Respect, Covenant and the British Army


The Head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has been complaining recently about the lack of respect shown to British troops when they return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an address, last month, to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London,  he raised the question of that primary relation between the army and the nation, the ‘military covenant.’

It isn’t the first time that Dannatt has approached controversy when speaking out about British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is quite famous for going into bat for his troops, having successfully argued for a pay rise for them and secured better medical facilities for combat troops.

His commitment is clear and unequivocal but this ‘respect’ issue is something else. Dannatt is clear about where the problem lies and it isn’t with the army:  

Soldiers want to be understood and they deserve respect. When a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand, they want to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what they have been doing and why.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a drink in an English pub but I do remember that slapping a squaddie on the shoulder and buying him a pint while I sold stockings to his girlfriend is not something that I’ve done since the Blitz. Or was it the Battle of the Somme? The relief of Mafeking? My memory isn’t what it was and Dannatt’s conception of the British population seems to be similarly suffering.

Thanks to Emo

Dannatt sees a good model for an appreciative population in the US.  He talks of companies offering discounts to serving soldiers, sports facilities giving soldiers free tickets.

It is certainly true but is it real? This is the modern world, after all, where you could probably get a discount on a heart operation if you bundled it with a Nokia N800. And what does a ticket to a ball game signal? It might just acknowledge the immense debt that US global commercial supremacy owes to the good offices of the US military. British industry has not done as well out of their army.

If we believe our own Phillip Adams’s Late Night Live, broadcast  just two days before Dannatt was speaking in London, a range of US and Australia experts were reporting on the difficulties of maintaining American public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think that it is a good thing to have the troops adequately paid and looked after, notwithstanding the fact that I don’t agree with the combat in which they are engaged. I do think that.

But if you want me to respect them down at the pub, that’s a whole other thing.

Respect, it seems too obvious to point out, is not something that comes without earning it and if it is not forthcoming to the British troops then perhaps something is awry. Likewise, it would seem too obvious to point out that Britain has a diverse population and a significant number of that population have either relatives or religious affiliates who are experiencing the wars from a completely other angle.

It would seem from his formulation of the problem that Dannatt’s construction of the public is somewhat anachronistic. How does he see Britain as being constructed these days? I’m sure he is not locked into a picturesque vision of the blacksmith and Postman Pat sharing a pint with the Ffolkes on the hill. But what does he see?

One indicator might be in the recurrent image of the pub. He has used the image before. Speaking again of the military covenant back in October 2006, he was worried about the soldier (this time a paratrooper) in the pub.

Three things are going together here the soldier, the pub and the military covenant and Dannatt is open about how he sees the military covenant as standing for more than just support. The covenant legitimises the activities of the armed forces, and so he is really making a veiled threat to the British public don’t you go and turn Muslim on us while we’re off fighting the terrorists.

That’s not the way to inspire respect.

If he wants respect from the British public then he could do worse than to try and explain why what he is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is either in their interests or even in the pursuit or defense of some idea of good. If that is not forthcoming, then that same public might do well to ask who is benefiting from this famous ‘covenant.’ It’s clear that Osama bin Laden is al-Qaeda is recruiting like crazy in Iraq because statements like this from Dannatt allows them to say: Look at this guy, he’s got exactly the type of crusader mentality that we’ve been telling you about.

The sad thing is that Dannatt is almost saying that the war was wrong but it needs to be executed properly from now. But he can’t say that without evoking his strange sense of history that reads the fighting in terms of the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West, but avoids the commercial history of oil production.

It leads to a conversation with a strange bias.

So, when you think about it, when these wars are over, the last person that you would want to have a pint with would be General Sir Richard Dannatt.

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