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Army risks losing its reputation, warns general

By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent (Filed: 21/08/2005)

One of the Army's most senior officers has warned that it is in danger of losing its reputation as a "highly respected British institution" because it is being forced to recruit soldiers from a "morally corrupt and dysfunctional" society, where young men idolise foul-mouthed footballers.

Maj Gen Graeme Lamb branded many recruits as "cocky and arrogant and brought up on a diet of football brats and binge drinking. . . who are not educated in and able to recognise self-discipline".

His stark assessment came in a speech to senior infantry officers about the war in Iraq, entitled "Operational Success - Strategic Failure". He said that allegations of prisoner abuse against soldiers could fatally undermine the Army.

"We are in very real danger of losing our place in society as a highly respected British institution, an institution built on over two centuries of bloody investment and one which today stands virtually alone in the eyes of this and many other nations. . . This trust, this underlying admiration, is today under direct and sustained attack.

"This trust afforded to us by the Government and the public allows us to operate as an army unlike any other. If we lose this trust - like parts of the medical profession, the political parties, the police and even more recently the Catholic Church - the road back is simply blocked. Heed the warning, the road back if trust is lost will be blocked for the better part of my life if not a generation."

Gen Lamb, the commander of the Army's 3rd Division, received the DSO after leading troops in Iraq from July to December, 2003, when the Army was under almost daily attack from insurgents.

The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that his comments, made to the Infantry Conference in Warminster, Wiltshire, recently, reflect concern among senior officers, including Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff, that the military's reputation is being eroded by allegations of abuse in Iraq, bullying and sex scandals and the deaths of recruits at Deepcut.

In a reference to abuse in Iraq, Gen Lamb said: "The officers and men under our command did not live up to the standard we expected of them. Those who failed were empowered when they should not have been, were left unsupervised when we probably knew they should not have, were allowed to embrace and populate a culture that was simply unworthy of us all."

He appeared to suggest that the problems were exacerbated by having to recruit and retain soldiers of poor quality because of the pressure of military commitments.

"In striving to achieve hard manning targets we retained some of those we might not have, while we recruited from a society which has in the last 30 years become marginally more dysfunctional and increasingly self-interested and in places morally corrupt. And all the while being told we were out of step with 'Cool Britannia'.

"The argument over whether highly paid and very public football stars should be allowed to swear blind mouthed and in public at authority, in this case the referee, has a bearing on my point. These are the role models our recruits and soldiers are brought up on."

A senior officer who was at the conference said: "Gen Lamb is a highly respected officer and he didn't pull any punches. His reference to foul-mouthed footballers, which we all knew was a reference to Wayne Rooney and others like him, was absolutely accurate. It needed to be said."

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "These are the personal views of Gen Lamb. The Army plays an important role in the personal development of new recruits and seeks to ensure the highest standards are maintained by providing first class training for all."


Opinion

The Army must not be a scapegoat for our society

By Max Hastings (Filed: 21/08/2005)

The British Army may not be the biggest, but it is the best. For generations, through peace and war, this has been an article of faith not only for the public, but among serving soldiers. Yet today this great institution faces a crisis of self-confidence. It is vividly reflected in the speech by General Graeme Lamb, reported in The Sunday Telegraph today. "Our reputation is on the line," he told officers at the Infantry Conference. Every uniformed man and woman to whom he spoke knows what he means.

The scandals surrounding suicides at Deepcut barracks and wrongdoings in Iraq have made bitter headlines. Cuts in infantry strength and operational "overstretch" have created serious morale difficulties. The unpopularity of the Iraq commitment has increased problems of recruitment and retention which affect almost every arm of the services. Gen Lamb's remarkably forthright speech goes to the heart of the issue. While many soldiers are still of high quality, and perform to high standards, others are not and do not. Regiments would be better off without their dross, if they could afford to lose them - which, with their manning difficulties, they cannot.

The Army has always expected to recruit some rough raw material and shape it to its own ways. Yet in an age when, as Lamb says, foul-mouthed footballers who know nothing of respect for authority or civilised behaviour are the role models whom recruits honour from infancy, it is hard to condition soldiers to a decently disciplined - and self-disciplined - ethos before they are thrust into operational deployments where they wield powers of life and death.

A young man can be trained in weeks to fire weapons and operate equipment. It takes far longer to teach an inner-city adolescent to shed the habits of a young lifetime; to mould him into a soldier who understands that respect for life, property, authority and himself - things of which some have learned nothing at home or school - are fundamental.

In some respects, Gen Lamb's speech is too hard on his own institution. The modern British Army has changed much less than the world in which it is expected to fight. "This is a new environment," a senior officer said to me a few weeks ago. "It is very hard to continue to do the business we have always done, when human rights lawyers are roaming the battlefield, looking for clients in the Iraqi population amid which we fight."

Every generation of British soldiers has had its rotten apples. In the past, however, little public notice was taken of their misdemeanours and yes, crimes, as long as most of the Army did its business honourably and well. Commanders like Colonel "Mad Mitch" Mitchell (who later became a notably Right-wing Tory MP) did shocking things to Arabs in Aden in 1967, while becoming a hero at home.

Almost 30 years ago, an SAS trooper described to me a long, weary 1943 battle which he and his squadron fought in Italy, confronting Germans across a ravine. Suddenly, he said, an iron-tough former booth boxer in the next foxhole sprang up and ran to a bridge 200 yards distant. The man had spotted some women sheltering under the stonework. My eye-witness said with a grin: "Our bloke got to the bridge, had one of the women and was back in the trench, shot at both ways, inside ten minutes."

My point here is that this veteran told his story as an example of the black comedy of war. I was sufficiently callow to record it as such. Yet later I perceived the obvious: here was a straightforward case of rape, for which no modern officer would hesitate to send the man responsible for trial.

In the Second World War, the British record was incomparably better than that of, say, the Red Army. Yet such things happened, and often went unpunished. In a war of national survival, nobody much cared as long as the victims were enemy nationals.

The excesses of Wellington's Peninsular Army were legendary. Henry V's soldiers at Agincourt may have enchanted Shakespeare, but their behaviour in France formed part of a century-long saga of pillage and massacre, redeemed only by courage and fortitude. In short, some of the men who won the battles that made Britain great were not the kind one would choose as household pets. In 1916, the Royal Flying Corps briefly employed a psychiatrist to screen trainees for psychopaths, obsessives and the like. The practice was abandoned when it was noticed that most aces fell into one category or another.

Today the British Army is expected to fight unprecedentedly cunning and ruthless guerrilla foes. Our society wishes them to achieve its ends, while meeting far more rigorous standards of conduct than those which formerly prevailed. In principle, this is admirable. None of us would seek to defend soldiers' excesses, above all towards innocent civilians. Yet we thus thrust an enormous new burden upon commanders. It is very difficult to recruit an army capable of doing its historic business in war - that of killing and being killed - from men and women who are universally civilised.

What is remarkable is not how many British soldiers have proved brutes, but how few. Yet to expect that today's Army should maintain higher standards than those of our society at large is to ask much. Teachers often assert that, in a few daily hours at school, they cannot imbue pupils with standards utterly lacking at home. Likewise, it seems unjust that Sir Mike Jackson, Graeme Lamb and their kind should be expected to make of all their men something better and nobler than the stuff they inherit from Premier League fan clubs and the drug alleys of Manchester or Liverpool.

It is miraculous that the British Army is as successful as it is in moulding most of its recruits into decent soldiers. It is right that commanders should be deeply embarrassed by Deepcut and by the excesses of individuals in Iraq. But we must not allow ourselves to damn the institution because of these failures.

The falls from grace of some soldiers reflects at least as shockingly on the society from which they come as upon the Army, which is expected in a few months to transform young animals - and the worst products of the inner cities are no more - into honourable warriors.

Some soldiers today behave as badly as they always have, with the difference that they get found out. Gen Lamb should not breast-beat himself and his kind too harshly for failures of command, though failures there have been. Rather, we might ask whether as a society we still deserve the profound virtues of the British Army, if we allow it to become sole scapegoat for vices that are as much ours as its own. If we wish this great institution to survive and prosper, it needs our support and that of the Government which sends it so often to fight, yet treats it so scurvily.

Max Hastings is the author of Warriors: Extraordinary Tales From the Battlefield (Harper Collins 20)