04 April 2006
Soldiers who can say no.
Max Hastings has posted an interesting article on the Guardian's blog page. In it he argues that many professional soldiers on both sides of the Atlantic were dubious, to say the least, about the wars against Afghnaistan and Iraq. His key paragraph reads:
Perhaps the most important lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that senior soldiers on both sides of the Atlantic should be braver about saying no. Armed forces are the servants of democratic governments. But their commanders should recognise a constitutional duty to dig in their heels when invited by politicians to undertake operations they perceive as militarily unsound. This the 2003 Iraq invasion emphatically was, because of the US government's refusal meaningfully to address "phase IV" occupation planning.
I must admit that I sympathise with the sentiments expressed in this article, but am very, very dubious about this conclusion. If we take the argument to its logical end, then such ideas could be used to justify coups and rumours of coups. The streets of many Latin American capitals have seen more than their fair share of dead, legitimate politicians, and soldiers who claim that they had a duty to uphold some principle or other.
Clearly Max Hastings is not advocating this, but the problem with his argument is that once a principle is established it can then be used for venal, as well as noble, purposes. Giving the armed forces a constitutional role in policy making - for that is what this article is about - could lead down a dangerous and slippery path that is best avoided altogether.
It makes far more sense to argue that it is Parliament's role to oversee the executive, and that Parliament has failed in that duty. One might argue that the Royal Prerogatives that are currently held by the Prime Minister, such as the power to declare war, should be in Parliament's hands. It might also be argued that the party system acts to prevent proper oversight of the government, since so many MPs are on the government's payroll. How to restore a proper balance between the government and the legislature is a legitimate debate that is long overdue in the United Kingdom.
However, what is not legitimate - if only because it is so damned dangerous to constitutional order - is a debate about giving the armed forces a veto over government decisions.