Friday, July 10, 2009

A slight crack ...

Today, which may prove to be a turning point in more ways than one, saw a partial success by Sue Smith in her ongoing battle with the Ministry of Defeat to gain a proper inquiry into the use of the Snatch Land Rovers – in one of which her son, Private Phillip Hewett, was killed in al Amarah on 16 July 2005.

According to The Times and others, in the High Court, Mr Justice Mitting gave Susan Smith permission to bring a judicial review challenge to the decision of Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Minister, not to hold a public inquiry into the past use of these vehicles.

This is, of course, only the first step in the proceedings. There must now be a full hearing, when the arguments will be heard as to whether the minister was wrong in rejecting demands for an inquiry. Only if that is successful will the current defence secretary – also Bob Ainsworth – be required to re-examine the grounds for rejecting an inquiry. Even then, he may simply move the goalposts and come up with new and additional reasons for a rejection.

Already, the battle lines have been re-drawn slightly in that the judge refused Sue permission to challenge the future use of the vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan. The minister did so on advice from military experts and his decision and reasons were "completely unimpeachable".

But, as to past use, he said there were insufficient reasons given for their use and it was at least arguable that he should have granted a public inquiry. With 38 soldiers having been killed in Snatches, the minister had not given adequate reasons why they had not replaced by more heavily armoured vehicles.

Sue is, of course, delighted and, even if the case does not succeed in the full hearing, it is partial vindication of her stance and many others of us. There is a case to answer, a case the Army have insisted has already been answered – as indeed have ministers. It is a reflection of the paucity of their arguments that they so far have not prevailed.

In fact, they do not have a case in our view. The Army from the very first knew full well that the Snatch was not capable of protecting from the types of bomb being used against them, and that the countermeasures available were entirely ineffective. It was not a matter of chance, therefore – or of misfortune – that men were going to die. And although it was inevitable, the Army sent them out.

The rationale, at the time, was that the size of the Snatch was such that only it could reach all the places which needed patrolling and then that its profile was such that it was an essential part of the "hearts and minds" campaign which the Army thought would win over the insurgents.

Neither of those elements was true in Hewett's case and in many others. The ground his patrol was covering was later covered by Warriors and eventually Challenger tanks, when the situation had deteriorated still further. As for "hearts and minds", this was a "combat patrol" carried out in the small hours of the morning, in total darkness, aimed at deterring mortar attacks on the nearby base in Abu Naji.

Any reasonable outcome, had the patrol been successful in interdicting mortar teams, would have involved at the very least, a contact battle. And, as an offensive patrol, there was every expectation that the insurgents might seek to attack it. Thus, men were being sent to do battle in a flimsy Land Rover designed for the streets and lanes of Northern Ireland.

Whichever way the ministers and the Army now play it, their cards are marked. For too long, these arrogant and sometimes stupid fools have taken it upon themselves unnecessarily to send men out to die and then regarded themselves as above challenge.

Sue Smith – not some grand General, or preening, over-paid politician – says otherwise. "This is not just for me," she says. "Several other families who lost sons also want to know why? I accept that this is just the first small step but it is nice to know we are being listened to."

"Nice," is not quite the word I would have chosen, and I suspect Sue might have said something different out of the earshot of the reporters. But it is good enough.