Why it’s right to stop the Army funeral processions
The Wootton Bassett processions are very recent - for years soldiers were buried where they fell
RAF Lyneham's imminent closure means that from September the bodies of British soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan will be flown back to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire close to the garrison town of Carterton. So far, so good.
But the Ministry of Defence has decided that instead of the processions leaving by the main gate and then travelling through the centre of Carterton to allow the commemorative traditions of Royal Wootton Bassett to be replicated, they will leave through the back gate and avoid the town centre altogether.
In both the press and on the floor of the House of Commons the government and the generals have been accused of trying to conceal the level of casualties.
No doubt the defence minister Andrew Robathan (15 years in the Coldstream Guards and the SAS) is robust enough to absorb attacks from an opposition front bench lacking a single day's military service. But the charge is manifestly absurd.
David Cameron and many of his senior ministers and advisers have clearly decided that our Fourth Afghan War is unwinnable – just like the previous three in the series.
The PM has said repeatedly and firmly in public that the troops are coming home by 2015, announcing an initial reduction on Wednesday after returning from a tour of inspection.
How would it be in his interest to conceal the human costs of the campaign?
In fact, if the government is as cynical and unscrupulous as some have suggested, then it might suit him to play up the casualties in order to strengthen his hand against military commanders publicly dragging their feet about leaving Afghanistan.
The charge is also unfair against the generals, for different reasons. The current Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, has moved heaven and earth to raise awareness of the Afghan campaign. He is determined that ministers and the public understand the full implications, as he sees them, of our involvement in Afghanistan.
How would it have been possible for him to obtain the improved equipment and conditions for his troops that he has without highlighting the dangers and rigours of the campaign?
Many seem to have forgotten that the current arrangements for welcoming back the bodies of the fallen, let alone the ceremonies in Wootton Bassett, are of recent origin. Throughout our military history soldiers have usually been buried where they fell – hence the hundreds of British war cemeteries across the globe.
After the end of the Falklands war in 1982, families were for the first time ever given the option to repatriate the bodies of their loved ones.
Some, like the family of Colonel H Jones VC, decided to leave the bodies close to the battlefields on which they had died. He is now buried in the ruggedly beautiful military cemetery at Port San Carlos, alongside many of his comrades and overlooking the stormy South Atlantic.
Others took up the offer, choosing military cemeteries or quiet country churchyards in the UK as their final resting places. The bodies were brought back by sea, all together, to the military port at Marchwood near Southampton. Senior officers from the general staff and the regiments involved met the ship as it docked. A lone piper played Flowers of the Forest. Only later did the families become involved.
It is to this more understated and traditional pattern that the military and government wish to revert. People may not agree with this but it hardly amounts to "shuffling them... unseen and unmourned, out of the back gate" as the Times suggested on Tuesday.
Sometimes at home it appears that we have forgotten our history and live only in the bubble of the present. Our soldiers in Afghanistan may have died in very distressing circumstances, but they are not the first to do so. They took their chances just like the dead of Ypres, Alamein or the Imjin River. We honour them most by honouring them in the same way. ·
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