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Note of a meeting held at the St Bride Foundation Institute on

Wednesday, 16th January 2002






Lord Guthrie began by saying that the numbers in the Armed forces were now very low – 100,000 in the Army and far fewer in the Navy and Air Force – so that many people had little or no direct contact with Service life. Nevertheless, British people were notably proud of the Forces and successive polls over a number of years had shown that support for them had never fallen below 72%. The military was naturally somewhat conservative but the nature of its work had changed significantly over the last thirty years, making peacekeeping and support for aid increasingly important alongside the continuing primary function of readiness for armed action. The need to comply with the growing body of international and European law also presented new and sometimes difficult demands.


It was essential to recognise that the conditions of military operations were radically different from most civilian activities. For example, it would be unthinkable to make combat decisions subject to trade union negotiations. This also affected the application of human rights to various groups of people, although it was clearly right to implement general standards where conditions allowed. Lord Guthrie thought that the claim of a general right to serve for disabled people was misguided. Most of the non-combatant jobs for which some disabled people had been suitable had been civilianised and there was now little room for non-combatant careers in the Forces. The situation of homosexuals had recently been eased by administrative action, making no significant difference and causing no great problems. The Forces were trying hard to increase recruitment from the ethnic minorities and remove the problems sometimes encountered in their training and career development, and were working towards a target of 5%. The results had so far been somewhat disappointing, with the current proportion standing at 2%, but the Commission for Racial Equality were appreciative of the efforts which were being made. Women could present particular problems. The jobs held by 70% of the Army, and higher proportions in the Navy and Air Force, were open on equal terms to both sexes. However, there had been difficult experiences with women in combat conditions in Israel and the US and Lord Guthrie thought there should continue to be areas reserved for men, eg tanks.


Important changes had been made in military law. 95% of cases were dealt with, satisfactorily, by a summary justice system. For serious offences, court martial procedure had been reformed, particularly by bringing in more junior officers and by making a distinction between those making the charges and those judging them. The International Criminal Court had been somewhat weakened by the refusal of the US to participate in its work, but it provided a number of safeguards recognising military conditions. However, there was a danger of encouraging a culture of excessive blaming and in the growing trend to assume that every personal setback established a claim for monetary compensation. Litigation could make members of the Forces, who necessarily had to take risks where outcomes could never be certain, unduly risk-averse, especially when tribunals showed a deficient understanding of combat conditions and constraints.


In the succeeding discussion a number of questions were raised. Foot soldiers were bound by rules of engagement, but what about bomber pilots? Lord Guthrie affirmed that they too had rules and carried a heavy weight of moral responsibility, which at times had led them (rightly) to return to their bases without dropping their bombs, because of the extreme uncertainty of the outcome. However, although collateral damage could not be totally avoided, carefully planned and targeted bombing could sometimes decide a conflict with less loss of life than a ground war.


‘Unlawful combatants’, such as those currently detained by the US in Cuba and treated as outside the Geneva Convention, had not been satisfactorily defined and presented a new problem. International peace-keeping operations had expanded rapidly since 1990, numbering 45 compared with 14 from 1956 to 1989. There was a need for more training in peace-keeping, inter alia, to tackle the resentment sometimes encountered in Third World countries. Good fighters in fact made good peace-keepers, though not necessarily vice versa. The changing context of the Forces’ work reinforced the case for professionalism. An example to be avoided was the use by Israel of insecure and sometimes frightened conscripts to enforce its policies.


Unrealistic expectations were sometimes expressed, eg in television interviews with servicemen’s wives or more generally in the US, that military operations should be casualty free. The basic point might need to be made more strongly that this was an illusion.


Lord Guthrie concluded by saying that the military might often need to stay for some time in areas of conflict to help create confidence and stability. Terrorism was presenting new and severe challenges and it was necessary to take into consideration the wide range of factors contributing to it, including unresolved inter-community conflicts and corrupt and oppressive governments. In this situation, the need for well trained and efficient Armed Forces would remain as great as ever.




(Note taken by Michael Smart)