Sarah Ingham is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department at King’s College London.
The news that the Government is about to put the Military Covenant on a statutory basis could well unleash another law - that of unintended consequences. The announcement that members of the Armed Forces and their families were to be treated as special cases was heard at breakfast-time today. By elevenses, many were asking: what about firefighters and police officers? By lunchtime, it was being pointed out that Service personnel are volunteers: no one actually puts a gun to a recruit’s head to force him or her to join up - the risk of that happening comes later.
Contrary to what is widely believed, the Military Covenant was not written on parchment with a quill pen, neither does not date back to the Iron Duke or Cromwell’s Ironsides, let alone to those happy few at Agincourt. Instead it was formalised in 2000. It’s a concept that has yet to reach its teens. It was written by the Army, for the Army and, even if they had heard of it, not too many soldiers took it too seriously – including those who wrote it.
Historically, the responsibility to look after those who have fought for Queen (or King) and country has been discharged rather grudgingly. For all its architectural splendour, the completion of Chelsea’s Royal Hospital was delayed because the money ran out. After the Napoleonic Wars, the government tried to wriggle out of paying pensions to those veterans who were eligible for them - and not all were. To paraphrase Kipling, attitudes towards soldiers and their dependents have been more “Tommy, go away”, rather than “Thank you Mr Atkins”.
Since late 2007, thanks in part to the efforts of CGS General Sir Richard Dannatt who declared it "out of kilter", along with some canny Parliamentary lobbying by the Royal British Legion which ran its Honour the Covenant campaign, the Covenant migrated from the confines of Military Doctrine to the civilian public. It became shorthand for all difficulties faced by an Army operating well beyond its means - or in MoD-speak, its Planning Assumptions: one that was never resourced or equipped or manned to fight as it had to in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The inadequacy or shortage of force protection measures such helicopters, armoured vehicles and body armour, whether in Basra or Sangin, came to be described in terms of a "broken" Military Covenant, which also summed up the public’s indifference to soldiers’ plight. Only a few years ago, how many of us really cared that they were paid less than traffic wardens or, that for some soldiers, their quarters in Helmand were in a better state than their barracks in Hounslow? Soldiers suffered the fallout from the unpopularity of Iraq among the public and its incomprehension about the mission in Afghanistan.