Louise spent seven years in the Army, serving in the Intelligence Corps in both Land and Joint environments, as well as on an operational deployment to Afghanistan. She holds a degree in Chinese from the University of Edinburgh, and currently works for an intelligence services firm.
What motivated you to want to speak on Question Time?
Like many current and former serving personnel, I had been following the events in Afghanistan very closely. I felt both a sense of deep heartbreak for the Afghans and also a growing feeling of anger that this was just another stop on the 20 year failure train by our governments and military leaders. By chance I had heard very last minute that QT were looking for veterans to be in the audience of their Afghanistan special so I applied and was accepted. When I arrived, I hadn't necessarily planned to speak at all. However I soon realised that I was the only veteran there and therefore felt that I had to at least ask a question of the panel. As for what I chose to talk about: sometimes there is a narrative that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable from the start, "the graveyard of Empires", or that our troops were irrevocably hamstrung by resource shortages or poor management from politicians. This may be true in whole or in part, but the decisions made by senior commanders have not been examined in enough detail and I thought this should be challenged.
In the military, we spend a lot of time examining tactics of WW2 tank battles, but I have never seen a serious internal debate over counter-insurgency doctrine, just an acceptance that FOBs, 6 month roulements, whack-a-mole SF strike operations, and focusing on infantry training rather than logistics or engineering support to the Afghan forces were the obvious way to go about it. Perhaps others may still believe this was the way to conduct the war, but the fact is none of us really know without a decent inquiry.
And the military should not just be allowed to mark its own homework; there needs to be a thorough outside interrogation of the operation where people are not afraid of hard questions. So that is why I wanted to focus on holding military leaders to account, just as leaders in many other industries are. If you as a CEO suffer a comparably large scale operational defeat, you resign. I don't understand why the military is different in considering this as a rather unseemly and unnecessary thing to do.
I think it’s also important to say I wasn’t motivated by just having a potshot at generals from the comfort of my civilian armchair. I still care deeply about the military as a whole, and believe it should be a well resourced, well trained and fit fighting force. The only way it can achieve this is through having a significantly more challenge-focused culture, where results matter.
What has been the reaction to the question you asked?
The reaction has been fascinating for a few reasons. The first was the sheer scale, and the overwhelming positivity of the hundreds of messages I received. Afghanistan is an issue that many care about- it goes far beyond just the military community or the usually politically engaged. I think sometimes as a nation we see so many so-called crises that it is difficult to respond emotionally to each one, but Afghanistan has really cut through,
Secondly, I was taken aback by how many messages I received from serving personnel, including from some senior officers as well as many who normally are pretty content with the military leadership. I think this is really quite a key issue for Defence: the senior generals can
dismiss an ex-serviceperson like me as just sounding off, like veterans always do. But sooner or later they are going to have to address the fact that many of the middle ranks of officers and soldiers, really the backbone of the military, have suffered a loss of belief in their own operational achievements, and in their leaders. The withdrawal has significantly impacted the moral component of the military and this, together with other bad news stories such as the Ajax programme or yet another cut to the Army's size, presents a real challenge to the leadership to keep the military battle-ready.
Where the reaction has been disappointing is from the Government. James Cleverly, a minister in the FCDO who was on the panel, came to speak to me after the show, which I really admire, but it's clear that whilst he sympathised, there is no appetite to spend political capital on this issue. I was also disappointed with the Labour Party's response, which is to essentially also lie low and say as little as possible. Some MPs in Parliament are taking it as seriously as I think they should, but in reality I fear we are going to let this valuable opportunity to learn real lessons slip away.
Thankfully I did not receive too much abuse online, although some people seemed to assume that my two minute speech was the sum total of my knowledge and thoughts on the situation. I can assure you there is plenty more...
How do you reflect on your time in the British Army as a woman?
Everyone has their own experience of serving, but for me personally it was just a huge honour and a great experience. In particular, I was very grateful for an environment where I could focus on the job, and be judged for my success, rather than having to achieve all that but in high heels like some of my civilian counterparts have had to do! There can be downsides: the recent Atherton report has highlighted the persistence of unacceptable, and occasionally downright illegal, behaviour that does go on but I would like to reiterate that whilst I met a few idiots and creeps, they were vastly outnumbered by the highly competent men whom I had the honour to work with, who went out of their way to support and mentor me. I honestly can’t think of another career where I would have learnt so much, or had so many great experiences in the process.
In some ways though I do look back with some regret; I served during a period where there was a swift but huge transition for women. I started in an all-female platoon at Sandhurst (this feels almost Victorian now) and saw the debate about women in combat roles go from an interesting theoretical question to the established policy. Unfortunately this came too late for me to have the personal circumstances to allow me to take up a role in a combat capbadge, but I'm glad others now have this opportunity. And whilst I think my own tour in Afghanistan made things slightly better for a few people for a short while, I do feel ashamed that we could have achieved so much more.
How do you think Afghanistan has changed for women since you were deployed there?
I think for many women, life will clearly not have changed that much. Many women's lives in that country are very difficult, and they are subject to very rigorous constraints on how they wish to live their lives and fulfill their potential. However, there is a significant minority who had real
opportunity under the Western-backed government, and who were achieving great things. I remember meeting the most senior female general in the Afghan Army- this was at a time when the British Army had no female generals at all! She was a complete battleaxe and clearly a formidable operator. She had a female aide, who was clearly a bit daunted by her, but who would no doubt have grown into a fantastic leader under such a mentor. There are so many heartbreaking stories of individual suffering emerging now, but I often think about what has happened to them in particular, as a symbol of what has been lost.
I think there is another important point to make here, in that the war in Afghanistan is not over. The anti-Taliban coalition in the country may be in retreat, but it has not been defeated. Currently there is a nucleus of defiance in Panjshir province, which is at least nominally supportive of a more liberal government. There is also a complex network of alliances and identities in the country which have not previously been friends of the Taliban, and are not guaranteed to remain as acquiescent as they may be at present. We are also seeing attacks beginning which are being blamed on IS-KP, who no doubt have ambitions of their own. However ultimately whether they or the Taliban are victorious in the end, violence in Afghanistan is clearly not over, may well get worse, and can only result in a desperate situation for Afghans, and female Afghans in particular.
What do you think it means to be a female veteran in the wake of the recent Afghanistan withdrawal?
This conflict has been unusual in that it has been the first where such high numbers of women have served. It was also really the operation where the last arguments for not opening up all combat roles to women were disproved- female personnel were on the same patrols, with the same kit, in the same firefights and proving they were indispensible. I think therefore that we are potentially facing a few unknowns with the legacy of Afghanistan for female veterans going forwards, so it's important that this is not overlooked.
I also would like to highlight that whilst most veteran issues in general do not have a specifically female angle, there are occasionally problems which I think affect us more that I would like to raise awareness of. Just as women do unfortunately sustain higher numbers of muscular-skeletal injuries in service, I would like to highlight the consequently larger proportion of women who are living with pain everyday from injuries acquired in part or in whole from their service, and who struggle to get NHS treatment. Just as veterans receive a little extra help from mental health services, I would like to make the case that veterans, and female ones in particular, are in need of additional physiotherapy-type care beyond that which overstretched NHS services can provide.
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