Camp Bastion fiasco: why were Army chiefs not held to account?
The American military refuses to reward failure: it's time the British Army followed suit
VOLTAIRE thought we were too harsh on our military leaders, shooting those who failed to do their utmost "pour encourager les autres". Kim Raible, mother of the American pilot Lieutenant Colonel ‘Otis' Raible, one of two US Marines killed in the daring Taliban raid on Camp Bastion on 14 September last year, has a slightly different view.
She blames the Brits fair and square for the death of her son. According to a US military inquiry into the night-time attack, British (and Tongan troops under British command) were responsible for securing the perimeter, but astonishingly 13 of the 24 watchtowers strategically sighted around the camp were empty. Needless to say, the one closest to the break-in point was unmanned.
Three teams of five Taliban suicide attackers exploited this sloppiness to cut through the perimeter wire and then attack their chosen target - a squadron of US Marine Corps Harrier jump jets.
A five-hour firefight followed in which the two Marines were killed and 16 American and British servicemen wounded, including members of the base's Quick Reaction Force from the RAF Regiment who specialise in airfield security. Prince Harry, then serving at the base, either slept through the whole thing or was hustled to safety by his close protection minders, depending on which version you wish to believe.
The insurgents caused havoc, destroying six US Marine Harrier jump jets and a US Air Force C130 Hercules transport aircraft, as well as re-fuelling and other logistic facilities - more than $200 million worth of kit according to one estimate.
The last time the US lost so many aircraft on the ground, and pilots were forced to fight as infantrymen, was during the 1968 Tet Offensive when Viet Cong guerrillas penetrated Tan Sonh Nut airbase outside Saigon.
Mrs Raible said this in an article for The Independent a few days ago: "I am in total disbelief that the UK saw no apparent need to do a proper investigation and hold its own commanders to account… The actions of Mr Hammond [Defence Secretary Philip Hammond], UK commanders and the officials who refused to pay for extra security on Camp Bastion were not only cowardly, but also the direct cause of these deaths, injuries, and loss of aircraft and equipment that night…"
She is particularly incensed that the two British commanders she identified as being in charge have since been promoted and, in one case, decorated.
In contrast, two US Marine generals in command positions in Camp Bastion were unceremoniously forced into early retirement in September - one having had his next promotion blocked by the Senate.
I am not sure Colonel Raible's mother is entirely in the right. The fact that Raible fought off the attackers with a pistol (he was awarded a posthumous Silver Star) suggests that he himself, however brave in the event, had given little thought as to how his unit would react if insurgents pentetrated the camp - surely his responsibility as commanding officer of his unit, not the American generals above him, or the British senior officers elsewhere on the base.
Still, Mrs Raible has a point. The US Marine generals who were essentially tenants at the base have been fired, but the British officers in overall command of the base, the freeholders if you like, appear to have been rewarded and promoted.
The American system makes a point of refusing to reward failure. In 2007 when it became apparent that America's biggest military hospital was badly run - there were allegations of mould coating the walls of some of the battle casualty wards - the top three army doctors were immediately dismissed by President Bush.
There have been many depressing aspects to our disastrous military expedition to Afghanistan, thankfully offset in part by the bravery of our troops on the ground. But most depressing of all is the thought that the senior officers who run the army (and the Air Force) have during the process become more, rather than less, like their taxpayer-funded civilian counterparts.
If the leadership style of the BBC, or for that matter the Haringey social services department, also in the news this week, where no one seems to be responsible for anything, is adopted by our military leaders we are in trouble. Refusing to discipline senior commanders for gross negligence or inefficiency is the first step towards abandoning discipline altogether. ·