The Military Covenant – An Opinion

In the last few days the issue of the military covenant has been high on the news agenda with the issue of pensions, email sackings and deporting ex service personnel being reported on and used by the opposition and press to bash the government with.

In a time honoured tradition for opposition politicians; they accuse the government of the day of not respecting the covenant, make great political capital out of every decision and when they get into power, go about business as if they had forgot they had been using the forces as a political football. The ex government party will then jump all over the current government for every transgression in exactly the same way they did.

It is about time ALL politicians realise that scoring cheap political points on the back of service personnel has to stop.

That aside, the military covenant remains vitally important, especially in the context of enduring operations and reducing budgets so we should examine what the current government, whose members made such great political capital out of the previous shower’s numerous transgressions are proposing and then compare the rhetoric with the reality.

Before I start, I am not going to go into details about the email incident; I think all reasonable people would conclude it was a procedural error not intentioned to cause distress. There are more important things to consider on this issue and no doubt the Major who sent the emails, after several interviews without coffee and biscuits, will be understanding the impact to his career of this error.

We all make mistakes.

When I started this post the first thing I thought would be necessary is to define what the covenant actually is?

The MoD published the independent report on Rebuilding the Military Covenant from Professor Hew Strachan, a military historian at Oxford University in December last year, so if there was anywhere where it would be defined; surely this would be it.

On page 7 of the report it makes this rather incredible statement

The Ministry of Defence has been working on a definition of the Military Covenant as part of the SDSR, and it is outside the remit of the Task Force to offer its own


So the report has been commissioned and published without a firm definition of what it is the report is covering.

Frankly, this is complete nonsense isn’t it?

Instead of seeking clarification on its fundamental terms of reference the commission of the great and good cracked on regardless and used its own definition;

We consider that the Military Covenant rests on three reciprocal relationships, which together have provided us with a working definition:

1. The covenant between the Government and its Armed Forces: the former expects the latter to carry out their duties in defence of the state to the best of their abilities, up to and including the possibility of death in action.  In return the Armed Forces expect that they and their immediate dependants will be cared for and supported both during and after service.

2. The covenant between the nation and its Armed Forces: the nation should respect, honour and endorse the sacrifices made by the Armed Forces on its behalf.  This must be a two-way relationship, and just as the Armed Forces expect the nation to recognise their “right to be different‟, so they must respect the values of the society that they represent and defend.

3. The covenant within the command chain: for most serving personnel across all three services, their immediate commanders are the pivot of the Military Covenant and are responsible for its delivery. It is therefore the duty of these commanders – including relatively junior leaders – to know its provisions.

It is difficult to disagree with that form of words but of those three relationships I think there is very little that can be done about item 2 beyond sentimentality and as for item 3, yes of course it is important but I think given the tremendous support the service and ex service community provides to its ‘own’ the important one on which to concentrate is item 1.

The SDSR published a section on the Military Covenant in which it defined it as

The military covenant was conceived as an expression of the mutual obligations which exist between the nation, the Army and each individual soldier.  It made clear that those who serve should expect to be treated fairly, to be valued and to be respected, in recognition of the extraordinary commitment and sacrifices which they were called upon to make.

The Government is rewriting the covenant as a new tri-service document – the Armed Forces Covenant – which expresses the enduring, general principles that should govern the relationship between the Nation, the Government and the Armed Forces community.  This will set the tone for Government policy aimed at improving the support available for serving and former members of the Armed Forces, and the families which carry so much of the burden, especially in the event of injury or death.

Underlying this relationship is an expectation of trust.

The government expects and trusts the armed forces to do as they are asked, discharge their duties and deliver their side of the bargain. There are no other public sector workers, to borrow a phrase from the recent news, where the mortality and injury rate, both now and in the years after, has the potential to be so high. This is not to ignore the hazards that police officers, fire crew or others are placed in but most people will realise the armed forces are different.

What do the armed forces expect from this trust relationship?

That is a very difficult question because it assumes the armed forces are a single entity, comprising only one uniform opinion. This is simply not the case; there is no ‘forces opinion’ just lot’s of individuals with a collection of their own ideas.

This is therefore just one opinion of what the military covenant actually is and what it is not.

Trust the government to…

Not Commit Without a Second, Third and Fourth Thought

It is politicians that commit the armed forces to action and it is expected that this decision will not be taken lightly. In order for the armed forces to function they have to have the moral authority that is derived from a nation supporting the aims of the operation. There will always be differences of opinion because wars of self defence are now largely a matter of history, with a few notable exceptions. The nature of conflict is changing and politicians must always be absolutely certain that it is in the national interest, not their interest, to deploy the armed forces.

They should rightly agonise over every decision to commit or not, because service personnel will likely be injured and killed.

The current government should be commended for some of the procedures and structures they have put in place that will hopefully improve the decision making process prior to operations; the National Security Strategy, National Security Council and National  Security Advisor being good examples.

Make the Job as Possible as Possible

If we are sending personnel to do hazardous tasks then we should at least give them the right tools for the job. Contrary to popular belief, this does not always mean more spending on equipment. It starts with first principles, what does the government expect the armed forces to do.

This means having a coherent strategy that has practical, sensible and achievable foundations. The worse possible thing to do is expecting the armed forces to conduct a mission for which they are not trained or equipped, but expecting them to crack on and make do. This is fundamental to the covenant but you will not see it published anywhere because most people assume better housing and pensions is the key, it is not.

There has to be a direct link between the aspirations, strategic intent and practical capabilities and capacities to deliver. All talk of ‘punching above our weight’ should be immediately banished because it implies a reliance on the armed forces to muddle through, do more than they are scaled for and deliver on grand expectations no matter what the cost to them and their fellow personnel with the meagre tools at their disposal. Service personnel will not refuse to carry out a mission because they don’t have the right equipment, as Mr Rumsfeld observed, you go to war with what you have, but they will suffer for it and in operations of choice, this is basic negligence on the part of the government and MoD.

It is a mistake to think the Armed Forces have delusions of grandeur, they know only too well that cost of ‘punching above our weight’ so it is the duty of the government to show some moral courage and match ends with means.

This translates inevitably into force structures, equipment and the supporting infrastructure. It is no good having lots of shiny helicopters, for example, with which to answer difficult political questions if they have poor availability because of a lack of maintenance and spares budgets. It should also be for the government to ensure that whatever tasks they ask the military to do, it’s equipment plan meets them and does not exist in a vacuum. Training and support are equally vital if less headline grabbing areas that must be addressed.

This simply means that the government must ensure that aspirations meet realities because when there is a mismatch, personnel pay with their lives, limbs, health and families.

Provide Reasonable Terms and Conditions of Service

Once the first two have been mastered the issue of terms and conditions of service must be addressed. The nation cannot ask its armed forces to fight and die in a foreign field then come home to a life of hardship. All too often this has been the case but we must also recognise that the previous government have, and this one is now, making headway in this regard.

We can reasonably call them to account for individual decisions or the speed of progress but there is no doubt the direction of travel is going the right way.

There is equally no doubt the ship is being blown off course at the minute with pay freezes, manning control points, reduction in supporting civil servants and other issues having impact on those in and out of uniform.

Service personnel do not join for the money but they do expect a reasonable pay award and terms of service, the smoke and mirrors activity of increasing operational allowances whilst freezing pay and things like CEA fool no one.

Giving with the right hand and cynically taking with the left is for want of a better word, taking the piss.

The changes in the way service pensions are calculated is hugely damaging and the Chairman of the Forces Pension Society was recently in no mood to compromise.

I have never seen a government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly

There is a case for harmonising pay and allowances across all three services and there is also a very good case for simplifying the hugely complex allowances system, change will always be difficult and inevitably there will be winners and losers but the changes should be gradual. We have to avoid ‘special pleading’ and there is also wide recognition that the Armed Forces cannot always be treated as a special case so finding the balance will be difficult.

Look After the Wounded

First, lets not be partisan, it was a previous Conservative government that started the process of shutting down dedicated military hospitals and it was the labour government that followed that carried on with the process with gusto.

Second, there have been tremendous advances in military medicine, both for physical and mental injuries and we should rightly acknowledge all concerned.

It never seems to be enough though; there are enduring stories about poor treatment, people slipping through the cracks and lapses in cover. There are no magic solutions; sustained effort is needed to support the excellent work being carried out by all concerned.

One thing that does cause concern is the proliferation of charitable organisations, not because they are proliferating but quite simply because there is an obvious demand for them to proliferate.

David Cameron’s Big Society writ large, if there is any sector where voluntary organisations pick up the government slack it is this. Some consolidation is inevitable and probably a good thing but is it right that in 2011, the charity sector is having to do so much beyond what might be considered the governments role?

Mental health issues will likely see a significant rise in the future and Liam Fox has made several encouraging moves, but again, let’s wait and see the practical effect. There also has to be a recognition that PTSD will be seen by a few as an excuse for poor behaviour and there is a big difference between PTSD and attachment disorder, I am certainly no expert but the people who are need all the support they can get and above all, to be listened to.

Look After the Dependants of the Dead

Perhaps the most serious of issues is for a serving member of the armed forces to trust that the government will look after their dependants if they are killed. The recent changes in pensions are arguably the most damaging to this.

Again, we should also recognise the good work where it is happening but if any reminder of why this is so important were needed, have a read of this article.

Say One Thing and Do the Same Thing

There is nothing more corrosive to any trust relationship that saying one thing and doing another. The oft heard phrase BOHICA (Bend Over hear It Comes Again) is usually used in the context of strategic defence reviews which ALWAYS result in cuts in personnel, cuts in equipment and cuts in everything else except bullshit from politicians, defence will come out of the SDSR better indeed.

If the Government wants to start repairing the obviously damaged bond of trust between it and the Armed Forces it should start with simply following through on the promise it makes. When a an opposition party skewers the incumbent by promising to put the Military Covenant  into law, for example, then does exactly the opposite when in power is it any wonder they are treated with such derision.

Some choice quotes from those politicians who wax lyrical about the Armed Forces

We are absolutely committed to rebuilding the Covenant. Our Armed Forces make huge sacrifices for us, and in turn we will ensure we provide them with the support they need and deserve

Liam Fox

Our service personnel make an extraordinary contribution to British life. Those serving on the front line risk their lives for us on a daily basis. So all of us – the government, the private sector, and the voluntary organisations – need to go the extra mile for them

David Cameron

I have no doubt these words are genuine and well meant but it is deeds not words that count.


I am in two minds about the Royal British Legion’s campaign to have the Military Covenant enshrined in law. On one hand it would mean governments cannot so easily wriggle out of their obligations but on the other hand, I see the covenant as almost an unspoken agreement. It should not need a law, it should not even need words and any law when drafted would inevitably be so watered down to be largely useless anyway.

Successive governments could do the bare minimum to comply and call that job jobbed.

I am also concerned about over sentimentality and using the covenant as a political weapon.

The Millies, for example, are an exercise is mawkish sentimentality, parading limbless veterans for various celebs to look upon with teary eyed admiration, after which they will go back to worrying about what is on their contract for dressing room decoration and mineral water provision. How long will this last, I doubt much beyond Afghanistan, when the supply of the photogenic limbless and decorated will dry up. Instead we will be dealing with a wave of PTSD, domestic violence and suicides, none of which make good TV viewing. If all this puts even a couple of quid into service charities collecting tins then I guess it is a price worth paying. Perhaps I am being a grumpy old man and the best position to take is, ‘fill yer boots lads’ and leave it at that.

Jim Murphy, Shadow Defence Secretary, castigating this government’s commitment to the Military Covenant is somewhat surreal; obviously he has a case of 13 year amnesia and should quite frankly, wind his neck in.

Finally, to politicians who think the Military Covenant is about pay, housing and medical care I would say this.

No, it is not, they are part of the equation but the real Military Covenant is about trust and honour, so it really is very simple, you don’t need a commission, you don’t need a parliamentary bill and you certainly don’t need words, you simply need to know and do two things;

  • Keep your promises
  • Pay your debts

Is that really so difficult?

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Rupert Fiennes
Rupert Fiennes
February 17, 2011 3:05 pm

All good stuff, but I think you forgot the most important of all. The government must commit to everything possible to win.

The worst tombstone is one that’s marked “It was felt that 5000 global warming consultants, incapacity benefit for a million wasters, and PC crap about how terribly upset all our troops supposedly made the locals feel, are all so much more important than this sacrifice.”

I daresay all the supposed elements of the covenant are easy to supply or ignore. This one isn’t, and it has applicabilty outside the UK as well as within. Anyone want to speculate what the Iranian’s think of us now they have illegally seized our servicemen and women twice, without a shot being fired, and without any retaliation?

February 17, 2011 3:58 pm

Excellent piece – well written ! I would love to see this printed in a major daily paper or two, or for you to to be interviewed by the BBC :-)

Trust and honour, paying your debts and keeping your promises ? I believe you also used the term moral courage in the context of politicians – well therein lies the problem, mediocre modern politicians of all ilks………

I think this is key though: “There has to be a direct link between the aspirations, strategic intent and practical capabilities and capacities to deliver. All talk of ‘punching above our weight’ should be immediately banished because it implies a reliance on the armed forces to muddle through, do more than they are scaled for and deliver on grand expectations no matter what the cost to them and their fellow personnel with the meagre tools at their disposal.”

The military covenant, begins with an expression of grand strategy, an actual positioning of what the nations aims, goals and objectives are on the world stage, how the UK wants to be perceived and how it intends to meet those goals.

paul g
February 17, 2011 8:51 pm

with ref to the “millies” funny how celebs came out the woodwork, when public sympathy for the troops escalated, never saw a celeb publicly shaking hands with a soldier who had been injured in NI. Not saying there isn’t genuine celebs out there (st katherine of the valleys is a star in my eyes). but for many it’s a PR exercise, much like the bleating of many MP’s

Brian Black
Brian Black
February 19, 2011 11:09 am

I agree with the millies being “an exercise in mawkish sentamentality”, but it’s a sad fact that a handsome teenager with a pretty fiance, who is f##ked up by war will gain more sympathy when paraded in front of the cameras than the same person will when they are in their 40s (and by which time the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan will have faded for many members of the public) though their needs will not necessarily be any less pressing.

I wouldn’t be so hard on the celebs though. I don’t think that there is that much of a career benefit for being involved in this kind of event… and realy, what kind of practical skills do they have to offer as an alternative?

And if people only have a selfish reason for becomming involved with a charity, so what; the outcome is all the same.