Fraser Nelson

A soldier’s tale

A soldier's tale
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This picture is, for me, one of the most haunting images of the Afghanistan war – Sally Thorneloe at her husband’s funeral last week.  Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed by a Taleban roadside bomb three weeks ago, told me about her when we were on a trip to Iraq last summer. It’s weird, he said, he felt he saw her less working in London than he did on deployment. That day we left for the trip, he had arrived home at 2.30am – and left at 7am. Sally had seen him off. “Did you work as late as he did last night?” she asked the special adviser who had dropped by Rupert’s house to pick him up. But no-one worked like Rupert: 7am to 10pm every day. Then, he was military attaché to Des Browne- a bureaucratic job, but he approached it as if he were fighting on the frontline. I write about him in the News of the World today.

I took plenty notes on that trip. There wasn’t much news, but as there were just six of us – with me the only journalist - it was an invaluable chance to watch, at close quarters, how things were done. I sat in on some of Browne’s briefings, and in others I’d wait outside. For various reasons, I spent some time with Rupert. We shared a room in Kandahar, and while he was never going to tell me anything sensitive – nor would I ask – I learned plenty from him about the military and the battle.

It struck me as rather odd that a soldier like Rupert would throw his heart and soul into a job where the main weapon was a highlighter pen. I asked him about this, and he put me straight. Wars, he said, are lost when the people making the decisions in London have only a foggy understanding about the mission in the field. Such job rotation is crucial, and is partly why the British Army works so well. A soldier will know, in a way no career bureaucrat can, about the value of the flak jackets and other items he’s being asked to approve. And when that soldier heads back to the frontline, he will know the way the Ministry of Defence thinks.

Rupert worked those 75-hour weeks because he saw it as being important as being in theatre. He had the chance to sift through everything that came into the MoD, then point out to Browne what was important and what needed action. Rather than a chore, he saw it as an immense honour and told me that the hours were “the price you pay for working at the very top”. His next assignment, he told me, was to lead his men in Afghanistan and that was “the light at the end of the tunnel”. To a coward like me, this sounded odd: I’d take the safe desk job anytime. But as Sally Thorneloe said at his funeral, he was a born soldier. He felt that being with his men, leading front the front, was where he belonged.

Rupert’s role as MA was to bridge the gap beween civil and military, explaining to a politician (Browne) what mattered. It is becoming horribly clear that, more broadly, this gap is growing – to the extent where it sometimes seems that the two sides don’t understand each other. I have heard civil servants complain that the military speaks in a language of acronyms and can’t make a case beyond ‘give us more troops’. Just last week, I told a general how the Treasury say the cost-benefit case for 2,000 troops not made. He replied by flicking up V sign at Treasury’s direction (itself quite a feat – we were about a mile away from it) and saying that the military only asks if it bloody well needs. You can, perhaps, call it a Mars and Venus thing. But there a cultural chasm is opening up.  Dannatt is protesting as he is because he feels other methods have failed him. I sympathise with his cause, but not his methods: you can’t have the military attacking the government. But nor can you have the government abusing the military’s ability to take pain quietly. The relationship is in a bad way.

Part of this is generational. Too few MPs have any experience of the military, which is perhaps the inevitable result of 64 years of peace. Gone are the days when people like Dennis Healey would address the Labour Party conference in army uniform. Now, party confernces can pass with scarcely a mention of the war. To talk to the MPs, and many civil servants, it’s as if we’re not at war. We have a huge monument to the Bali nightclub bomb victims in Westminster, for example, right next to the Treasury.  But nothing for those who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s seems like no one really wants to admit it.

This chasm is very keenly perceived by the Taleban. They know they can’t defeat us in the field, but they also know the soldiers are controlled by politicians who are very different beasts. They think British political consensus will not tolerate casualties, that the West now lack the attention span to achieve anything serious. Fundamentally, they believe the West has no stomach for fighting. That the British soldiers may put everything into the war, but those back at home will not.

Rupert did. He worked as if it were a mission, not just a job. Last month he saw Tom Coghlan from The Times and told him that, ultimately, the Taleban’s only option was to outlast us. The Taleban are betting that those in London don't have the energy or resolve that Rupert showed - on and off the battlefield. He didn't just die for his country, but lived for it too.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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