A "pervasive and resilient culture of pessimism" about the Afghan war back home in Britain is severely undermining troops on the front line, a senior army officer serving in Helmand has warned.
There is frustration in the military that there is a lack of appreciation back home about what UK forces are achieving about what UK forces are achieving at great personal risk and in extremely tough circumstances, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bazeley told The Independent.
General Sir David Richards, the head of the Army, has stressed that public support is “critical” to the campaign, and a former SAS commander now involved in formulating Nato strategy in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb, has spoken of the danger of “talking ourselves into a defeat back home”. Gen Richards acknowledged that the Afghan mission “could not go on forever”. But he said there was a credible plan in place. “Success is becoming more attainable and the last thing my soldiers want is for the public to go wobbly on them,” he said. “We know this thing is doable and we must help persuade others of it.”
“Support is subtly different from sympathy and I sense on occasions the two are conflated in the public mind. We don’t want sympathy; sympathy is for losers and we are not losing. We are soldiers, we know the risks, we know what we are doing and why we are here... We face the challenge with informed and considered determination but we want to be drawing on a national strength and resolve to underpin our efforts and not just our morale.”
So people are war weary and there is perceived to be a lack of support. But the last part above explains that support is about more than morale. This would not be support: "I don't agree with what you are doing but I don't wish to see you fail, therefore I wish you speedy success".
As elucidated above, support is about the mission, not the participants. To support is to believe in the rectitude of the mission, in the righteousness of the cause. To believe that those soldiers are there on our behalf, exercising our collective will, that is support.
But I don't think this is true. Can a zealot who no longer questions be said to support something? It is only a matter of time before a new master comes along. A robot programmed to believe something can not be said to support that conclusion, it has no choice.
Support is about choice, that one could have chosen otherwise. Support is about justification, reasons why the fight is correct. Without those reasons, without the justification, support becomes zeal.
And I don't think soldiers want zeal. I don't think soldiers think of themselves as pieces of meat led by bloodthirsty zealots. I think soldiers hope and pray that those who lead them are conscientious human beings working together to secure their homeland and its future prosperity, for their children and brethren. Soldiers fight to win something, and those who direct them are held, I believe, to know and be able to win that fight.
No soldier wishes to die. But they are prepared to die if it is necessary. For it to be necessary requires that those conducting war are as capable as can be and are making the best decisions they can make.
No one demands more of the army than the soldiers in it. They are on the front line, they are doing the bidding of their masters, and each of them will judge, whether privately or otherwise, the quality of their leadership.
And we should not forget who those soldiers were before becoming soldiers. They did not give up their humanity, they chose to fight for a cause they believed in, the cause being the safety and security of their homeland. They put trust in those who would lead them, the purest kind of trust, the trust that says, I will lay my life on the line as you direct because I know you will not fail me and those I support.
If people are war weary, it is because soldiers have died. Those soldiers are former members of the public and it is the greatest show of solidarity to be upset about those deaths. That is how we know we are still human, when we see our soldiers dying and are led to question whether what we (as a nation) are doing is right.
Were we not to do this, our soldiers would become fodder, pieces of meat on a remote and forgotten battlefield, out of the public conscience. Their deaths would be like yesterday's news, unimportant. This is not support.
Every dead soldier is an opportunity, if not a mandate, to question and confirm that we are still human, that we still feel for every death and measure them against progress being made. But were we to say, when someone dies, THIS IS WAR!, THAT IS THE WAY OF WAR!, this is a most cowardly act.
People die in war and this is why it is so important to be absolutely sure that the correct things are being done. If we can look back in future years and say of our soldiers, they achieved their mission because they were careful to remain on course, because they held on to their humanity in the midst of bloodshed and refused to become killing machines, that they achieved their mission not because it was war and they were warriors, but because they refused to let war change them from the caring people they were before, THEN we have right to be proud. THEN they may be called heroes.
So let us question more fervently and demand more vociferously that our men and women are supported. And let us strive to ensure that they know that we are not just there with them but there to direct them. They may rest easy knowing that someone has their back. This is the greatest service we can offer them.