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The Supreme Court Mothballs the British Army

19 June 2013

2:51 PM

19 June 2013

2:51 PM

The British Army may never go to war again. Not because it is under-resourced and over-stretched but because, as of today, it may no longer be able to afford casualties. That, at any rate, is one thought prompted by the Supreme Court’s extraordinary – to my mind – ruling that dead soldiers’ families can sue the ministry of Defence for damages.

According to the Supreme Court justices, the MoD may have been negligent in its “duty of care” and, consequently, the families may sue the government for failing, apparently, to safeguard the human rights of soldiers killed in Iraq (and, presumably, elsewhere).

The court dismissed the MoD’s suggestion there might sensibly be “battlefield immunity”. I cannot for the life of me understand why. (The whole judgement can be read here.)

Soldiering is a dangerous business. That was once thought a point so obvious it did not need to be made. Wars generally involve death. Fewer deaths, mind you, these days than in the past – suggesting, if you must couch these things in these terms, that the MoD does a better job of protecting its employees’ “human rights” than ever before – but, ye gods, it is not possible to eliminate risk from warfare. People will die. That’s rather the point.

According to one widow, however:

“We want combat immunity thrown out of the rulebook, so instead of soldiers having to sue the Ministry of Defence, the equipment and the training will be in place to stop things like this happening again.”

Really? That’s simply impossible. Equipment and training can never be perfect. Risk cannot be avoided. Mistakes happen. Deaths are unavoidable. But in the view of the mother of one dead soldier this verdict means:

“They can no longer treat soldiers as sub-human with no rights,”

You need to be pretty iron-hearted not to feel some sympathy for the relatives of soldiers killed in action but the whining notion soldiers at war should be protected by some kind of military health and safety code is, in the end, utterly preposterous.

As for a “duty of care”, a reasonable person might conclude that the vast expense of military training and equipment demonstrates that this is something the MoD takes extremely seriously. It is not in the business, these days, of throwing soldiers into the fray under-equipped and under-trained. Indeed, you can make a decent case that the army these days is too cautious, too risk-averse, too mindful of the cost of boys going home in body bags and that this hampers its operational effectiveness. At the very least, however, this also demonstrates the MoD’s awareness that soldiers are precious, expensive and not to be wasted.

No-one is forced to join the British army. No-one can sensibly say they aren’t warned about the risks of military life. It is part of the bargain you make and there is something unseemly, even grasping, about these attempts to suggest otherwise.

Sometimes equipment will prove inadequate. That’s the problem with war; the enemy are allowed to fight too. Pretending – as this ruling appears to do – that war is just another job subject to the usual kinds of employment laws and responsibilities is, on the face of it, an absurdity.

Just as well, obviously, that these attitudes did not apply in the past when casualty rates were many times higher than they are in modern conflicts. I can’t imagine the families of many of those killed during the Second World War would be altogether impressed with the attitudes on parade at the Supreme Court today.

What next? Suing some subaltern because he made a battlefield decision that, even if operationally sound and successful (not that this should matter), unavoidably led to the deaths of troops under his command? Madness.

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