Article published in The Sun, 18 April 2019. © Richard Kemp
Boredom and low morale is the biggest enemy our troops face – and is partly to blame for recent criminal behaviour
In the past couple of weeks, we have seen members of the Forces hitting the headlines for shocking behaviour including drug abuse and serious sexual and physical assault.
And yesterday, The Sun reported how Royal Artillery soldiers Louis Leteve and Jordan Peers, both 23, have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after allegedly driving into another soldier following a brawl.
Things have got so bad that General Mark Carleton-Smith, the head of the Army, felt the need to berate his troops via YouTube.
Less than a fortnight ago, he took to the social media platform to blast soldiers’ ‘indiscipline that is wildly at odds with the values and standards that represent the fabric of not just our Army but the nation’s Army’.
In the unprecedented address, he added: ‘Not only is it downright unacceptable, it’s illegal — and it stands in stark contrast with everything the British Army represents.
‘Any behaviour that falls short of that high standard we cannot and will not tolerate.’
It was strong stuff indeed. So how has it come to this?
Is Forces discipline really breaking down? Why are our soldiers behaving in this way?
There is no simple answer. But there are many negative powers at work, boredom being the most prevalent.
Boredom is the enemy of high morale and while this is no excuse for reckless and criminal behaviour, this may help account for some of the events we have seen in the past few days.
Morale among troops is highest when they are deployed on challenging operational tasks, such as Iraq and Helmand province.
There is virtually none of that today, although many soldiers are employed in Third World countries on mentoring and training tasks.
But the Forces are severely undermanned and the most tedious duties come round more frequently, creating overstretch, lowering morale.
Sadly, publicity surrounding drug-taking, sexual assault and brawling can only make this worse. How many parents will encourage or allow their children to sign up when this is the picture they see?
These incidents are damaging for the international image of our Armed Forces too. Indications that discipline is sliding, whether correct or not, will cause friends and enemies alike to ask questions.
This must be tackled. We must look at how we can keep our troops engaged and excited to be part of our Forces.
Some servicemen and women need a sharp reminder of the values that make our military the envy of the world — courage, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, selfless commitment and discipline.
That includes SELF-discipline. Without that, the whole enterprise falls down.
If you cannot control your own behaviour, how can you control even the most basic combat situation?
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has launched a review of behaviour across the military. This should be a good thing.
And those conducting it should not overreact.
It is vital the public — who are increasingly out of touch with what being in the Forces really entails — understand the lawlessness they see reported is not representative of the Forces as a whole and involves a tiny number of troops.
The overwhelming majority are highly impressive, dedicated fighting men and women, ready to give everything for their country.
Each of the incidents we have read about in recent weeks and further back are, when proven, dreadful and unacceptable conduct.
And from my own experience, I have no doubt everyone involved will be dealt with severely by civilian or military courts.
But history shows us we have been here before. Crimes of this sort — and worse — have been committed since the birth of our Armed Forces 500 years ago, including in units I have commanded.
That is not to make light of them — and as an infantry commander, I always took a hard line with wrongdoing.
But we should remember the Forces reflect the population they defend — perhaps more so than ever, as politicians pursue total inclusivity, driving them to recruit from every area of society.
Drug abuse and physical violence are on the increase nationally. Look at all the knifings in London in recent months, often fuelled by drugs.
Most members of the Forces who take illegal drugs do so on leave outside the military environment, often under pressure from civvy mates back home.
Another aspect to keep in mind about these stories of atrocious behaviour is the purpose of the Armed Forces.
Although it may be politically correct to emphasise their role in humanitarian relief and peace-keeping work, they are there primarily to fight, kill and destroy.
George Orwell said: ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’
So we should not be surprised when these ‘rough’ men and women sometimes behave badly, failing to fully assimilate the values and standards they are taught by commanders.