Why the British Army has been so keen to stay in Afghanistan
Active service for young soldiers, gongs for the generals: no wonder the Army is slow to get out
WAR is hell even when you are winning. When you are losing it should be worse. But curiously the British Army is deeply reluctant to bring its disastrous campaign in Afghanistan to an end. It has been dragging its feet like mad to stay longer.
In 2009 General Sir David Richards, then head of the army and now Chief of Defence Staff, publicly admitted that he wanted to have troops in Afghanistan for the next 30 - 40 years. Why is this?
The fact is the army is a happier and calmer place as a result of nearly ten years of active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the previous generation, unless you had been to the Falklands War or were in the Special Air Service, few soldiers saw much action. There was a lot of pent-up military testosterone. This may account for the initial enthusiasm behind the deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the natural desire of young men to fight is only a partial explanation of our persistence.
It's not even as if the military are trying to please their political masters. David Cameron was never a fan of Operation Herrick and when he first visited Afghanistan as Leader of the Opposition some senior officers were struck by his lack of enthusiasm. Since becoming prime minister he has made it abundantly clear that he wants out as soon as decently possible.
Sucking up to the Americans could be another explanation but President Obama, despite talk of 'completing' the mission during Cameron's visit to Washington last week, had already decided to cut and run.
There are other drivers, the most obvious of which are the interests of the members of the higher military bureaucracy. The years of Tommy Atkins's travails in Afghanistan have been fat years for the generals.
There are more of them - four times more than say the US Marine Corps needs to command a similar number of men. And while the terms and conditions of their subordinates have declined, they have filled their boots.
For instance, many married quarters remain damp, poky and old-fashioned like a 1950s Coronation Street. This was always an issue but at least in the past the top brass lived fairly modestly too. The Chief of Defence Staff, the overall head of all three armed services, was for nearly half a century allocated a modest apartment in a mansion block overlooking Kensington Gardens. It was comfortable and secure but nothing more. The current Chief of the Defence Staff lives in Kensington Palace. "Pass the port, the men have their groundsheets."
The top brass have been helping themselves to gongs as well, particularly the Distinguished Service Order. When awarded to majors and lieutenant-colonels it is for leadership in the presence of Her Majesty's enemies - bravery while fighting, in other words. Officers at those levels share the dangers and hardships of their men.
When awarded to brigadiers and generals who certainly do not face the same dangers as those under their command, it is for distinguished service on operations - quite a different thing but a seductive one all the same, military glory without having to risk your own neck.
Awarding generals and fighting soldiers the same medal has been an irritation for many years. The feeling among soldiers in the Great War was so strong that Field Marshal Haig issued instructions on 1 January 1917 that the DSO was only to be awarded to officers who had actually been "under fire".
That some senior army officers have forgotten their duty and acted like a self-interested clique over the past few years is hardly surprising. Everyone appears to have been at it – politicians, bankers, trade unionists, civil servants, judges, journalists, rugby players. It has been the great corruption of British public life. All the more reason to bring our boys home – now. ·