A moral covenant with the military

What should be the relationship between a democratic state and its armed forces? It is easier for politicians to play to popular sentiment about “our boys” than to address the moral and constitutional issues.

Enshrining the 'military covenant' in statute is doubtless good party politics. David Cameron has shown himself to be quite shameless in conflating support for the military with love of country. Promoting Armed Forces Day in 2010, the Prime Minister called for “an explosion of red white and blue all over the country”. The implication was that if you had reservations about this, you were not a good, patriotic citizen and were not doing your duty in support of the armed forces.

It is de rigueur for politicians to praise the undisputed bravery and skill of armed forces personnel. But all too often, that has seemed to serve as a substitute for equipping them properly and taking good care of their needs when they return from active service, broken in mind or body. That has to change but it is questionable as to whether a legal covenant is the means by which to provide for those needs. It certainly will do nothing about the hypocrisy, expediency and lack of vision which so regularly places servicemen and women in wholly avoidable situations of suffering and slaughter. (Consider the despots and hate figures whom the West has been happy to arm and support in the past: Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, Gaddafi, the Afghan Talibs)

The government argues that soldiers, sailors and aircrew are expected, by the nature of their employment, to accept the possibility of death or injury and that they must be duly rewarded for their willingness to do so. The reality is that individuals will sometimes be sacrificed for national objectives. Those objectives are defined by governments in a manner which frequently takes no account of the will of the electorate.

So what of the balance of power between people and politicians; politicians and military commanders? One clause of the covenant describes "the unique nature of military land operations [which] means that the army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the Nation" and concludes that this creates “a mutual obligation”.

Between the civil power of a democratic state and its military, the relationship is one of command and subservience. This is not a “mutual obligation” in any legal sense. Control of the military must always be in the hands of elected politicians (except in extreme circumstances where commanders believe they have been given orders which are illegal) and anything which could dilute or obfuscate that is potentially dangerous and undemocratic. Making laws which have not been thought through may have profoundly serious constitutional consequences.

Certainly, the care, housing, pay and support of service personnel should be of the highest standard. (As, by the way, should that of fire-fighters, lifeboat crews, police and mountain rescue teams – all highly skilled and courageous people who uncomplainingly put their lives at risk for the protection and safety of their fellow citizens.)

But this does not require a legal arrangement which has the potential to alter the relationship between politicians and generals. The former must always have primacy and must learn to take greater heed of the will of the people and of parliament before committing service personnel to conflict situations.

We need to serve our armed forces better. The covenant says "British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals." The best way to meet those rights is to advocate for greater integrity in international affairs, for anticipation of international flashpoints to avoid conflict, and for the devoting of resources to resolving conflict when it does occur.

When that is done, politicians can rightfully demand a loyal and obedient response from the armed forces under their control. That is the covenant for which we should strive. It is a moral covenant, not a legal one.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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