The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties, according to a Ministry of Defence unit that formulates strategy.
Exclusive: Families angry at proposal to lower profile of repatriation ceremonies
Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.
The document, written in November 2012 and obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act, discusses how public reaction to casualties can be influenced and recommends that the armed forces should have “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of press and public opinion”.
It says that to support such a campaign the MoD should consider a number of steps, one of which would be to “reduce the profile of the repatriation ceremonies” – an apparent reference to the processions of hearses carrying coffins draped in the union flag that were driven through towns near RAF bases where bodies were brought back.
For four years up to 2011, 345 servicemen killed in action were brought back to RAF Lyneham and driven through Royal Wootton Bassett, in Wiltshire, in front of crowds of mourners. Since then, bodies have been repatriated via RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, with hearses driven through nearby Carterton.
The MoD’s suggestion received a scathing reaction from some families of dead military personnel. Deborah Allbutt, whose husband Stephen was killed in a friendly fire incident in Iraq in 2003, described the proposals for repatriation ceremonies as “brushing the deaths under the carpet”.
She said: “They are fighting and giving their lives. Why should they be hidden away? It would be absolutely disgraceful.” Allbutt, with others, gained a landmark ruling this year that relatives of killed or injured soldiers can seek damages under human rights legislation.
The paper, by the MoD’s development, concepts and doctrine centre (DCDC), recommends taking steps to “reduce public sensitivity to the penalties inherent in military operations” and says the ministry should “inculcate an attitude that service may involve sacrifice and that such risks are knowingly and willingly undertaken as a matter of professional judgment”.
The paper amounts to what could be considered a prescient analysis of why the British public and MPs were so reluctant to support an attack on Syria. It also says that in any conflict the MoD should ensure that the reason for going to war is “clearly explained to the public”.
The eight-page paper argues that the military may have come to wrongly believe that the public, and as a result the government, has become more “risk averse” on the basis of recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“However, this assertion is based on recent, post-2000 experience and we are in danger of learning false lessons concerning the public’s attitude to military operations,” the paper, which has no named author, adds.
“Historically, once the public are convinced that they have a stake in the conflict they are prepared to endorse military risks and will accept casualties as the necessary consequence of the use of military force.”
To back this up, it cites “robust” public support for earlier conflicts – the Falklands war and operations in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 2007. “In those cases where the public is unconvinced of the relevance of the campaign to their wellbeing they are not prepared to condone military risk and are acutely sensitive to the level of casualties incurred.
“Neither the action in Iraq nor the operations in Afghanistan have enjoyed public support and we are in danger of learning a false lesson from the experience of the last 10 years.”
The report adds: “The public have become better informed and our opponents more sophisticated in the exploitation of the sources of information with the net result that convincing the nation of the need to run military risks has become more difficult but no less essential.”
Among other suggestions that could contend with worries about casualty numbers, the DCDC recommends a major investment in “autonomous systems for unmanned vehicles”, cyber-operations and the increased use of mercenaries, referred to as “contractors”.
Noting that the growth of private security companies has proceeded at a spectacular rate during the past 10 years, it adds: “Neither the media nor the public in the west appear to identify with contractors in the way that they do with their military personnel. Thus casualties from within the contractorised force are more acceptable in pursuit of military ends than those from among our own forces.”
Investing in greater numbers of special forces is also recommended. The paper suggests: “The public appear to have a more robust attitude to SF [special forces] losses.” In a reference to a May 1982 helicopter crash, it says: “The loss of 19 SAS soldiers in a single aircraft accident during the Falklands campaign did not arouse any significant comment.”
An MoD spokesman said: “It is entirely right that we publicly honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and there are no plans to change the way in which repatriation ceremonies are conducted. A key purpose of the development, concepts and doctrine centre is to produce research which tests and challenges established doctrine and its papers are designed to stimulate internal debate, not outline government policy or positions. To represent this paper as policy or a potential shift of policy is misleading.”
Joe Glenton, an anti-war activist and former soldier who spent five months in a military prison after refusing to serve a second tour in Afghanistan, said that lowering the profile of repatriations amounted to “hiding the bodies”.
It had also, effectively, already been underway from several years ago.
“We should recall they switched the route of repatriations from the very high profile Wootton Bassett and started again bringing bodies through RAF Brize Norton. In short, hiding the bodies,” he said.
“The public rightly is averse to young soldiers being maimed or wounded, and averse to dusty foreign adventures.”
Christopher Dandeker, a professor of military sociology at King’s College London, said that the issues raised in the paper were timely as the public had recently shown that they were unconvinced by what political elites wanted to do in relation to the use of force in Syria. It also made sense that the military would pay greater attention to the role of military families, who were becoming “a more politically active, questioning independent stakeholder in the military community”.