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Cost of War Is Always Too High

by Joanna Blythman

The case of paratrooper Ben Parkinson, who has been offered niggardly compensation from the army for his appalling injuries suffered in Afghanistan, offers another graphic example of the painful human realities of misguided wars.

Like insurance company loss adjusters descending on a flood-devastated house, intent on minimising their liability - how much for a sodden carpet or a sagging ceiling? - the army referred to the small print of its Armed Forces Compensation Scheme.

Applying the scheme's cold-blooded actuarial calculations, despite having lost both legs and sustained 37 injuries, lance bombardier Parkinson, who will need round-the-clock care for the rest of his life, qualifies for only £152,000 in compensation. His legs are worth only £115,000. His brain damage would be worth the same except that, conveniently, second injuries only qualify for 30% of the total. A wasted arm clocks up £2650, a sum that would easily be swallowed up by respite care, should his mother, who is looking after him, ever take a holiday. And, embedded in the small print, lies a further killer clause stating that his 34 other injuries are not worth anything, because the army automatically discounts any after the first three.

I admire his mother, Diane Dernie, for threatening to take the Ministry of Defence to court. She never wanted her son to join the army in the first case, and tried to talk him out of it, but like many young men, he liked the idea of foreign travel, excitement and all that, and didn't listen to her. If he ever seriously considered the possibility that he might sustain serious injuries, he no doubt believed that the army welfare system would sweep him up in its protective arms. Now his mother is left to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. As usual, it is women who pay the price when male vanity projects, like war, go hopelessly wrong.

Lance bombardier Parkinson is the latest in a long line of disillusioned victims of martial adventures. After years of campaigning, the Gurkhas, so keenly recruited into the colonial British army for their stamina, have only recently managed to shame out of the army a pension that matches that of a British-born soldier. Even then, mean-minded accountants have chipped away at the principle with petty, arbitrary rulings. Only Gurkhas who retired after July 1997 need apply, so if you are an older Gurkha who left the army earlier hoping for a comfortable retirement in the country that you served, then you're stuffed.

Much the same applies to the 2000 or so veterans of the first Gulf war who are convinced that their health has been blighted, either by exposure to chemical and biological weapons used in that war, or by the vaccine they were given to protect against them. Even though an independent inquiry has found that there is indeed such a condition as Gulf war syndrome, and urged that its victims should be compensated, the government refuses to accept the principle. Currently, Gulf war veterans with the most severe disabilities only get a pension of £130 a week. Many have already died and, if the government can just spin it out for a few more years, keeping veterans' associations tied up in costly legal and scientific argument, then it may never have to put its hands in its pockets to compensate these sickly men, as the problem will take care of itself.

It was the same story for US veterans whose health was damaged by Agent Orange, the devastating defoliant they dropped on Vietnam. They were forced to sue the chemical companies who made the herbicide: the US government managed to wriggle off the hook because Agent Orange was not considered a poison at the time. Needless to say, the Vietnamese people - who suffered most acutely, and who still live with the toxic legacy of Agent Orange as babies continue to be born with terrible deformities caused by contaminated soil - haven't seen a dime in amends.

Funny, isn't it, how there is always plenty money available to launch martial projects, and never any when it comes to dealing with the environmental and human fallout they cause? Gordon Brown, for instance, is up for payrolling the renewal of Britain's nuclear deterrent, Trident. The breathtaking cost will be £10 billion to £25bn. I can't help thinking that the majority of people would rather see this money spent on almost anything else, such as compensating generously the lance bombardier Parkinsons of the world.

Ironically, despite being gung-ho about his country's own nuclear weapons, Brown won't rule out military action in Iran. He sees no contradiction in weighing in on the side of the US because George Bush - the man who told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction - has decided that Iran might "pursue the technology that leads to nuclear weapons" (Iran insists that its nuclear programme is geared solely to producing civil nuclear energy, and inspectors have found no evidence to suggest otherwise).

Men of war like Bush are always good at starting wars, and utterly hopeless at ending them or shouldering the responsibility for their consequences. They really are a menace. Clear up the mess of one fight before you pick another.

- Joanna Blythman

© 2007 Newsquest (Sunday Herald) limited

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