Senior officers in the British Army are now in open revolt about the living conditions in many bases that have to be endured by ordinary soldiers and their families. This is proving an enormous scandal in the UK at the moment.
The last Chief of the General Staff and head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson started the ball rolling when he gave the annual Dimbleby Lecture in early December. He called their pay "hardly impressive" and "some accommodation" was "frankly shaming".
Sir Mike waited until he was a civilian to make these criticisms. Now the army's head of personnel, Adjutant-General, Lt Gen Freddie Viggers has made a bid for increased spending on accommodation by describing the current conditions as a breach of the covenant between the nation and its armed forces.
In his lecture Sir Mike criticised the progress of the improvement programme that has upgraded much of the accommodation in Northern Ireland but has failed to properly address the needs elsewhere saying it is a:
"Kafka-esque situation whereby the MoD (Ministry of Defence) congratulates itself on achieving an accommodation improvement plan defined by itself on what it calls affordability, but which is far from what is defined by the needs of soldiers and their families".
Lt-General Viggers has given an interview to the BBC in which he decribed the position:
"The issue we have is that there is still too much accommodation which is of a poor standard, which is old, and which is not modern in the way it's fitted for families," Lt-Gen Viggers said.
"It's a key issue in what we call the military covenant - giving our soldiers and their families what they deserve in return for that they do for us."
People "must understand how poor some of this accommodation is", he added.
These conditions relate to the main bases mostly in England and Cyprus and reflect the lack of investment in the housing over a long period. This position is actually reflected in civilian social housing which is traditionally run by local councils. These are being upgraded in a scheme called "decent homes" which relate to properly modernised kitchens and bathrooms and improving the energy efficiency of the homes with such things as double glazing. For the civilian properties, the local councils are having to meet very strict efficiency standards to be able to borrow the money to do this. The alternative is to transfer them to not for profit housing associations but this loses the local democratic control of the provision. The conditions are such that virtually no council can meet the standard and by transfering the stock, the investment is kept off the "Public Service Borrowing Requirement" in an effort to balance the Government's books.
These finance provisions are not really available for the Army but the finances are likely to be "Public Private Partnerships" which mean that private companies will build or refurbish the accommodation and lease it back to the Army. This is more expensive as the company has to borrow at a higher interest rate than the Government can get and has a profit margin built in.
A similar scandal in the housing for US service families is sometimes reported in the US media. Perhaps the difference is the concept of the "covenant" that the Lt General alludes to. This is the notion that in return for their risking their lives in the defence of the realm, the country has a duty of care to them and their families. Special arrangements for their children's education are made for example so that they do not fall behind when they move to follow their parent's regiment. Often an unofficial role is played by the wives of the most senior officers in the regiment, to act as social workers for the spouses left at base while the regiment is on active duty. Admittedly rather feudal, the idea is that the army provides a replacement for the extended family support they lack by marrying (or now entering a civil partnership!) with a serving soldier. Similarly, the opposition to the Iraq War from the right was initially prompted by the unnecessary danger that the forces were put in rather than the deaths of Iraqis.
The Government has been forced to admit the problem.
Defence Minister Derek Twigg said the government had "a sustained programme of investment in accommodation".
"We've spent £700m last year in improving service accommodation," he added.
"We recognise there is a challenge, we recognise that the accommodation is not perfect and that we need to improve it."
The Leader of the Opposition, whose constituency contains a large base, was interviewed on Thursday morning on the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme. This is a highly influential show in British politics, often setting the agenda for the day's news.
Mr Cameron said: "They do so much for us and frankly we should do more for them."
He said the Tories planned to announce a "manifesto for forces families" addressing issues such as housing and education.
Mr Cameron also called for urgent action to improve accommodation for service people at Brize Norton, which is in his constituency.
You might like to know that a couple of Conservative MPs are in the reserve Territorial Army and have served in Iraq so they have a personal commitment to the forces.
The BBC also acts as a national conduit for the expression of grievances over these sorts of topics. They have received hundreds of emails to their web site about the situation and here are a few of them they have posted on the feedback page (they are updated so these may be replaced by others):
"We treat prisoners better than our soldiers." I think that that quote from the wife of a soldier says it all. The government should be ashamed, but as it hides behinds meaningless quotes of figures that have been spent on "improvements" I assume then that no initiative for change will come from there.
Single Officers accomodation is no better and is quite horrible. I lived in one mess where there was only one working shower between 15 single rooms, there was no hand basin by the toilets and I shares a room with a rat once!! The catering is no better and the food unhealthy in many over seas messes where the catering is contracted out. The fire alarms are out of date and often go off during the night. This means every one has to get out of bed, sometimes 2 or 3 times in a single night.
It is pleasure serving on operations, the accomodation is watertight, clean, consistantly heated and there are enough ablutions for the occupants. I am not looking forward to returning to substandard accomodation in the UK! Overall the main problem is contractorisation, whether it is Prime Contracting, Pay as You Dine or Multi Activity Contracts. All these contracts have been let due to a lack of money to buy outright. It is wrong for contractors to make a profit at servicemens' expense.
(That from someone serving in Afghanistan! The "Pay as you dine" scheme appears to mean that at the end of the month soldiers can run out of money. Reports on the BBC tell of soldiers feinting on parade and being asked by officers if they have eaten.)
(From an army wife) In 15 years of marriage I've had 7 quarters. They've been horrendous. You're not given much choice and could end up in somewhere that should have been demolished. When we move we have to clean the quarter and I've had white glove inspections to make sure it was clean, but then I move into a house that should have been condemned and I have to accept it. Army families are treated like dirt while our partners risk their lives on a daily basis. We put up with so much hardship for no reward
Some of the impetus for the statements by the senior officers being made now is obviously to do with the spending decisions being made for the new financial year which starts in April. On the other hand it seems ridiculous that Blair is contemplating a highly expensive scheme to replace the nuclear submarine missile fleet at a time when they do not appear to be able to afford to house the conventional forces properly.
I am no supporter of armed forces generally. Frankly I would prefer that there were none, like Costa Rica. Having said that, I recognise that in the current state of the world it is necessary to have them. If we are to expect men and women to fight and die in our name, we owe them a debt sufficient to make sure they and their families live in decent conditions.