Seriously, you would think that the government and senior members of the military would know better. These are the people who lead our country and our military and should really know better. The fact they don’t is utterly baffling to me.
I am talking about the way our glorious leaders bend in the wind of public opinion like young saplings. The government is craven in how it panders to the media – ignoring any blatant contradictions and any strange notions of policies or morality. However this is not surprising. Its been almost two decades since the political parties in the UK had “party politics” rather than saying what ever they thought would get them elected. This entire century the UK has been governed by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph opinion pieces rather than any notion of public good.
What is surprising, to me anyway, is how quickly the MOD has fallen into this trap as well. Over the last few years we have seen an infuriating number of retired Generals and former Chiefs of the Defence Staff suddenly come out of the cold to criticise the government. This is annoying, because these are the same General Officers who presided over identical problems without the slightest hint of complaint until they were safely away from the system. This is not exactly living up to their heroic image, but such is life.
Showing a worrying reluctance to learn from the past, the MOD has had some spectacular blunders of late. Sadly, these are not blunders in the normal sense; more an example of how clueless the MOD / Government is when it comes to falling over itself to court the media – without remembering the media will savage it no matter what.
As a result we see, in recent weeks, such oddities as the government going to court to reduce payments to two people who were crippled in the line of duty. Now, in normal circumstances this would be ignored – the government is claiming it is not liable for secondary problems and is trying to reduce the burden on the taxpayer by reducing the payments these people get. This is not a bad thing as any other organisation would do it, and every penny the government has to spend comes from the public. It is not magic money.
The madness is this comes at a time when the government have been whipping the public up into a fervour about supporting “Our Boys” who are fighting wars in far away lands. Realising these wars are very unpopular, the government seems to have decided the only solution is to turn every soldier into a hero who deserves our undying support, no matter what they do. This played very well with the media (the Sun’s Help for Heroes has become such a powerful charity that on-duty police officers are allowed to wear its labels and promotional media, can you imagine that happening for any other charity?) but the government – or more properly the Civil Service who run the MOD – has failed to realise what this jingoistic monster will demand. With every service person being seen as the greatest Hero since Gilgamesh, any attempt to due the correct thing by the taxpayer is obviously going to be seen as a grasping act by a degenerate government. The whole deal is muddled even more by some MPs being so obvious about their desire to court the media they will go against both government policy and the taxpayers best interests (*). There is more irony than I can cope with in one sitting over this, but this is what the BBC reports about Mr Joyce:
Writing in Scotland on Sunday, Mr Joyce, parliamentary private secretary to Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, said that although technically the MoD had a good chance of success, the appeal should be dropped.
So, although the case is sound – and the taxpayer is NEEDLESSLY paying these people money – we should carry on paying because not doing so will be unpopular. This confuses me. Is he saying that we should apply the same standard of payouts to Police, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, pharmacists, dentists, bin men, street sweepers, train drivers (etc)? These are all jobs which are essential to our every day life, more so than the military for 99.99% of the time and where (on the whole) people are paid a lot less than they deserve.
The government are never going to get it right. They are serving that most fickle of masters, the media. The same newspapers that will castigate them for spending one penny more than they should on something will also castigate them for trying to reclaim the said penny if the recipient has “human interest.” The government is a faceless bureaucracy and can never win. Ever.
The Military is no better and, despite the Heroes angle, its no safer from media savagery – simply because it is “part of the government.”
This twist has led to senior Army officers claiming they are incapable of fighting the war in Afghanistan with the current kit and manpower levels – even going as far as claiming we should, as a nation, move to a war footing. Before we go on, lets look at the war in Afghanistan. This is basically small manoeuvre warfare of Battalion size formations. This is not the “Major War” the British Army was geared up to throughout the cold war. It is closer to one of the small conflicts we were supposed to be able to fight two of, while having the resources for a major war left spare. However it seems that decades of defence spending has left the military incapable of fighting any war. Do the military chiefs accept responsibility for this? No, they claim it is down to the government who haven’t spent enough on them… Yet they agreed to the budgets. They furnished government with reports as to how effective they would be in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is still the civilian governments fault… No, I dont get it either.
“War is a dangerous business” – certainly a truism and, in July 09, the British public were forced to realise this. However, rather than educate the public about what happens in war (one UK news outlet even claimed it was the most bloody conflict since WWII, neatly ignoring Korea, Aden, Borneo etc) and forcing people to realise that any conflict is going to cost lives, the craven military leadership laid the blame on various bits of equipment – mostly helicopters. This was a lifeline for distraught family members, who obviously needed some way to rationalise the loss of their loved ones. However its not the real answer. No amount of helicopters will stop the need for “boots on the ground” to dominate and in any firefight people are likely to die. Helicopters are great moving people from A to B and for providing air support to ground troops but they are not the magic solution people seem to think they are.
This has not stopped the senior officers seeing a chance to get some more toys to play with by claiming they need more helicopters to save lives (tell that to the bomb disposal people…), and they have been somewhat successful. Still this is not enough to placate the baying media. From the BBC News:
Reports in the Daily Telegraph claimed six Merlins – due to go to Helmand in December – did not have Kevlar armour.
The paper quotes senior RAF sources as warning this could prevent the craft’s use in missions against the Taliban.
The moral of the story is you really cant win. Once you enter into a dance with the media, you are caught in a death spiral. Nothing you ever do will be enough. Someone, somewhere in your organisation will have a different opinion (or just say something stupid by mistake) and the media will pounce. When this happens all the good will you generated by doing what the press wanted will vanish and you’ve be savaged again.
Why doesn’t the military and government realise this? Why do they try to grab the tiger by the tail?
(*) It is even more interesting when you think that the traditional Ministry of Defence politics align with the Conservative party, so it is unsurprising that the MOD seems to be having so many PR blunders of late. That the Labour government seems unable or unwilling to take charge and control this is a further indictment of the party and another sign that, sadly, this time next year we will almost certainly have an irritating bastard Conservative PM.