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John Reid Speech - The Challenges of Modern War

John Reid Speech - The Challenges Of Modern War

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John Reid Speech - The Challenges Of Modern War

The Challenges of Modern War
by John Reid, MP, British Defence Secretary
In response to a scandal over the behaviour of British soldiers
King's College, London
20 February 2006

Let me first explain why I am here today. This speech is not about defending indefensible conduct. We have standards to maintain, and they will be maintained. But it is about balance and fairness towards our troops.

It is not just about Iraq. It is about Iraq and Afghanistan and Bosnia and Kosovo and Sierra Leone and places like the earthquake zone in Pakistan - and everywhere else in the world where our service men and women act as a force for good.

My aim is certainly to explain and question. But it's also to ensure that the chorus of voices rightly raised in condemnation whenever standards are violated are balanced by a commensurate chorus of willing recognition whenever our armed forces and those who serve in them bring comfort and aid, protection and stability, opportunities and freedom to millions in Europe and the world beyond.

Those forces fight today in a changed and hugely uneven battlefield. The job of soldiering has seen four significant and unprecedented changes in recent years.

And I believe that these changes have made life far more difficult for the men and women who do the job. Moreover, I think we all need to see - and urgently - a greater understanding of this in public, political and media discussion.

Let me outline what I think these changes are, before explaining why I think it is so vital that they are understood.

First of all, our context is a level of understanding about what soldiers do which has fallen amongst our civilian population over time.

The last conscript left the British armed forces 45 years ago.

There is an argument that even since then - despite seeing and reading more than ever about the work of the services - the public have a continually looser grasp of what it means to be a soldier in this new security environment than was the case a generation ago.

People then had direct personal experience of the role of the armed forces. Amongst people ten years my senior almost all men had at least a first hand experience of service life through national service; and for my father's and grandfather's generations, most had seen active service and, often, combat.

Our armed forces have the power and respect to help overcome this lack of direct experience. They are held in high regard. They have the potential to explain to civilians the differences and advances to people's lives that the military has made.

But this is an issue in which all of us have a role, in helping to overcome the barrier which separates military from civilian life. I will not dwell on that today but will return to in more detail on another occasion. Suffice it to say here that it forms the context which makes it even more difficult to comprehend the great changes which are taking place in today's military struggles and how they affects our troops.

The first of these great changes is in the type of enemy we face today. The enemy our parents and grandparents faced in the first and second world wars wore a different uniform to theirs, but had aims and, by and large, had conduct they could understand. The enemy fought much as we fought; his forces were structured in much the same way. And, by and large, they accepted the same conventions. Today's most dangerous, global enemy, the terrorist, does not.

Here let me stress that our enemy is not Islam. Indeed in military and civil interventions in Kosovo, Bosnia, the recent Pakistan earthquake and in Afghanistan, UK armed forces have time and again risked themselves to save Muslims lives. They have fought for what is right and opposed what is wrong irrespective of religion. In the long struggle against terrorism, what we combat is not a religion; it is a twisted evil using religion as cover.

We do all of this today against an enemy unrecognisable from the past, indeed unprecedented. It is the completely unconstrained terrorist.

We face an adversary:

which revels in mass murder;
which sets out to cause the greatest pain it can to innocent people;
which is entirely unconstrained by any law;
which sees all civilians, including women and children not as non-combatants but as easy targets;
which sees terror as a key part of its arsenal, and
which both glorifies and operates suicide bombers.
It is an enemy, unfettered by any sense of morality - indeed it is spurred on by a perverse perception of morality to achieve ever-greater extent of civilian carnage. It is thus driven to take innocent people as prisoners and degrade them, humiliate them, even ritually murder them on camera for the purpose of terrorising others - methods which we could not conceive being used even a short time ago.

Where we intrinsically value life, they do not. And worst of all - these are not isolated aberrations, condemned or punished when discovered by their superiors. They are the systematic tools of terror.

In our history we have faced enemies before which have embraced some of these methods. Never, though, have we faced an enemy that had the will and the technological means to embrace them all on such a scale.

In the 20th century, the Nazis used the most modern technology available to pursue their evil - the V2 bombs, Zyklon B and Lord Haw-haw on the radio. Nowadays, al-Qaeda use the latest, 21st-century technology available to them to pursue their evil - the internet and remotely-detonated roadside bombs. And, crucially, anyone who uses planes to try to kill tens of thousands of people won't hesitate to use chemical and biological weapons to kill hundreds of thousands, or millions with ease.

Without the wartime generation that made sacrifices to defeat Hitler, we wouldn't have the freedoms to fight this more modern evil. Without the courage of today's troops we wouldn't have the means to protect those freedoms. Both those groups must sometimes feel that if Lord Haw-haw was still around today, someone would be telling us that human rights demand that he be given a weekly column in our newspapers.

That's why this unconstrained terrorist enemy believes their appproach puts our own forces at a disadvantage, both in the battles on the ground, and in the battle for ideas in which we are also engaged.

And that brings us to a second changed aspect of this struggle. Our adversary will try to achieve his aims by using our very freedoms against us. It sees the free western media as a virtual battleground in itself - where the swaying of public opinion away from support for our campaigns, can be the path to a swift victory; a quick way of undermining our public morale and endurance.

Endurance, said Napoleon, is more important than even courage in a struggle. And it is morale which underpins endurance. That is why undermining our morale is so important to the enemy.

The strategic goal of the act of terrorism is fear, directed at breaking the will of their opponent. To a terrorist, the news reporting of an incident is nothing more than a method of amplifying and transmitting that fear. I fully accept that this is a difficult bind for a free media in a democratic country whose news values are driven by commercial competition in an international market.

But, be in no doubt, terrorists want to use our democratic freedom of speech to destroy our will to fight for our democratic values.

There would be no free media in a world run by al-Qaeda, but they are happy to issue press releases and videos to independent news organisations in the hope they broadcast their messages.

There is no curtailment of systematic violence against civilians by al-Qaeda; quite the opposite. But they and their apologists will be the first to complain and exploit isolated unlawful acts by those ranged against them. In this life and death struggle they want both of their hands free and both of our hands tied behind our back.

The terrorists have become adept at using the media to their ends. It is the media's responsibility to ensure that in reporting the facts, which it can and must do, does not fall victim to this campaign.

Responsible news organisations battle with this dilemma daily. We should never forget, either, that many journalists have died at the hands of the terrorists for trying to report these facts too.

On all these fronts one could argue that our forces are fighting at a disadvantage. Yet this so-called disadvantage is often what we are fighting for. It is the rule of law and the virtue of freedom of expression versus barbarism.

It is a "disadvantage" we neither renounce nor reject, since it is based on our own morality, legality, our democracy, our own sense of proportion, our own hard-won ideals of decency and behaviour.

And these changes - including the unconstrained nature of the terrorist enemy - will be overcome slowly by victory in the battle of ideas - it will take time but like the battle against Nazism or the ideological struggle with Communism it can and will be won.

Neither of these two changes has been sudden. They did not happen overnight. Instead they have been slow, and subtle. But for all that they have been very real.

But something else has changed and is still changing fast. It is this third issue that I want to concentrate on - the technology revolution and in particular the changes in communications and information technology.

We live and fight in the age of the internet and of satellite communications. These developments have seen a seismic shift not only on the tactical battlefield but also in the way operations are conducted strategically.

Satellite images are vital targeting information for the military one day, and the next they might be at the centre of global debate about the legitimacy of that action. This has had significant military consequences; it has made many tactical actions strategic:

As General Rupert Smith the British commander of UN protection force in Bosnia from 1995 has observed: "small tactical actions have unforeseen consequences at the strategic level... political factors are being included at ever-lower levels in the military command hierarchy... in conducting their business the generals, colonels, captains and occasionally corporals have a political effect, it is they who deal with the local leaders and with other agencies, both military and political, be they governmental or non governmental, the fire department or the police, UNHCR or Human Rights Watch, or the media" (R Smith Wars in our time - World defence Systems 3/2/2001)

New technology has so compressed command hierarchies that the old divisions between the so called "levels of war" - grand strategic, military strategic, operational and tactical - are breaking down. This makes political military command and control hierarchy flatter.

And most significantly technology has enabled, for the first time, real-time media scrutiny of war, on a scale and a level of intrusiveness inconceivable only a few decades ago.

Indeed military academics now argue that this presence of "the international media (accredited and otherwise) with very sophisticated means of communication, introduces another real time debate that does not merely enable political involvement in the conduct of the campaign, but insists on it" (Dr Paul Cornish, Carrington Chair in International Security, Chatham House in "Cry Havoc and let slip the managers of war" 2006)

Now those of us with even a passing familiarity with Clausewitz should not be surprised at this, since, contrary to assumptions, he never argued that political discourse is suspended when war breaks out, but that it continues to shape and constrain the conduct of warfare.

However, when he described war as "simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means" he did draw a divide between politics and policy on the one hand and matters military on the other by saying: "Policy of course will not extend its influence to operational details. Political considerations do not determine the posting of guards or the employment of patrols". He was right in his time. But I don't believe he could have imagined an era when technology had gone so far in breaking down this division, and these very issues would have been beamed into living rooms across the globe live on television within seconds and analysed within minutes.

One observer, with one videophone, or today even one mobile phone, standing in one square metre of a vast and hugely complex theatre of operations can convey an oversimplified and sometimes misleading picture with an impact that is incalculable.

And unlike the changes I have already outlined - civilian culture, an unconstrained enemy and their will to use our freedoms against us - I contend this is something we are going to have to live with. This technological genie cannot be returned to its bottle.

The actions of our armed forces, at home and abroad, have never been under greater scrutiny than they are today. Our forces are operating - in this hazardous new environment - under a microscope and that microscope is here to stay.

And this is why I believe British troops are now forced to operate on what I call "an uneven playing field of scrutiny". Real time analysis of our forces' actions down to the level of a single private soldier, whilst the enemy which refuses any scrutiny at all and endeavours to exploit our highly prized free media against us.

There is now asymmetric - uneven - scrutiny of warfare. And it is unlikely to go away so long as we fight terrorists who oppose our democratic way of life.

This is a matter of crucial importance. Given the importance of morale in sustaining military campaigns, it follows that democracies themselves are open to a constant threat to national morale - with our enemies seeking to portray every isolated blemish as a general picture - while they themselves systematically and deliberately commit the most heinous of crimes.

The answer? We all need to get smarter and understand this new battlespace better. I hope this speech contributes towards that discussion among commentators and the public.

It is this uneven battlefield of one-sided scrutiny which has done so much to encourage the perception among our troops that they are increasingly constrained while the enemy is freer than ever to perpetrate the most inhumane practices and crimes.

Nowhere more so than in the fields of standards and legal constraints. British forces act within the law. The terrorists do not. It is important for the country to realise the lengths to which our armed forces go to stay within the law.

We require them to expose themselves to greater risk and danger by working to a set of rules and principles that our enemies will never adhere to. Wherever in the world they go, our forces are subject to military law and, therefore, English criminal law. And they respect the Geneva Conventions. Not just because we expect them to, but because treating people fairly - even the enemy - is the bedrock of our society.

Our commitment to the rule of law is seen by some as a tactical weakness, and in isolation that may be understandable. But whatever the short-term tactical drawbacks I believe it is a strategic strength.

It is often these very principles that we are fighting to defend. Simply bending the rules or avoiding them altogether is not an option. That is one of the things that so offends our military when they hear commentators suggest that our soldiers are acting illegally on a grand scale.

It is precisely the exceptional nature of the offences which make them headlines. But wouldn't it be nice, wouldn't it be fair, if the contribution of the 100,000 good and brave actions were given equal prominence to the offences of the few.

Then our screens would be full, night after night, with examples of the freedoms gained, the lives enhanced, the good done by our forces. Night after night. Boring maybe, but fairer and more balanced.

Soldiers know, the hard way, the lengths we go to conduct ourselves within the law in exceptionally difficult and dangerous circumstances - circumstances which some of their critics will never experience or even begin to understand.

This takes us into an important theoretical debate about legality in war which has not had much airing in our national debate. Michael Ignatieff has argued that: "The decisive restraint on inhuman practice on the battlefield lies within the warrior himself, in his conception of what is honourable or dishonourable for a man to do with weapons" (The Warrior's Honour 1998)

I agree. The British army is a superb and deeply ethical professional body precisely because it seeks to inject morality - right and wrong - into the harsh reality of warfare, which is the least conductive of moral environments, especially now with such an uneven battlefield.

Of course the legal profession would argue that the fundamentals of law under which our people operate have changed little. That may be true from a technical perspective.

But from the soldiers perspective, the framework and the context in which they are fighting have changed.

Firstly, the changes I have already mentioned. Then they hear and read a great deal about the Human Rights Act and other international legislation - usually in sensationalist terms. And they believe that there has been an exponential growth in the numbers of lawyers actively looking for cases to bring against British troops by promising potential clients significant compensation payments.

And, of course, the conduct of the enemy, in systematically rejecting any previously accepted constraints, conventions or standards in combat, only makes this contrast all the more sharp.

And so, soldiers on the ground perceive the situation to have changed - something the legal profession can't always grasp the significance of because they have no experience of being in those situations.

We ask an enormous amount of our troops; that the most junior faces risks, dangers, threats unimaginable to most of us; that our officers take calculated risks, and make immediate life and death decisions upon which literally thousands of lives may depend.

Our legal culture, just like our civilian culture would do well to ponder these circumstances at length in this changing world. That's why I am so glad that the Attorney General and others have made the effort to visit operational theatres - precisely in order to better understand these circumstances and these feelings.

That is crucially important. Because human rights legislation - that has improved lives in so many areas - has also sometimes become the convenient banner under which some who are fundamentally opposed to our Armed Forces, or to the government of the day, or to a particular military conflict, have chosen to march.

They give the impression that they have no regard for, and even less understanding of, the difficulties faced by individual soldiers.

So let us understand that soldiers have been left confused and unsettled by the perception that human rights lawyers and international bodies such as the International Criminal Court are waiting in the wings to step in and act against them.

Let us understand that perception, even if we disagree with it. And let us re-assure them. Let us make it plain that the reality is that they operate under British law. That if they are accused of breaking that law they are innocent until proved otherwise. If, and only if, those charges are proved can they expect to be punished. But that's a decision that will be made in a British Court - not the ICC.

However hard some may try to misrepresent these sentiments, none of this can or should be read as a call for British forces to operate outside the law.

I know that soldiers themselves understand better than any of us the importance of being seen to operate legally by the local population on the ground - their safety, and that of their comrades, often depends on it.

But there needs to be a clearer understanding that British criminal and military law is robust and effective. It is these laws under which soldiers operate.

Equally, let us lay to rest the accusation that senior military figures or politicians are somehow allowing soldiers to face charges they shouldn't for reasons of political correctness. I hope that my comments today illustrate that suggestion is both ridiculous and offensive.

In fact the opposite is true. The Chiefs and I are determined to explain, re-assure and to do what we can to protect the men and women who serve this country so bravely and so well.

That's one of the reasons why I am making these points here today. There are several others.

Firstly because I want to reassure those interested and supportive of our armed forces that I, and all the Service Chiefs, absolutely understand these concerns.

Also because I am a Secretary of State who believes that we, the politicians and the public and the press, owe it to our troops to shield them from unjustified criticism, and to help explain the special role of the military to our increasingly civilian society. Along with the Service Chiefs, I am determined to do just that.

And I make the case also, because I am British, a citizen of these islands, who believes that when our troops are in mortal combat they deserve the support of the whole nation.

For all these reasons I want to see a greater level of understanding in the British public debate of the realities of modern conflict and the people we send into it.

We expect our people to uphold the highest standards of behaviour, and when they fail we will act, quite rightly. But they also have the right to expect everyone else, whose safety and freedoms are dependent upon them, to consider the environment in which they are operating before we pass judgement from the safety of a television studio, from the green benches of Parliament or from the comfort of an armchair.

Today our troops face an unprecedented and unparalleled challenge that requires them to respond in heroic fashion. I ask that the increasing number of us who do not come from military backgrounds take time to learn a little of the fantastic job they do on all our behalf.

I ask that we try to imagine what it must be like on the battlefield, so that we may all be a little slower to condemn and a lot quicker to understand and support what I believe is the best fighting force in the world..

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