Welcome Ministerial Support to Current Operations

At last, a senior Cabinet Minister has taken a determined stance on a current military intervention (Defence Secretary Des Browne, letters to the Daily Telegraph, 15 August).  For the troops deployed in distant theatres of operations it is ‘about time’.  Among the things which most irritate forces conducting difficult and dangerous activities in foreign lands is the failure of people ‘at home’ to recognize or understand their efforts and achievements.  Worse still is the critical sniping of commentators who gild their routinely inaccurate observations with platitudes about supporting the troops on the ground.  These commentaries are often interpretations of circumstances articulated in a way that overtly supports an agenda and which supplants objective reporting with subjective opinion.  The recent media headlines and sound bites which asserted 1 in 36 soldiers in Afghanistan will be killed in a 6-month tour of duty provide an excellent example of factual distortion assuming undue credibility.  Although journalists might be embarrassed by the misrepresentation of their text by headline-makers or editors whose appetite for impact corrupts original meaning or detail, the inability to accurately represent its own reporting discredits the journalistic profession.  To a point, servicemen and women tolerate such inaccuracies or even denigration because they expect such from unsympathetic quarters.  However, military frustration with the misrepresentation of events or conditions in theatre is amplified when those in the UK who should be representing their interests sit in unfathomable silence while antagonistic speculation spreads unchecked around them.  It is therefore encouraging to see the Secretary for Defence adopt a more assertive posture in response to criticism of the military’s mission and effectiveness in Afghanistan, but it also makes the lack of a similar response to recent denunciation in the US of its performance and utility in Basra more puzzling.     


Observers on the ‘home-front’ regularly over-estimate the effect of domestic opinion on the morale of deployed personnel.  Naturally, the views of people ‘back home’ have an impact on those in a zone of operations but it is slight compared to numerous local issues and factors which exercise a much greater and immediate influence upon troops’ morale and welfare.  That said, domestic support is an important element of the context in which theatre activities take place as it has a significant bearing on the sense of purpose which underpins the efforts of deployed military personnel and this is especially the case when an operation is enduring and casualties are mounting; however, it is at home where a lack of support for expeditionary operations cuts deepest because it has affect on political decision-making.  This influence occurs both directly through the media and public opinion but also indirectly via any disaffected voices in theatre which reinforce the arguments expressed by critics within the M25.  It is therefore imperative for the government to take a proactive approach to the domestic perception of the current expeditionary campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Adopting a low profile in the hope of reducing the political significance of these endeavours is counter-productive and gives the initiative on the matter to other actors who fill the information space left by the government and its many departments with opinions which become accepted truth or perceived wisdom.  Although there is an historic dimension to the current situation in Iraq that might generate a political reluctance to associate with the ongoing military campaign there are ample political, economic and security reasons to justify continued engagement in Iraq (and Afghanistan) in the proper pursuit of British national interests but these are rarely aired or promoted by those with a responsibility to champion them.  To shape realistic expectations, accurately change perceptions and fulfil its obligation to deployed forces the government should embark on a concerted and coherent effort to explain the justification and value of the enduring engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and do so in a robust and compelling manner.  Perhaps Secretary Browne’s response in the Daily Telegraph will herald a new era where spokesmen and women across government take a more active and unapologetic approach to defending the veracity and effectiveness of UK policies (especially when they involve ‘blood and treasure’) such that the acceptable deliberation of foreign and defence policy that should take place in a democratic society could do so in a more balanced and objective environment.

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