It is unlikely that David Cameron would be so gauche. My former colleagues, whom he visited in the bazaar of Nad-e Ali in Helmand last December, were pleasantly surprised to find the then leader of the opposition well-informed, relaxed and engaged. This is by no means a given during the stream of political visits which have become all too routine over the last few years. Ministers, backbench MPs and the gaggle of advisors and journalists they bring often have little idea of the disruption they leave in their wake. In my five years it was my dubious honour to be involved in hosting ‘visits’ both at home and abroad in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan where I had more than enough opportunity to wonder what good they actually did. The problem with such visits is not necessarily the extra workload they entail. Soldiers will understandably grumble when asked to perform tasks such as “tidy-up” dusty desert outposts. I once witnessed a Warrant Officer ordering incredulous Guardsmen to “sweep” an open, sand patrol base. But seemingly pointless tasks are hardly unheard-of in the military. Soldiers are fully aware that theirs is not to reason why: one chore is the same as another during a six-month tour. The disruption, per se, is not really the problem. More serious is that the trips, by their very nature, can only afford a limited insight and often the minister learns almost nothing that cannot be taught by a proficient briefer (at far less expense in precious time and resources).
Only the most naïve politician will believe that they are actually taken somewhere dangerous. They may be asked to wear the standard body armour and helmet, but the greatest risk is collapsing from the heat. Nor will the soldiers selected to meet them speak their mind, no matter how publicly they are encouraged to do so. Everyone knows the protocol. When truth is actually spoken to power, it makes the headlines instantly. This happened last October, when one staff sergeant was asked by Bob Ainsworth, then Defence Secretary, to name the “top desire from right at that chalkface [sic].” “More troops,” he bravely replied. (He was later awarded the George Cross, although not for the comment).
At times, it did feel like the sole purpose was to allow the politician in question to announce in later speeches that he (it invariably was ‘he’) had just returned from the “front line” like some sort of latter-day Eisenhower. Perhaps the most gratuitous recent example was when Gordon Brown, never the Army’s favourite public figure, made an ill-advised excursion to Helmand before the election. The trip backfired impressively when a photograph of him in ill-fitting helmet and body armour became a favourite of online election poster graffiti artists. What rankled many in the Armed Forces was when Mr Brown’s night stop-over was spun as the first night a Prime Minister had spent in a “war zone” since Churchill. He was in Kandahar Airfield, a base which houses the Pizza Hut and the cinema and is viewed by troops in Helmand as the very apogee of safety and cushy luxury.
Military tourism is by no means an indulgence taken only by those who work in Westminster. I can well recall a plane load of exhausted infanteers watching open-mouthed as an RAF flight crew took turns to pose for snaps in Basra - before flying back to the relative safety and comfort of their base in Kuwait. All of us who have served in or visited war zones are guilty of it to some extent (myself included). But such posing is fairly harmless. It is more serious if newspaper articles are written, or policies drafted, on the misapprehension that the treatment meted out to VIPs is anything close to that experienced by soldiers in the ground.
When last in Helmand, David Cameron did not just impress the troops but the Afghans too – and this is just as important. As the new Prime Minister of country at war, it is right that he should be visiting troops so early in his premiership. He has the chance to set a new template for the military visit, and can do so by remembering three things. Never make political hay out of hard-working soldiers. Be realistic about the value such official visits, relative to the time and resources they consume. And, if being briefed by an eager young officer, on no account should he fall asleep.
Patrick Hennessey was an officer in the Grenadier Guards between 2004 and 2009. His book, The Junior Officer’s Reading Club, has been shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year and has just come out in paperback.