In 2006 the then Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker (now Field Marshal Baron Walker of Aldringham), in evidence to the House of Commons Armed Forces Bill Committee, told MPs that an unnamed foreign contingent which had been part of his command in Bosnia had "laid down its arms" over "a pay deal" and "That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body".
At the time some MPs accepted this as a valid argument against representation. Were they right?
The relevant part of the General's evidence is here: Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419). In fairness, the exchange seems to have become a little tetchy, so perhaps need not be examined too closely. The concern is the weight thereafter placed on that testimony by some members of the Committee.
'They put their arms down... That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body'
Sir Michael gave evidence, in response to MPs' questions about proposals for a British Armed Forces Federation, that:
"When I was commanding in Bosnia, one of the battalions of one of the nations, and I will not tell you which one, laid down its arms because, it said, the pay deal was not right, so they put their arms down. Do you really see British Armed Services doing that? That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body who are fighting back at home, your soldiers are at the front and they do not appear to be achieving."
General Walker commanded the land force component of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR), from December 2006 to November 2007, with great distinction.
It would be surprising if any battalion of Sir Michael's force literally "put their arms down", but it is not in doubt that some deplorable incident of indiscipline had taken place or been feared. "Putting their arms down" would certainly have been mutiny.
Illegal agitation over pay delays
What really seems to have happened is that an Eastern European troop-contributing nation had been left with large, unaffordable, armed forces on its territory following the breakup of the Soviet Union. While receiving UN pay for its troops during the UNPROFOR period, that nation is said to have failed to honour its domestic pay obligations to those troops, leaving its contingent to acquire an unenviable reputation for alleged black market and other corrupt activities in Bosnia.
Pay being a national responsibility, pay problems seem to have continued after the contingent became part of Sir Michael's force in December 1996, leading to illegal agitation and demonstrations involving officers, troops and families. Some officers had organised illegal associations to lobby for their personal welfare and there was a "large and influential" Officers' Association (Joint Force Quarterly, US DoD, Spring 1997), but it had no right to negotiate any "pay deal" in the sense British MPs may have understood.
The agitation did not involve any "federation" which was comparable either with the British Armed Forces Federation steering group proposals, or with any recognised representative arrangements in any NATO country.
Representation without indiscipline
Sir Michael didn't mention, nor did MPs think to ask him about, the fact that a significant proportion of his force in Bosnia-Herzegovina actually did enjoy lawful independent representation of one kind or another, including on pay, without the slightest suggestion of resulting indiscipline.
This fact applies not only to many European troop contributing countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, all of which provided substantial contingents for General Walker's force; it also applies to the United States, where independent professional military associations follow a different pattern but, amongst other activities, regularly lobby on a range of personnel issues including pay.
(For example see the Association of the United States Army: AUSA - Where We Stand on Key Issues 2012.)
At the time the BAFF Steering Group responded to General Walker's reported comments by submitting written evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee - Memorandum from the Steering Group for a British Armed Forces Federation - and the group's Chairman Douglas Young had a courteous exchange of correspondence with the General about the principle of representation. Until the transcript was published later, we were unaware of the full extent of his Bosnian anecdote.
In their ensuing deliberations, some members of the Committee placed a great deal of weight on the anecdote, and it was quoted verbatim in their conclusions: Armed Forces Federation.
The view from 2015
Revisiting this article in 2015, such claims would be less likely to pass without challenge, now that Parliament has increased its online engagement, and the transcripts of evidence sessions are often published when available instead of waiting for final conclusions. The very existence of an independent staff association which is prepared to comment is also now having an influence.
We would not criticise General Walker for the fact that he was personally against a Federation - although we respectfully disagreed with his view at the time that "we would certainly lose" the Armed Forces Pay Review Body if a Federation existed.
It was common in BAFF's early days to encounter fears based on the critics' own construct of what a Federation would look like, instead of what was actually being proposed.
The incident is now "water under the bridge", but still stands as an reminder that MoD briefings don't always mean quite what they say. It also demonstrates how far the Ministry of Defence at that time was prepared to go to prevent a British Armed Forces Federation getting off the ground.
The incident also shows once again that there is a place for a responsible independent staff association representing its members, such as the British Armed Forces Federation, which acts constructively within sensible ground rules but is not beholden to the MoD, and is free to monitor and respond to Parliamentary developments affecting its members.
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