You can recruit him at 17, and send him up against terrorists without the right body armour. You can brutalise him and turn him into a cold-blooded killer. You can expose him to living hell in a war launched on the back of a dodgy dossier, then dump him on the streets, disabled by PTSD. But God forbid that the British Tommy should have a smoke.
That, it appears, was the position of the Armed Forces’ Chief Medical Officer, Vice Admiral Alasdair Walker. As only the Mail on Sunday reported, last year he decreed that from this March members of the services should neither smoke in uniform nor on their bases.
A social media storm ensued this month, with even non-smoking veterans comparing Walker to the Nazis; and luckily, before the orders were posted, Ministry of Defence lawyers intervened and told him he didn’t have the powers. But we’d have been interested to see his commands enforced in a war zone.
What was Tommy meant to do? Change out of fatigues and into beach wear, then stand at least ten metres from the fort’s entrance to reduce the risk of passive inhalation? It certainly puts the old third-light myth into perspective.
Talking of trench warfare, a century ago, supplying cigarettes to the troops was a priority of the British Army. Even the medical journal The Lancet approved, on psychological grounds. And while no one is suggesting that tobacco companies should continue to send free samples to our boys as morale-boosters, one does wonder at the mind-set in the officers’ mess these days.
When these kids volunteer to join the armed services – and pass their fitness tests – they enlist into a life of extreme risk, even at the training stage. To some extent, a good soldier needs to hold his life cheaply – and to be trained to do so through rigorous and terrifying exercises. (How else could you recruit bomb-disposal experts?)
To then patronise such men seems perverse. As the retired Admiral Lord West said of this recent fiasco: ‘You can’t be ordering your staff to quit, even though it is bad for their health. If you go down that road you’ll have to ban skydiving and mountain-climbing too, in case somebody breaks their ankle.’
Put out the flags, then, to celebrate a small victory for common sense. The war is not yet won: the top brass are still far too relaxed about assaults on the ranks from human-rights hypocrites. But perhaps Kipling is spinning a little less slowly in his grave.