Today all the focus is on Afghanistan. But it is worth looking for a moment at other situations in which the Government has called on our military to risk their lives.
First, in Northern Ireland, and as that part of the UK continues to take steps through normality towards a lasting peaceful settlement, the troops who served there under Tory and Labour governments know that they played a part in bringing that about.
Sierra Leone is rarely mentioned when the subject of Labour and war is visited, but that that country is now a properly functioning democracy, rescued from civil war and the overthrow of President Kabbah, owes at least something to UK special forces sent into action early in Tony Blair’s Premiership. I remember the then Chief of Defence Staff SIr Charles Guthrie asking the Prime Minister for the go-ahead, and setting out some of the dangers they faced. I remember too his descriptions afterwards of their astonishing skill and bravery in accomplishing what they set out to do.
I was reminded yesterday of the importance of Britain’s contribution to reversing Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, by an Addison and Lee driver who picked me up at home. It is not every day a taxi driver wants to shake me by the hand and say thanks to a government I no longer work for, but this Kosovan said the people of Kosovo know what they owe to Tony Blair and to the British troops who helped save them.
All wars are controversial, often unpopular, and decisions taken subject to microscopic analysis, particularly in the media age. But the sight of streams of refugees, night after night, fleeing murder, rape, fear and brutality, at least gave people in the countries sending troops an understanding of why they were there.
Iraq was clearly the most controversial and in many ways the most unpopular of the military campaigns launched by the government, even before the post-fall of Saddam failure to find Weapons of Mass Destruction. But the troops who fought there, and the families of those who died, know they helped to end the rule of one of the most barbarous dictators in history, and helped Iraq take the first steps to democracy in a region vital to the stability of the world.
The current war in Afghanistan has its immediate roots back in the attacks of September 11, 2001, almost eight years ago. As with Kosovo, the sheer force of images of death and destruction on the streets of New York, and the grief of so many who lost loved ones, gave a clear understanding of the conflict which followed.
It is impossible to look at the head and shoulders photos of the young British soldiers, some of them very young indeed, killed in recent days, and not to feel a huge sense of loss, and also to want good, clear answers to the questions about why they were there.
In his statement on the G8 Summit today, Gordon Brown will of course pay tribute to those who have lost their lives, and update MPs on the war. He should use the occasion to set out the whole story, remind people how it started, why it had to be waged, why it needs to continue to be waged to take on the terrorist threat at source, explain the direct link – always harder when it is theoreical rather than an event that has already taken place – between the fight being fought against the Taleban and Al Qaida, the risk of growing insecurity in Pakistan, and terror on the streets of Britain and every other country in the world.
The media is reporting with some surprise a poll suggesting UK public opinion is holding pretty firm in support of what our troops are trying to achieve.
You will always have critics. You will always have Opposition MPs, some of your own, and armchair generals who will criticise and condemn, call for more spending on this, more spending on that, or say the troops have to come home without ever having to deal with the ‘what then?’ question. You will also have helpful criticism that is worth taking seriously.
But this is one of those moments where the country will listen to detailed explanation of where we are, how we got here and why, where we are going, and how we intend to get there.
I remember TB visiting some of our special forces in Afghanistan. It was the day Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah lost their baby daughter, so memorable for very sad reasons too. These men were living in very testing conditions, and as they explained to the Prime Minister the kind of operations they were engaged in, the risk to their lives – though evident in everything they said – barely got a look in.
Ministers must never tire of setting out the reasons why those young men are there, facing harm’s way. And we should all of us have nothing but respect for the work they are doing.