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Remembering the past, fighting for the future: The Ben Wallace Interview

10 min read

Whether he is confronting attitudes towards women in the forces, or looking at space for the next military innovation, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is on a mission to modernise. As the straight-talking former army captain prepares to mark Remembrance Sunday he explains why this November will be harder than most for those who served in Afghanistan. Kate Proctor reports.

There is no shortage of places to be photographed on Whitehall to mark Remembrance Sunday, but this year the Defence Secretary was adamant he wanted to stand at the Iraq and Afghanistan memorial. The imposing cream Portland stone sculpture at Embankment Gardens outside the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been deliberately left rough on each side to symbolise the rocky terrain the British military fought in.

Remembrance is a “marker in history” said Wallace, as we meet in the vast Whitehall department ahead of the traditional commemorations at the Cenotaph. “It’s where the present moves into the past. And this year it’s quite poignant, because we close the chapter on a 20-year campaign in Afghanistan. It’s still very raw and very alive for many.”

Twenty-first century communication such as texts mean soldiers in the UK and Afghans still in the country are able to keep in touch in ways which would have once been impossible, lending the conflict a lingering presence.

“It’s poignant because there are very real issues still unaddressed and consequences still not yet landing. Young men and women who have served… tours of Afghanistan, some of the mental health issues won’t appear yet and sometimes won’t appear until 20 or 30-years time,” Wallace said.

In August, as others in government were accused of failures over Afghanistan, the Defence Secretary was widely praised for his leadership of the MoD’s airlift out of Kabul. It was an emotionally distressing time for him, as he knew those on the ground were risking their lives. At one point during an interview he broke down in tears as he acknowledged he wouldn’t be able to get everyone out.

Wallace said: “It was an evacuation in full colour with a full commentary. Long after we’ve gone, people are still [talking] with each other. For some veterans this will be an opportunity for closure, so they can help, support and welcome people here. And for others, it’s unfinished business. That’s a different stress in the veterans’ community than we might have seen in the past.”

Troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade involved in the airlift were immediately given a period of leave, but he hopes to visit them at their Colchester barracks in the next few weeks to say thank you directly for their courage.

Two years into his job as Defence Secretary, Wallace, 51, a former Scots Guard, has spent a large part of his time on the Defence Command Paper released in March. Its focus is future-proofing the armed forces in a programme of spending up to 2030; research and development gets £6.6bn in investment for “game changing” technologies, based on space, swarming and directed energy – a fancy word for lasers.

Though he cheerfully recounted how the outside of the Ministry of Defence featured in the latest James Bond movie, No Time To Die, he was keen to point out that their laser technology won’t be like scenes from Moonraker. Put simply, he said: “If you’ve got a missile coming in at you and dazzle it, and you can confuse its sensors, then you can protect yourself. It’s a very effective [system]. The hope is this type of technology can combat the hypersonic missiles that Russia and China are developing.

The £1.4bn space arm of the programme focuses on satellites and communications, and amassing open source data, essentially making sure the UK’s critical national infrastructure can rely on space technology to improve security.

Then there is the intriguing “swarming” which uses lots of smaller drones – something Iran has already deployed.

“The effect a swarm can have is, if you’ve got an enemy’s anti-air missile system, you confuse it. So instead of sending a very expensive fighter airplane with people towards it, you send dozens of little drones. The system can’t work, it can’t function. You can deny its capability,” he said.

Covid tested the military in new ways, with requests for help driving ambulances from all four of the UK’s nations. But while the army was happy to help out during the pandemic, long-term they cannot devote too much attention to civilian assistance, as this takes personnel away from other defence jobs and training. “We’re not here to pick up your failure in your public policy if you can’t plan and deliver,” Wallace says flatly.

Away from innovation and stepping up in a national crisis, Wallace’s time in the job has coincided with two of the army’s most testing issues in many years, both of which have drawn attention to how the military relates to women, within the forces and as civilians. We seem to be approaching something of a reckoning for the military on past and present behaviour, and Wallace says he wants to get it “all out in the open”.

First came the expose of women’s experiences in the services over a period of 40 years, through evidence given to former Intelligence Corps soldier and Tory MP Sarah Atherton, who chairs the defence sub-committee ‘Women in the Armed Forces’. Her hard-hitting report, which Wallace cooperated with by allowing serving women to give evidence in an inquiry for the first time, found 58 per cent of serving women surveyed had experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination. One of the major recommendations was that MoD remove rape and sexual assault cases from military courts, and hand these over to the civilian court system.

The second major incident came a few weeks ago when The Sunday Times exposed shocking details about the murder of Agnes Wanjiru, a Kenyan mother working as a prostitute and allegedly killed by a British soldier in 2012. Her body was found stuffed into a septic tank at the Lions Court Hotel near the British base in Nanyuki. Wallace said he heard of the case only when the newspaper reported it.

Serious questions have been raised about what the British military had done in the intervening years in terms of investigation and whether Kenya should have been given more pro-active assistance.

“It’s a deeply concerning murder and story and there is no one in the MoD standing in the way of [an investigation],” Wallace insists. “There’s no cover up, there’s no blockade,” he said.

He says the department stands ready to help but what they can’t do, because of the 2006 Armed Forces Act, is conduct their own parallel investigation. He said they shared names with the Kenyan authorities nine years ago but did not receive a Mutual Legal Assistance request for help.

Though there have been reports that the Kenyan defence minister, Eugene Wamalwa, had asked for a British suspect to be extradited, Wallace said there had been no legal request so far.

He admited there were valid questions over what Britain could have done, from the discovery of Wanjiru’s body in 2012 to the 2019 inquest that confirmed it was murder.

Could the UK have pressed the Kenyans to do more? “I think that is a matter to look back on, and ask ourselves that,” he said.   

Asked if he was horrified by a culture of British soldiers using prostitutes, as detailed in The Sunday Times, he said: “We should be asking ourselves ... what our soldiers are doing to respect women. Let’s start with that. Have we done too much turning a blind eye over the last 30 years about prostitution?”

And have people turned a blind eye? “We have done, certainly in countries in poverty, where the British are there on a whole range of issues.” He reveals that when he was serving in Belize in the 1990s, there was a brothel situated at the back gate of the base, adding that it’s no longer there.

Wallace said the 2018 Oxfam scandal, where aid workers were found to have been using prostitutes in Haiti in 2011, should have served as a warning.

“The Oxfam scandal should have been for everyone a red flag. But it should have happened even before that. The British armed forces serve in some of the poorest countries in the world. There are women who are driven by poverty to do things and there are women who are also driven by exploitation and both of those come to a point where we should have been asking ourselves what our soldiers are doing to respect women.”

“There was definitely in the past a sense of ‘it’s what happens in these countries’, and I think the real key here… is better respect [for women].”

With clear emotion, Wallace goes on: “Never mind the poor women outside the unit, the poor ladies in the bars. What does it say to the women serving alongside the [male] soldiers [using prostitutes]? The soldiers who come back from a night out and talk about it.”

The MoD’s official response to Atherton’s report is due at the end of the month – it will be three months late, largely because Wallace was unhappy with what was going to be the department’s statement. Instead, he’s spent the past few months “market testing” the re-worked response with women in the forces.

He won’t be taking up the recommendation of removing rape and sexual assault from the Service Justice System and into the civilian courts, because he says he can’t see the evidence for it. For example, in 2020 1.6 per cent of rapes reported to the civilian police made it to court, compared to 50 per cent of those reported to military police.

He said: “At the root is a concern raised that the quality of investigations hasn’t been good enough. I agree that historically it hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean to say you take apart the Service Justice System.”

What he will implement, recommended by another report, is a Defence Serious Crimes Unit, led by a newly appointed provost marshal, with the aim of helping service police deal with the more serious offences.

Wallace is at pains to point out there are lots of women in the armed forces having a great career, and tackling some of these difficult issues shouldn’t result in a negative perception of life in the army, navy or air force. He’s keen to know more about women’s lived experiences right now, because for all the headlines about women’s treatment, he said he’s had many people tell him positive stories, saying they don’t want their careers “trashed by history”.

“There are lots of women having a fantastic time and we must not make this that only women have a miserable time and all the [male] soldiers treat them with disrespect. It’s not true at all,” he said.

He said the respect agenda is key to moving forwards, and though it’s painful, he wants all the information to come to the surface. Earlier this month he summoned the Army Board to tell them recent incidents, including concerns about sexual harassment, were “not acceptable”.

“I’ve got nothing to hide about what we need to fix – but we must make sure the good and the bad is equally heard,” he said.

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