The military covenant – let’s be careful

Am I the only person here in Britain to feel just a little uncomfortable over the so-called “Military Covenant”, given prominence by the Prime Minister over the last couple of days.  This basically holds that servicemen should be given extra respect by the rest of us because they put their lives on the line on our behalf.  This is meant to have practical consequences for medical treatment, housing and schooling for their children.  There is talk of enshrining this in law.

I don’t have an issue with these practical points.  The demands of service personnel (especially tours of duty in remote spots) place huge pressures on family life in particular, which means that it is very easy for service families to fall foul of arrangements designed for the rest of us.  It sounds as if these could do with improving.  Service families, servicemen who are injured (mentally or physically), and those making the difficult transition to civilian life, all deserve extra attention from our public services.  Mind you, I would like our public services to do a better job for everybody.

But respect?  This can’t be unqualified.  Soldiers do put their lives on the line on the public’s behalf.  But it isn’t like firemen going into burning buildings to rescue people.  We equip these people with lethal force and (in practice) some fairly free rights to use it.  In the big perspective, this power is often abused.  Sometimes soldiers (or airmen or sailors for that matter) are just careless with innocent lives.  But many worse atrocities occur, for no better reason than the individuals want to exert power.  A lot of soldiers are, well, not very nice people; that goes with the job, but we need to be careful.  Most of the worst atrocities around the world are committed by people in armed services.  It’s very easy for them to abuse their power.

The record of modern British forces is not at all bad.  But things do go wrong; we have abuses of prisoners in Iraq, for example.  And there was Bloody Sunday, of course.  But the standing of British servicemen (and women) has never been higher in my memory; perhaps there’s a bit of guilt there since we don’t really understand what we are meant to be doing in Afghanistan.  If they have maintained high standards of conduct, then they have earned their status as heroes.  But the line between hero and villain is very easy to stray across.  We must hold our servicemen to that standard.  Treat them as heroes if they uphold it, but not otherwise.

It is all too easy for people to excuse bad behaviour by their military.  Just look at how long it took for the British establishment to accept that Bloody Sunday was bad.  It’s all very difficult in the stress of combat, we say, and other countries are worse.  But all soldiers know that discipline is critical to their role.  It is imperative to our civilisation that we hold our service personnel to high standards of conduct.