Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Column, November 1, 2005

IT is a good job that we have someone as hard-faced as Dr John Reid as defence secretary.
Only he could claim high employment was the real reason that army recruitment was at an all-time low and that the ongoing scandal of Deepcut barracks and a highly unpopular and vicious war in Iraq were mere sideshows.
Still, at least he couldn’t keep his face that straight and had to admit that the deaths of four young recruits, including Cheryl James, of Llangollen might have something to do with the fact that the infantry is now 1,859 men under strength and the Territorial Army was 6,000 below target and at its lowest point since it was founded in 1907.
Dr Reid may well have the figures at his fingertips, but I’m guessing that between 1907 and now there were other times of high employment, and yet it is now that the forces are struggling so badly.
And is it that much of a surprise? No-one joins the Army thinking they might not have to get involved in a fight. The British Army has not stood by idle when there is fighting to be done and has thrown itself, with the exception of Suez, pretty successfully into everything that has been asked of it since the Second World War.
Even in retreat the British Army has covered itself in glory, witness the renaming of an unknown hill in Korea after the ‘Glorious’ Gloucester Regiment who withstood the might of the Chinese Army, fighting to the last bullet an when the bullets had run out making do with fists.
Whether it is putting a stop to the brutality of drug-crazed militias in Sierra Leone or winning back the Falklands from a murderous military dictatorship, there has been nothing beyond the capabilities of our armed forces.
Which is why Deepcut should have been taken more seriously from the very beginning.
It is a stain on the good name of the British Army. Something was rotten at the heart of that establishment. Something that should have been cut out with the efficiency for which the army is so famous.
It was not and now it has become a festering wound. A blot on the roll of honour otherwise occupied by men and women who have given their lives for this country.
But let’s not pretend that the Army is a bed of roses, it’s a tough life. The men and women who join need to train hard so that when they go into battle they are as well prepared as they can possibly be. They need to be able to look after themselves, their mates and what’s more they need to get the job done.
It’s the Army’s job to train them up to do just that. That is going to involve a regime which toughens them up, gets them used to physical and mental exertion and yes, sometimes, discomfort and pain.
Some people can cope with the demands of being a soldier, some cannot. It is the Army’s job to find those who can and make them into good soldiers. It is also the Army’s job to find those who cannot cope and train them so they can, or else come to a parting of the ways in an honourable manner.
It is not the Army’s job to bully people who are barely more than children.
Next week we will mark Remembrance Day and the Remembrance Sunday when we pay our respects to those who gave their lives so that we would be free.
Do you think that they died on some foreign field so that 60 years later some bully boys in training barracks could drive young recruits to such a point of despair that they took their own lives?
Do you think that they would think their memory is being well-served by the Army in which they served?
I think they would be ashamed.
And I wonder whether they would allow their children or grandchildren to enlist in an Army that, at Deepcut, seems to have forgotten the traditions and values it has defended for so long.
I think they would tell them to do anything other that join an Army that had sullied its name.
Unless and until the Government ends the scandal of Deepcut Barracks by having an independent public inquiry then Dr John Reid does not deserve one single recruit more.

THE thing with brainstorming sessions is that their success, or otherwise, rather depends on the brains that are being stormed.
If the storms are not illuminated by flashes of lightning brilliance, and instead you get a lot of drizzle and murk, then its unlikely that such sessions will produced anything of any value.
No great surprise then that the product of the government’s latest brainstorming is to tackle the all-pervading evil that is alcohol on trains.
Something must be done, they say, after a meeting chaired by Tony Blair, which came up with 40 bright (as in cheap, 40-watt bulb) ideas to tackle anti-social behaviour.
Now, as someone who travels by rail every day, I have to say that the worst drink-related incident I have seen so far was four squaddies burping their way to the town that was home of their barracks. The language was a little fruity too, but otherwise we managed to survive the journey.
Once again a government that has run out of ideas comes up with something that penalises the many for the offences of a very, very few.
This is an example of a brainstorming session that has just got out of hand. They’re tackling a problem that simply doesn’t exist.
And they also fail to see the fairly obvious irony in banning drinking on trains while creating a Wild West free-for-all on the high street.
So you can drink 24 hours a day in a pub, but you can’t get a beer or a glass of wine on a train.
Makes a lot of sense doesn’t it? No. Welcome to government by New Labour. It’s back-of-a-fag-packet policy-making, or it would be if they hadn’t banned smoking.
They’re quite happy to see teenagers tanked up on alco-pops making our city centres a no-go area, but they want the railways to be a temperance zone, take the pledge as you buy your cheap day-return.
Because, of course, no-one intent on getting tanked up will think of doing so in the plethora of bars that have sprung up on every major station concourse in the country will they?
And just how are they going to police this anyway – search your bags and sniff every drink container on the way onto the train?
I don’t know what is more depressing about all of this – that there seems to be no-one in a once great party who has the courage to stand up to the intellectual pygmies in command, or that the Tories in the face of such idiocy still have not managed to put together a credible opposition.

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