For Argyll was invited to a presentation and reception in Oban on the evening of 12th June by the Army Engagement Team. The event was hosted by Brigadier George Lowder MBE, Commander of 51 (Scottish) Brigade and the second most senior army officer in Scotland. (The most senior is Lt General Andrew Graham.)
Brigadier Lowder works at the level of speaking to the Scottish Government and, in doing so, has tri-service authority.
51 (Scottish) Brigade is the descendant of the 51st Highland Division which the failure of the British Expeditionary Force of which it was part saw effectively wiped out, with the surrender of what was left at St Valery en Caux on 12th June 1940. The 7th battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, had suffered the worst day in its history over 5th and 6th June. The 9th (Highland) Infantry Division was renumbered as the 51st and served, amongst others, in the North Africa campaign.
Today 51 (Scottish) Brigade is the administrative framework for all of the units of the Territorial Army based in Scotland. These are the 6th and 7th Battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the first five being Regular Army units, with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders the name attached to the 5th Brigade, or 5 Scots.
With the British Army about to see the doubling of the Reserve force from 19,000 to 40,000 and the shrinkage of the Regular Army to 80,000, the role of 51 Brigade in community engagement is obviously germane.
As is a characteristic of army presentations, the entire event was organised impeccably, with precision, attention to detail, exemplary teamwork, ease of manner – and Scots voices.
There is so much to be learned from this in civilian event management and presentation. On the other hand, this event was still using its presentation formula of 20 years ago – powerpoint screen in the centre, one lectern on each side with the speakers scripted to alternate in taking charge of the show. But – if it ain’t broke… However, there was an instance of unevolved thinking on the matter of the army’s own purpose for the evening, which we will come to later
The Corran Hall was done out in fantasy Eastern European brothel style, with the tented nylon drapes that have appalled us in Dunoon’s Queen’s Hall. This raises the question as to whether there is one set of these horrors that circulates around council-owned public spaces as required; or – worse, whether each one has its own set for special occasions. These are ultra 1970s and ultra hick.
The army being the army, we were told why we were invited (as ‘an opinion former’) and what they wanted from us afterwards: ‘With the ending of National Service in 1963, far fewer people have any military experience or knowledge of the Armed Forces, except what is mentioned in the Press. The AET aims to increase your awareness and understanding of the Army, in order to help you to understand how we recruit and train both the Regular Army and the TA, and what our officers and soldiers have to offer you when they start their second careers.’
All of this is helpfully straightforward but there is still reading between the lines to be done.
The Firm Base
The army needs help from communities, businesses and individuals to firm up what it calls The Firm Base of its operations – its community engagement.
The better this engagement, the greater the affinity between communities and the army that exists to defend them and to assist in civil emergencies and major commitments. These include, for example, the dreadful foot and mouth outbreak early in this century; floods; fuel shortages; and security support for national events like those in the current Diamond Jubilee, the progress of the Olympic Flame around the country and the London 2012 Games to come.
The firmer The Firm Base the better the support for recruitment – although this is less of an issue with the 20% retraction of the army now in train.
Much more importantly – and particularly so with this very retraction, are matters like community involvement in assisting veterans coming out of the army:
- to adjust to civilian life and to a different sort of community life than that formed in the armed forces;
- to recover from the mental and physical consequences of the experience of conflict which damages a proportion of servicefolk;
- to offer appropriate employment and to be tolerant during the inevitable adjustment period;
- to help with housing – a real difficulty for many coming out of the army, with a history of service accommodation, no foot on the property ladder and no points towards social housing.
Some of these matters are for communities and individuals like neighbours; some are for private and public sector employers; and some – like housing – are for local authorities, as are aspects of the care some army veterans may need.
To these ends, the army has for some time been in discussion with government at national and local level. As a result there has been movement in matters like points for housing with allowances being made for military service. This does not accelerate veterans to the top of the it but it does keep them off the bottom of it – an arrangement which is about what the army is looking for.
The Community Covenant
The consolidation of engagement between the army and communities has found expression in the Community Covenant.
It is the army in Scotland’s ambition to see all of Scotland’s 32 local authorities sign this covenant.
To date, 22 of the 32 have done so.
Given the extent of the military presence in Argyll and Bute – for example, at Faslane, Coulport, Glen Douglas, Loch Long, Loch Goil, the NATO jetty at Loch Striven; and given the re-conferral of the Freedom of Argyll upon the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders by the Provost two years ago in June 2010, we had assumed that Argyll and Bute Council would have been an early signatory to this covenant.
However, all we can find is that the Argyll and Bute Community Planning Partnership, at its meeting on 15th February 2012, had as Item 10 on its agenda, a paper on the subject by Executive Director Cleland Sneddon.
Entitled ‘Armed Forces Community Covenant Pledge’, this sets out the aim of the pledge and recommends that ‘the identified Argyll and Bute community planning partners sign the covenant at a ceremony with the joint armed forces aligned to a scheduled Argyll and Bute Council meeting’.
However, the minutes for the meeting for which this was agenda-ed make no reference of any kind to Item 10 nor to any decision on whether to take this matter forward.
We asked for clarification of the position on this and have found that it is indeed to be signed and that this would have been done at the meeting of the council on 14th June, had it not been for the fact that this date did not suit the Ministry of Defence.
The signing has therefore been deferred to the council meeting on the 28th of June.
The Military Covenant
The Military Covenant is spoken of more in the breach than in the observance. Recent experience has made many of us aware of the extent of the breaches of the covenant that serving and former members of the armed forces have suffered.
This covenant fundamentally requires the recognition and adoption of responsibility – by the military authorities, the government and the people – for those who offer to their country the core military values of selfless commitment, courage, discipline and respect for others – to the point, of course, of their lives.
It is fair to say that, on evidence, only the people have stayed faithful to that covenant, constantly doing what we can to support those whose lives often involve experiences and decisions beyond our imagining; and who inhabit a world the great majority of us simply do not know.
Only 1 in 70 households in the UK have experience of a family member serving in the armed forces. This is a major factor in the distancing from everyday life of an understanding of army life.
It may be that we, the people, can engage even more constructively if we come to understand better the nature, condition and needs of those leaving the services. That is the central focus which we brought to the event last Thursday and with which we came away from it.
Before we come to that, it is salutary to note that the other parties to the Military Covenant – the Ministry of Defence and the UK Government, have, in certain instances, materially failed to observe it in letter and in spirit.
These failures include:
- breaches from within the armed services themselves in abuses of the duty of care with which the Ministry of Defence is charged in respect of its servicefolk. Here we refer to the provision of no or inadequate kit appropriate to the challenges faced in conflict situations, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. This relates both to personal kit, including protective body armour; and to inadequate equipment like unarmoured or lightly armoured vehicles. Both of these specific failures have cost lives.
- breaches of duty of care born of the will to protect the culpable powerful at the expense of the lowly – and dead – serviceman. Argyll will not forget the 17 year period from June 1994 to the Philip Review a year ago (2011) during which the MoD persisted in holding guilty of gross negligence the two dead pilots of the Mk2 Chinook that crashed on the Mull of Kintyre. On evidence, the responsibility for the tragedy that claimed the lives of all 29 on board lay jointly between an aircraft known to be fatally flawed and leadership which ordered that aircraft to be used on that day in defiance of in-house expertise which had earlier recommended it be withdrawn from service at once. Here was not even care for the reputations of the dead but a willingness to burden them with the failed responsibilities of the living at the highest level.
- cuts in the defence budget which, to any analytic intelligence, do not appear to have been based on what the rest of us would expect a ‘strategic defence and security review’ to be. Some of this has been expensively pantomimic – as with the confusions over the aircraft carriers and the quite inexcusable series of decisions and revisions over the Harriers. Other aspects remain to be explained plausibly to the public. Here we are thinking specifically of the reduction in infantry levels in a context where recent conflicts in which Britain has engaged have called principally upon infantry – a strategy which shows no sign of abatement.
- care for those repatriated from theatres of war with profound and often invisible damage. While Britain’s medical and surgical battlefield resources are world leaders and acute care for those repatriated is also excellent, there is weakness in aftercare. Freedom of Information has shown that some soldiers have instituted legal proceedings against the army for medical negligence in the treatment they received. Understanding and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one aspect of aftercare the army admits has room for improvement.
- respect for the fallen, with the government unable to offer any plausible defence for re-routing the repatriation of the dead away from Wootton Bassett, a town which had simply stepped in to an obvious gap in the formal recognition of a national debt the government finds more politic to let go by default.
- the plan since revealed (18th June) to save money by making long serving army personnel redundant before they qualify for full pension rights. This is indefensible, unforgiveable and a betrayal of the Military Covenant at source.
In observance of the Military Covenant, the people – as opposed to the government and the defence establishment have little to be ashamed of and much to celebrate.
But, as we have said above, there may be more we can do and the Community Covenant has a lot to do with this.
Scotland, the army, its direction and the odd swerve
Statistics show that Scotland contributes proportionately more members of the British armed services than its share of the population would indicate likely.With 8.8% of the UK population, Scotland contributes almost 10% of army personnel and 11% of the combined armed forces.
Speaking fluently and without notes – as no one else did – Brigadier Lowder provided a scene-setting introduction to the army, its direction of travel and its needs.
However articulate, authoritative and plausible these very capable and polished guys are, it pays to keep objective scrutiny functioning.
In his early focus on the fact that the British armed forces are to shrink by 28% in total, with the army bearing the lion’s share of this at 20%, the Brigadier offered immediate reassurance. He said that the army in Scotland was nevertheless to increase by something around 2,300.
The immediate assumption this invited is that it signalled an increase in recruitment.
Later we asked whether the army expected to find it more difficult to engage with the community in Argyll should the name of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders vanish with the battalion in the coming shrinkage of the army.
Brigadier Lowder’s response was direct on both the issues involved in this.
One is the likely loss of one of the five regular battalions in the young Royal Regiment of Scotland, formed by amalgamating existing regiments, downgraded to battalion strength. One of these regiments was the Argylls, which became the 5th battalion of 5 Scots, but like the others was allowed to retain its associated name and its traditional visual identifiers, like its cap badge.
The answer here is that with the army as a whole to shrink by 20% and with five battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland, logic suggests that one of these battalions will go.
The other issue is whether those remaining battalions will retain their traditional names and insignia. Here again the response was straight from the shoulder. It remains the view from within the service that antecedent affinities should now go. His argument is that, in Scotland, we have already lost historic regiments like the Cameron Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders, for example; and that it is more straightforward for all five current battalions to leave their historic identities behind at the same time as one of them is cut.
There is an undeniable logic in this. However, the army needs to build engagement with communities in the hope of seeing more proactive varieties of support come forwards in areas like the care and re-employment of veterans. In this, we remain unconvinced that the loss of the regional affinities forged in the names of army units will not impact negatively upon such hopes.
Affinities promote very powerful emotional bonds and responses. We saw what Campbeltown manifestly felt when HMS Campbeltwon paid her last visit to the town before going off to be decommissioned. The sense of loss was palpable. One can be interested in any ship and with its naval jetty at Kildalloig, Campbeltown sees a fair few. But only HMS Campbeltown ‘belonged’ to the town. Its the same with HMS Argyll. We hear where it is and we take a special interest because it carries our collective name with it.
Would we feel the same and be prepared to do as much for an HMS Anon, for example? Perhaps – if in some way, it was ‘ours’. Perhaps the way to square the circle of losing a historic affinity alongside voluntarily contributing more in community responsibility for veterans is to find some other more organisationally acceptable affinity. ‘Ownership’ is a powerful driver but one cannot ‘own’ an entire army.
As for the swerve, something didn’t quite add up.
How could the army increase in Scotland on one hand while losing a battalion on the other. The answer is that this is not about recruitment. it’s about the relocation of units from the army in Germany and from Cambridge to the Scottish air bases of Kinloss and Leuchars, redundant following the conclusions of the ‘strategic’ defence and security review. These relocations may include the movement of the Marines south of the border and their replacement in Scotland by other units.
This does, of course, continue to provide significant support from public sector investment for the local economies in Moray and Fife. The traditionally uppity Fife is clearly put out in anticipating the loss of eclat with the planes and the notionally dashing airmen replaced by squaddies. There will be work to be done here by the Army Engagement Team.
Less of a swerve than a perspective provoking utter incredulity, though, was the Brigadier’s assertion that the military looks after its people so well that soldiers in the British Army believe their kit is the best in the world.
The army high command must imagine that Scots don’t read, listen or see news.
Leaving the army – and ‘engagement’
We spoke to one soldier at the event on Tuesday night who has been in the army for 28 years. This is an unusally long service, originally training as an engineer but latterly working in the recruitment programme. One can see why. He utterly loves his job, His eyes lighten and his face lifts when he talks of it.
But in March 2013 he’ll be out of it.
What will he do next? Unsurprisingly, he’s thinking first of joining the police and certainly jobs like that aree an easy fit in philosophy, skills, discipline and their essential purpose of keeping people safe.
Those leaving the army face a culture shock.
This ranges from hygiene to an unregimented lifestyle.
The need for the highest possible level of personal hygiene to prevent or slow the transmission of infections in operational and battlefield situations is such that soldiers will normally scrub up many times a day. Back in civvies, it is physically and mentally difficult to accommodate very different washing regimes in those with whom they live – regimes evolving in response to much lower risk of infection.
Soldiers at almost any level work in a world where it is imperative that they do as they are told, do it in time and do it well.
This involves independent thought only in so far as the more each understands the reason for an instruction or command, the better they will fine tune their delivery of what has been asked. And there are many situations where this level of thinking is surplus to requirements.
The result of this makes return to civilian life difficult and particularly for those in the ranks. They aare accustomed to instruction, to the provision of direction of theor actions and shape to their working lives.
To move from that – where it informs every minute of their working lives – to a context where they must instruct themselves and set their own targets, at least for the time being, can be a bewildering and dislocating experience.
Officers are accustomed to giving orders as well as receiving them and so have a wider spectrum of skills to bring to work outside the army. They are used to analytic and strategic thinking, to leading a team, to command, to logistics, and to responding appropriately to unforeseen eventualities. Many are noticeably successful in organisational and management roles.
In Scotland, it is noteworthy that Keith Brown, the MSP who took over the Transport brief in government when Stewart Stevenson was snowed out, is an ex-army officer who has quickly made his mark as a competent minister and who now appears to have become Minister for many things.
One area we identify as a perfect match for former members of the army on leaving the service is in adventure and activity tourism – a major growth area for a place like Argyll.
Servicemen are fit, they have physical and sporting skills. They are capable of delivering a variety of roles in this field and the distance between it and their previous working lives might be less than in other jobs.
We would have expected the Army Engagement Team to be on to this and to have had representatives of companies offering such services to the public to last Thursday’s session in Oban. We were not aware of any being there, If this was the case, it is the matter we referred to above where we thought we saw evidence of ossified thinking in the army in their work to connect with communities to help with post-service employment, care and housing.
There are businesses in Argyll focusing on outdoor education businesses, horse riding, sailing and sail boat skippered charters, diving, sea kayaking, mountain biking, walking tours, adventure holidays.
There is real work to be done in building specific connections between the army and this commercial sector. With the shrinkage and redundancies in the pipeline for the armed services, there are going to be plenty of servicefolk looking for their next job.
This could be a productive point of engagement for all concerned.
Anyone with ideas on how they or their group or community might engage with this issue is advised first to go to their local British Legion, a key organisation concerned with the welfare of ex-servicemen in every respect.