He Toa Matangaro No Aotearoa - Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Wellington, New Zealand. Source: Ministry of Culture and Heritage, NZ

The Armed Forces Covenant

Another Great But Broken Promise?

Dr Simon Ewing-Jarvie

13 September 2017

“Civilization is a veneer of civility stretched across primal human appetites. Like democracy, civilization has to be willed, practiced, and constantly repaired, or society becomes a war of all against all”. These words were part of a 2007 commencement speech at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas entitled “A Great but Broken Promise”. The speaker was renowned American journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers. In addition to a long career as a journalist, Moyers also served as White House Press Secretary in the Johnson administration from 1965 to 1967.

Societies have laws designed to prevent violence. They also have laws that authorise certain people to exercise violence on their behalf in support of the greater good and the rule of law. In return, society provides guarantees regarding the safety and wellbeing of those men and women – but does it really?

How should society care for a soldier wounded in action? Certainly, medical care is appropriate – but how much and for how long? At what point does the now ex-soldier simply become another person on a public hospital waiting list? What of lost opportunities to work, earn, play and participate fully in their children’s lives? Should those hurt or made ill during training, rather than operations, be treated differently? How about those who simply serve faithfully for twenty or thirty years without incident? What duty is owed to the partners and children?

The upcoming Invictus Games seems a good time to ask these questions. The Invictus (Latin for undefeated) Games is an international Paralympic-style multi-sport event, created by Prince Harry, in which wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and veterans take part in adaptive sports. The next event is to be in Canada commencing 23 September this year.

In 2000, the United Kingdom’s army introduced a term, the Military Covenant, to refer to the mutual obligations between the nation and its Armed Forces. This has subsequently been the subject of political speeches, media commentary and academic analysis. At one point, it almost became law. The concept is well described in the Army’s handbook:

“Soldiering – The Military Covenant 2000

Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice – in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they forego some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service. In the same way, the unique nature of military land operations means that the Army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the Nation. This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the Nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history. It has perhaps its greatest manifestation in the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, when the Nation keeps covenant with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in action”.

The concept has subsequently migrated to refer to the Navy and Air Force and become known as the Armed Forces Covenant. The implied meaning remains the same and has now been codified. Details of this can be viewed on UK government websites – https://www.armedforcescovenant.gov.uk/  and https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/armed-forces-covenant.

Does this concept have relevance in the New Zealand context? I believe that it does. Some will argue that there are already systems in place to cover this ‘sort of thing’. Currently, we have too many gaps in our care programme – especially for veterans and their families to make that believable. These often appear as negative stories in the media. Our legislation, despite its volume, is equally incomplete. Accident Compensation is a case in point where injury is covered but sickness is not. Special cases have to be brought to cover some situations such as the soldiers and their children who suffered from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and exposure to radiation during the observation of nuclear tests. Will exposure to depleted uranium from anti-armour shells, prophylactic operational medical regimens and post-traumatic stress be the next series of special cases? Who knows – but these people shouldn’t have to wait until most of them are dead for the ‘science to be in’ and politicians to act.

An Armed Forces Covenant covers more than just health. It addresses issues of transition back into society – education and re-training, housing, employment and much more. If New Zealand had a written Constitution, that would be the place that I would put it. However, we don’t, so it will need to have its own legislation. If it’s not placed in statute, it will be applied variably and thus, its purpose will be undermined. I can imagine a Defence and Veterans’ Ombudsman position being created to hold governments to account over the Covenant and a Defence Force Association to provide the continuity of commentary in the public where service chiefs and other officials can’t or won’t.

A major difficulty in implementing an Armed Forces Covenant is in the title. If it is to represent a special bond between society and those who protect it, then what about Police? What about the intelligence operators, civilian medical staff and myriad of specialists from other government agencies who now deploy on operations? They get medallic recognition from the State now – but you can’t eat a medal or house your family with it.

I’d like to think that we might hear from aspiring politicians on veteran’s affairs in the lead-up to this general election but I doubt it will happen. Detractors will argue that such a system will create two classes of citizen. However, that is both true and irrelevant. We already have two classes – those few who put their lives at risk and give up personal freedoms in defence of our society – and the majority who don’t.