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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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..