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James Heappey: MPs should decide if intervention is right - not worry about the risk of British casualties

Heappey JamesJames Heappey retired from the Army in 2012 after service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Wells. Follow him on Twitter at @JSHeappey.

When Parliament debates intervention in Syria the legacy of Tony Blair will frame the debate. 

MPs will be more interested than ever before in the legality of action and the evidence that proves Assad gassed his people, not to mention the moral case for whether we should be ‘meddling’ in the affairs of another state with no obvious connection to the national security of the UK.

This enthusiasm for absolute rigour in determining whether we should use force is, of course, no bad thing although it does place our security services in a difficult position as there is only so much leg that they can show before our enemies get a dangerous insight in to our ability to see what they’re up to. 

Equally, we must be careful to ensure that the pendulum of morality has not swung too far in the other direction.  The ‘West’ may have been quick to intervene in Iraq, but not too long beforehand we were late to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia and the consequences were appalling.

However, the part of the Blair legacy that frustrates this former soldier the most is the idea that Parliament must also worry about the threat to the lives of the British service men and women who may be sent to intervene. 

After ten or more years in Iraq and Afghanistan we are a war weary nation and the recent drop off in flag draped coffins arriving at Brize Norton is welcome relief.  But if we are honestly saying that any decision to intervene is going to be based, at least in part, on the risk of taking casualties in the process; then we may as well give up on any notion of having expeditionary armed forces altogether.

That’s not to say that Parliament shouldn’t care for the service men and women who are sent to do their bidding – of course they should – but combat cannot be prosecuted without risks and every soldier, sailor and airmen knows that from the moment they pledge themselves to the service of Queen and country. 

They want to know that Parliament has satisfied itself, on behalf of the British people, that what they are being sent to do is right and legitimate.  Thereafter, it is for our Admirals, Generals and Air Marshalls to set plans that deliver our nation’s military aims and manage risks wherever it is possible to do so.  When risk management stops being possible, the courage of those on the ship, in the cockpit or about to leave the trench takes over.

Moreover, what is the point in having the latest fighter jets if we are reluctant to put them up against any foe that has a half decent air defence system?  Or in having state of the art warships if we are unwilling to expose them to the complex battlespaces that they are designed succeed in?  And why have an Army if we are trying to win battles by missile or bomb despatched from high altitude or well off-shore? A strategy, incidentally, that cannot ever really work because an embryonic peace needs to be secured on the ground not policed by cruise missile from afar.

We hold these forces at great expense so that, yes, we can defend these islands in the unlikely event that they are ever threatened but also so that we can be a force for good in the world when it is legally and morally the right thing to do.  The Blair Wars may have made us all more discerning over when it is legitimate for us to act but if we start to make decisions also based on whether there is a risk to the armed forces acting on our behalf; then we are paralysing ourselves because combat will never be risk free.

War is a risky business and there is almost always a price to pay in both blood and treasure.  If Parliament decides that intervention is legally and morally the right thing to do then incumbent in that decision is an acceptance that it is a price worth paying for the sake of doing the right thing. 

Our armed forces, meanwhile, will be ready to execute those orders with their usual courage and guile.  They always are - It’s what they’re there for, it’s what they train for and it’s what they joined for.


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