll for it. But we are still expected to believe everything will be alright, because this is the British Army, it doesn’t make such mistakes.
Real soldiers would admit their mistakes and make sure they are seen to do better next time. But the British command and the politicians covering for it are just running away, happy to sacrifice their personnel, their effectiveness and their future because losing to the enemies in their heads is to unpleasant to contemplate.
Who are these enemies? They are ideas, they are words, they are false promises. But ultimately they all revolve around one fundamental weakness – although that is the last one any army can afford to have.
The British Army is running away from the fact it has made a mistake. It is also running from the fact that its various systems haven’t worked – if things were not done properly this time, they may not be again, if they were and still produced this result, where do they go?
The British Army is running away from the politicians also trying to publicly defend it, as it wants to prove you can fix problems with more money, not the less it will get if it doesn’t solve the problem. It is running away from its own allies, from how they will now perceive it, from the idea that some other army can show the British what to do, which is beyond the pale of acceptance unless that army is American.
It is also running away from what this debacle tells us about the UK-US “Special Relationship”. Now the UK has left the EU, this is more important than ever – because it is no longer a fraternal union of fellow Great Powers, but more like an emaciated British dog barking a lot, but coming running to the Americans to beg for a bone, any bone.
The long US-UK military alliance, existing through NATO and bilaterally, should be leading the charge to build a modern form of this Special Relationship. This alliance has stayed in place whilst the rest of the world has moved on, and away from the UK.
The UK remains only too happy to bleed itself back to America’s side in the same way the Republic of Georgia sends its young men to war to bleed itself into NATO. But the British Army now sees that the US is only interested in this Special Relationship as a means of exploiting a helpless invalid.
The US wants a trade deal so it can dump food which will eventually fall foul of its own laxer standards onto the post-Brexit British. It wants to buy up the NHS to avoid the inevitable reintroduction of not for profit medicine in the US now the average family can’t afford petrol, let alone hospital treatment.
The problems with the Ajax tanks are caused by US design flaws. Would these tanks have got past US safety inspectors? They shouldn’t have got past British ones either, but such considerations were ignored for the sake of the Special Relationship – the Brits want to prove their friendship, the Yanks to force them to do that by making them accept substandard products.
Nor can the Merthyr Tydfil element be disregarded. Merthyr has been trying for decades to shake off its deprivation and give people hope. Government contracts, traditionally used to boost struggling areas, have often passed it by, but it still hoped against hope that someday someone would see the positive in the place, and the state system would enable it to do that.
Any economically deprived area is eventually portrayed as a hotbed of feckless malcontents – people who don’t have jobs because they don’t want to work, rather than because the system doesn’t want them to. Few people want to invest in such a place, and such people, when there are alternatives where it is assumed the workforce is professional, competent and educated.
Building these tanks wasn’t much, but it was something. The system had worked for Merthyr, now Merthyr could work for the system. But how long will it be before that system is shown to let Merthyr down again by branding the workers who build the tanks as the guilty parties, rather than those who designed and bought them?
The British Army is running scared on many fronts. It shouldn’t because it is an army. But its main problem is that it has a hard time believing that itself.
La Reproduction Interdite
Whatever the views of service personnel, there is a symbiotic relationship between the British Army and Brexit. The rabid nationalists who have led the UK down that garden path are very fond of invoking the great days of British military success as an example of what the country could be if the EU hadn’t polluted it with foreign people and ideas.
Brexiteers routinely object to multiculturalism, gay rights and many other aspects of “political correctness” which have become official public policy. But their objections aren’t so much to the things themselves, but the fact they seem to have been imposed by unelected people and forced on an unwilling population.
Why? Because those senior public officials who had to take these ideas forward were the same ones who had built their careers resisting them when the policy was different. Those who had advocated these concepts, who could have explained their benefits, had been moved aside. Now those who didn’t believe in these things were preaching them simply to save their jobs, without believing what they said had any value.
The public picked up on that. People could see that those who told them these things were good didn’t believe this themselves. So they didn’t listen, didn’t think anything was being done for their good. Thus we have the situation we have today.
The British Army has seen constant conflict with politicians who claim to support it, the way its members are treated when they leave service, the way they are often treated when in service and the way the country they defend is going. Its leaders, and many of its ordinary members, no longer believe that either the Army or their country is worth fighting for as they are.
This is why the British Army cannot turn the Ajax tank disaster around by drawing on its own values, history and resources to move beyond it. Those things don’t mean anything now. The core of any Army has gone, and facing that is the biggest fear of all.
Whenever the UK reforms its social welfare system there is debate about what will happen if the social safety net just disappears. When the mighty British Army doesn’t believe in itself or its country any more, but is too scared to admit it, the country will lose far more than the ability to care for its poorest.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.