Find the culprits in gold braid

Observations on Deepcut

Forward, not back: Labour's forgetful campaign slogan seems to have infected MPs on the defence select committee as they crafted their report on the army's duty of care to young soldiers. They tiptoed around the deaths at Deepcut barracks and, when it came to the wider army failings cast up by their investigation, were largely silent on the matter of blame. They rejected calls for a public inquiry and instead proposed an independent military complaints commission as the best means of ensuring a better deal for tomorrow's teenage recruits.

All very constructive, no doubt, but anyone who reads the report - which reveals sloppiness, negligence and denial among army commanders over the past dozen years - will find it leaves a further question unanswered: who is to be held accountable? Where there is fault in public services, the government tells us, there must be accountability. Here, we have the one (and lots of it) without the other.

According to evidence presented at the select committee, when Tony Blair developed his enthusiasm for foreign wars and the army found itself stretched for manpower, commanders decided to plunder training establishments that were already short of staff. Some 250 instructors and support staff were moved "from the tail to the teeth", leaving thousands of raw recruits in the tail zone worse taught, worse supervised, more idle (a big problem) and more vulnerable. Against an existing background of suicides, unexplained deaths, self-harm, bullying and abuse, this was a gamble.

The committee denounced "an organisational culture that too readily transferred risk to its training regime". But which senior officers made that decision? Should they not justify the consequences in public? And were ministers told about the gamble, or even implicated in it?

In 2001, after the first two Deepcut deaths and before the second two, a training executive called Lieutenant Colonel Richard Haes noted the dangers posed by staff shortages. When he presented a report to his superiors, he told the select committee, "One or two staff officers present . . . basically said: 'Thank you for that but I don't believe the picture is as bad as the boy [Haes] has painted.'" Who said those words? What do they have to say now, at least two deaths later? Which individuals had responsibility for shelving the Haes report, and the several other similar inquiries that preceded it?

The unexplained Deepcut deaths reveal a culture that is both sick and hidebound. The defence committee has so little faith in the army's readiness to change that it has decided to reinvestigate in 2008. But a brisker and more military-style way of changing the culture might be to get into the habit of identifying people who have made reckless mistakes - particularly those with gold braid on their uniforms.

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