The coroner's inquest is under way into the tragic deaths of Cpl James Dunsby, Trooper Edward Maher and L/Cpl Craig Roberts, experienced army reservists who took part in an SAS selection test on Pen Y Fan on July 13, 2013. While we await the outcome of the inquest in due course, it is difficult at this stage to agree with previous suggestions that investigations into these deaths have been excessive.
The Policy Exchange's influential "Fog of Law" paper, written that same year by Tom Tugendhat (now Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling) and Laura Croft, appeared to complain that
".. since the deaths of the three soldiers ... no fewer than four official inquiries or investigations have been called to examine the deaths and the underlying circumstances: the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation; a coroner’s inquest; a Service Inquiry; and a police investigation. All of that is, of course, capped by the media coverage."
It is difficult to see how any of those "four official inquiries or investigations" could reasonably have been dispensed with in the circumstances. This is not to prejudge the inquest verdict and any recommendations which may be attached to it. But where there is any suggestion of possible blame, it is all the more important that any necessary investigation should be fair, prompt and thorough.
The Health and Safety Executive's website about its work with the armed forces is here: Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the armed forces.
Where the Policy Exchange paper was, we think, on firmer ground is where it went on to say that
"Together, these [the four inquiries plus the media coverage] may lead to a perception of equivalence between military training and any other form of adventurous training. However, there is a fundamental difference: military training is not an end in itself, nor an attempt to build a corporate team. Rather, it is to prepare individuals and units for the rigours of combat and to prepare them to be capable of fighting in the harshest environments so that they can achieve their missions without becoming a burden to their comrades."
But the "perception" of equivalence seems to us a reason for explaining these points more effectively to the public, not for cutting down on investigation.
Dan Jarvis MP (Labour, Barnsley Central), a former Parachute Regiment officer who served in Helmand, was quoted in the Guardian in response to "growing calls for military chiefs to review guidance on strenuous training in hot weather":
“I robustly defend the right of the army to conduct the most rigorous training. We have got to have people who are used to facing adversity.”
But Mr Jarvis went on to say that
"Having said that, there are very strict rules that apply when training is taking place in adverse conditions. Something has gone wrong. We need to get to the bottom of it."
Anyone who has given evidence at an inquest - whether the circumstances were military or civilian - will know that, however kind the coroner may be, the experience of revisiting an awful day is not pleasant. Our sympathy goes to everyone involved: above all the dead soldiers' families, but also the soldiers' comrades and others who were present on that tragic day, including those called upon to give evidence about the planning and management of the event.
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