Iraq and the Military Covenant - Bishop Tom Burns


Iraq and the Military Covenant

Rt Rev Tom M Burns SM

Bishop of the Forces

We have just marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The politics behind that fateful decision have been well-rehearsed. My view is that the reason for the invasion has been disgraced since no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. However, the controversy around the origins of the war must not obscure the remarkable job being done by our armed forces in Iraq and also Afghanistan. In both countries, young men and women are risking their lives trying to create stability and the chance of a better future for Afghans and Iraqis. Their sacrifice, and the cost their families pay, can be obscured by the seemingly never-ending debate about politics with the tragic result that sometimes these remarkable young people can be the scapegoats for unpopular government decisions over which they have no control. Our service people do their duty and they have a right to expect us to support them in return. This relationship is at the heart of the military covenant. I fear that the commitment we make to the Services is becoming dangerously frayed.

For example, the Forces are still short of over 5,000 personnel and strain to cope with the increasing pace of operational tempo. Financial incentives are thrown at recruitment and retention in a short-term fix to encourage key people to join or stay on. Not surprisingly, surveys show that such bonuses are popular, but do not record that their effects are short-lived. There are underlying reasons why there is a manpower and morale problem in the first place. Military chiefs have little control over alleviating these damaging influences, because it’s not their role to set overall policies or budgets. They continue successfully to persuade soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women to act with a high degree of professionalism, motivation, and integrity. Their stories are rarely told: of close-range fighting, of continuous bombardment by mortars and missiles, of life-changing injuries, of camaraderie in battle, of remarkable acts of bravery to save the lives of colleagues and innocent civilians, of long hours in stifling heat and deafening gunfire, of fear and heroism in the service of right and duty. Day after day they have brought about changes for the better: an educational system functioning again, a coastguard squadron re-built, a village restored, markets re-opened, Taliban and Al Qua’ida put to flight, security improved, normalization resuming, hearts and minds won over – oh so slowly but surely. Iraqis are beginning to deliver an Iraqi solution. Here in Britain, home-coming marches through city streets have brought huge pride as bystanders tumbled out of shops and offices to shout spontaneously: Well done! We’re proud of you. Church services have remembered friends and colleagues who died and will never be forgotten, but will never come back. Grieving will continue, but no coroner should have to state that soldiers died because of equipment failures. Other coroners are unable to complete inquests because certain military information is not forthcoming. Grieving is prolonged; re-building lives is delayed.

When the battle is done, adrenalin is replaced with tiredness, even lethargy; targets with routines; hope with apathy; re-training with operations once again. Good training and good-will are cornerstones of current military effectiveness and the mutual covenant between the People and the Armed Forces. To avoid disillusionment, there is still room to re-enforce trust and confidence so that any credibility gap is closed more and more between perceived budget needs in Whitehall and actual combat needs in Basra or Kandahar. A hard-nosed Major says his abiding memory of Iraq will be:

The dedication of my young soldiers; it was an eye-opener to me. They just got on with the job. I shall remember them for ever with gratitude. If only others of their generation could be similar examples too. These young people deserve our prayers and our support.