Have you ever played fireball hockey? God, what a fantastic game! You wrap a bog roll in chicken wire, douse it in paraffin, set fire to it and then play hockey with it — preferably while drunk and wearing black tie, as I was lucky enough to do myself three years ago in front of the officers’ mess at the Norfolk HQ of the Light Dragoons. I’d been invited by their then CO, Lt Col Robin Matthews, who’d liked my book How To Be Right and wanted me to give his officers a pep talk. He explained: ‘A lot of these chaps are painfully aware how much money all their non-army friends are making [Gosh! That dates this story, doesn’t it?] and knowing you’re such a fan of the military I thought you could help remind them why they’re there.’
So that’s what I did. I told them how utterly crap life was in the real world (‘look at me: I’m a super-successful journalist, I meet lots of famous people, get dozens of CDs sent to me for review every week, am sent on the most stupendous travel freebies — but still it all completely sucks’), how soldiering was the most exciting and honourable profession, and the ‘war on terror’ was a noble and just one. At the time I was much more of a committed neocon than I am now, and was secretly quite pissed off when an earnest subaltern — one of the few non-public-school ones — came up to me afterwards to quibble with the general verdict that I was a splendid fellow who was quite right. ‘I still don’t see what we’re doing there,’ he said, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘Who are we to impose our values on cultures that don’t want them?’
After dinner, during the game of fireball hockey, I tried to show as much ‘form’ as possible. That lethal flaming bog roll could easily set your hair alight or char criss-cross marks into your skin, but you don’t want to be seen to flinch by men who are about to command light tank reconnaissance squadrons in Afghanistan, at the HQ of a regiment so dashing and brave that a mere squadron of its Hussar antecedents once captured a whole regiment of Frenchmen in the fog.
I left behind a signed copy of one of my war books, with the inscription: ‘In the hope that ululating Afghan women don’t cut your bollocks off, sew them into your mouth and leave you to die on the burning Helmand plains.’ Thinking back, I suppose I could have come up with a more uplifting message. Especially after some of the maudlin conversations we’d had in the lulls the night before. One fellow, barely out of Sandhurst, had already lost two close friends in action. Another was terribly cut up, not about the prospects of dying himself, but of losing any of his lads — all of whom he clearly loved like a father. Then again, they appreciate a bit of graveyard humour do soldiers. How else do you deal with the fact that your every day ‘in theatre’ might be the last you spend in one piece?
That was August 2006. Crikey, how things have changed. Perhaps the most significant one for the British army is that it has suffered perhaps its worst military defeat since the battle of Arnhem in September 1944. I refer, of course, to its humiliating exit from southern Iraq, where, having been forced to abandon one base after another to the Mahdi army, they retreated to Basra airport, eventually to be bailed out by the Americans as part of General Petraeus’s surge. The only reason this embarrassment is not more widely known is that the only things our Ministry of Defence is even vaguely good at are lies and spin.
My views on our army have changed too. While I maintain my respect — oh all right, slavering worship — for our fighting men and women, I no longer nurture any delusions about their ability to win the war on terror. It’s not their fault. They have been utterly betrayed by the government, by Tony Blair, by Gordon Brown, by successive defence ministers, by the MoD and even by their own generals. Sure, it’s in the nature of being a soldier to make do with limited resources, but the demands we are imposing on our men in Afghanistan now are as absurd and wrong and downright outrageous as in any of our great disasters, from the Walcheren expedition to the Crimean war to the Norway campaign of 1940.
If you want the full story, read Richard North’s Ministry of Defeat, which will make you so angry you’ll instantly want to rush out and strangle an awful lot of people. Top candidate would be Tony Blair, whose championing of the ludicrous European Rapid Reaction Force (mainly, suggests North, as his consolation prize to the EU for having failed to drag Britain into the euro) siphoned off truly eye- watering sums from our defence budget on mostly stillborn or pointless projects. Over ten years, joint European projects cost the MoD £8.8 billion. With that kind of money the MoD could have bought a hell of a lot of useful helicopters and improvised explosive device (IED) resistant vehicles.
Not that it ever would, of course. Why? Because of our disgraceful defence procurement policy, which sees the three service branches competing viciously for shiny, expensive toys quite unsuited to our most pressing military needs (see also Lewis Page’s Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs); the sheer ineptitude of the civil servants running the MoD; and the grotesque cheese-paring of our government, which appears quite happy to buy a place on the world stage with the blood of our soldiers, just so long as it doesn’t cost them too much treasure. This is not only immoral but stupid. One reason that the US government started replacing its thin-skinned Humvees in Iraqs with mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles was some simple maths: a defense department study had shown the deaths of a four-man Humvee crew would cost the US $25 million (in the form of replacements, wasted training, widows pensions, etc).
And Britain? The indefatigable Richard North calculates that 50 British lives in Afghanistan alone have been lost as a result of insufficiently protected vehicles. Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, for example, was killed by around 30 kilos of homemade explosive (almost certainly made using fertiliser provided to local farmers by the British). Had he been travelling in an MRAP, rather than a Viking, the vehicle would scarcely have been dented. So while the Americans have just spent $1.2 billion procuring a fleet of highly mobile, mine-protected vehicles for their men in Afghanistan, we continue to let our men die needlessly. Yes, I appreciate that our casualty rate is negligible compared with, say, the world wars; that these days we seem to make more fuss about the loss of one man than in the old days we would have done about an entire company. Those, though, were wars of national survival where it was much easier for everyone to comprehend the purpose of the sacrifice. They were also of limited duration, with clear aims. The one in Afghanistan could run and run, and how are we supposed to know when we’ve won?
Since our evening together three years ago, the Light Dragoons have suffered several casualties, and the last thing I’d want is for them to feel they didn’t have our full support for what they’re doing out in Helmand. But the potential for this war to go horribly wrong, even with the US surge, remains enormous. If we’re going to fight it — and I believe it’s too late to do anything else — then we must fight it properly, with sufficient manpower and the right equipment. Our magnificent boys — and girls (for there are many of them on the front line, running every bit as great a risk) — deserve nothing less.