William Rees-Mogg has a powerful piece in today's London Times on how Gordon Brown's government is failing British troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a depressing tale of how the culmination of ten years of political neglect and underfunding is having a devastating effect on both morale and on operational capabilities – and how more troops are being killed and wounded as a direct result.
Rees-Mogg points out that, as a percentage of national income, defence expenditure is lower than at any time since the early 1930s (and we all know what happened at the end of that decade). While some cuts were inevitable after the collapse of Soviet Union, he adds, "the rundown continued, even after Britain had been committed to a war on two fronts in the Middle East".
As well as operational problems caused by massive cuts in the military budget (in addition to the well-documented shortages of armoured vehicles, the British don't, for example, have enough helicopters to effectively evacuate their wounded), Rees-Mogg highlights the almost slum conditions in which many soldiers' families live in Britain; it's hardly fair to ask to ask a man to fight, and possibly die, for a country that won't even look after his wife and children.
On top of all this, Rees-Moog writes about how soldiers in the field are being forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs due to an aversion to casualties (which paradoxically is leading to increased casualties) and other political considerations:
At a time when the Basra palace was being hit by 40 to 50 rockets a day, the soldiers would have liked to sort out the people firing the rockets. In practice, there were political inhibitions against such action. Junior officers felt that there was a total lack of clarity about objectives.
Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were lurking convictions that our troops were not fighting to win, but for some sort of draw, with withdrawal or the realignment of local crimes as the real objectives. In this respect, American tactics were probably more effective.
Rees-Mogg is also critical of Gordon Brown's bizarre decision to retain Des Browne as Secretary of State for Defence, while simultaneously appointing him as Secretary of State for Scotland – as if the political responsibility for running two wars was one that could be discharged in between visits to the Highland Games and a shortbread factory.
In the US the debate is about when to bring the troops home from Iraq. In the UK, that decision appears to have already been taken. The debate now – and it's one that very few people are interested in – is whether or not we'll give our troops what they need to prevail in Afghanistan, and, looking further ahead, whether we're prepared to provide the money and the political will to sustain any kind of effective Armed Forces at all.