Daily Archives: 5 September, 2010

Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, KCB, CBE,...

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I’m in two minds over the Sir Richard Dannatt issue. On the one hand, if I was a squaddie and I heard the top boss sticking it to the politicians on my behalf I would probably think ‘nice one!’ – theres nothing better for military morale than to see politicians having a hard time. But at the same time, Dannatt’s complaints have never been of just a military nature, they have always taken on a distinctly partly political overtone. Even if not necessarily pro-party, they are definitely anti-party (which you could argue is virtually the same thing).

There is nothing wrong with military leaders having an opinion. We live in a modern democracy, everyone has an opinion. I don’t even think that it is necessarily wrong to express them in public – if they’ve been expressed in private and not listened to, and you think its important enough, make it a public issue. Some things the public deserve to know, regardless of whether it is comfortable for the politicians. And in the modern era of spin, politicians and their ‘special advisors’ are prone to treating the military as they do any other department – keeping ‘on message’ is more important than doing a good job.

But while Dannatt was raising valid points, at the same time it was also couched in an anti-Labour, and somewhat pro-Tory feeling. Military officers should be apolitical – at least in public. The job of the armed forces is to do the bidding of the elected Government of the day, regardless of what colour that Government represents. Its that party political tone that really is the problem. You get the feeling that Gordon Brown pretty much blanked Dannatt as he was seen to be politically unreliable. This is a dangerous precedent, for politicians to shun Generals based on their politics. Ability to do the job should be the over-riding factor.

If Richard Dannatt‘s memoirs are to be believed, his relationship with Gordon Brown became so fractured that they did not meet for 6 months towards the end of his period in command, and had to resort to ambushing the Prime Minister on Horse Guards Parade. It’s pretty poor that both of them let their relationship get so bad. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t agree with. But you just have to make the best of it. The people of Britain, and the Army in particular, deserved better. Mike Jackson might have been seen as being tamed by New Labour, but the General cannot pick or choose with politicians he gets to choose with, so might as well get on with it as best he can.

Dannatt’s ‘beef’ with the former Labour Government seems to be that while the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 set down guidelines for how the armed forces should be structured, Gordon Brown then refused throughout the coming years to fund them properly. This is pretty hard to argue with – the state that the Army found itself in 2003 before it went into Iraq is well known, no matter what Brown might argue.

Essentially, the armed forces were caught between Blair and Brown in their fractuous relationship, that has been well documented. In order to safeguard his own position as PM Blair handed Brown unprecedented control over public spending, and refused to confront him. So if Brown was in charge of the purse strings – and, in effect, in charge overall – what the hell was Blair doing? Why did we have a PM who was willing to espouse wise words internationally, but would not put his foot down with the bloke next door? Very strange for the two most powerful men in the country to be so disfunctional.

Sadly Labour’s record on Defence was disappointing. The initial 1998 Strategic Defence Review set a sensible framework, and the Blair Doctrine of humitarian intervention was well thought out. But 9/11, Blair’s willingness to follow Bush’s hawkish foreign policy to the end of the earth, combined with Brown’s unwillingness to fund Defence properly or to work properly with his Army chief made for a deadly combination.

Nobody emergest with any credibility from this fiasco. And the row is only likely to get worse, with Dannatt’s memoirs ‘Leading from the Front’ due to be released later this month. Of course, you can look forward to a full review here.

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Myths of the Blitz

Firefighters putting out a blaze in London aft...

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Theres an interesting piece from historian Correlli Barnett in the Independent on Sunday Today, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz. I can’t say I’ve always agreed with Barnett – particularly over his opinion on Montgomery – and sadly from such a prominent Historian, I find his writing pretty disappointing.

Over the past 70 years something of a myth has grown up around the Blitz. True, we did go on to win the war, but did this fact, in retrospect, shape perceptions of the blitz? I think so. If we had lost the war, it might have been a different argument altogether. There is evidence that civilian behaviour and morale did not hold up quite as well as popular belief thinks. There were very serious concerns in national and local Government that mass panic would ensue. Initially people were banned from going into Tube stations during air raids, for fear that they would never come up again and would evolve into a race of ‘underground people’. There were also cases of looting, but these were largely hushed up at the time – Portsmouth magistrate records during the war record a large number of people who appeared in court, but with no crime entered – we strongly suspect that they were charged with looting, but that this was kept quiet so as not to harm morale. The blackout was also a great cover for crime, as Juliet Gardner has recently written in the Guardian.

The other issue is the perception of the Blitz as a distinctly London phenomenon. The Independent on Sunday‘s pullout is very much a case of ‘…and other cities’, which I feel not only does injustice to other cities which suffered heavy punishment, it is also inaccurate. True, London was the most bombed city in terms of the number of raids, and the amount of ordnance dropped. Yet, even in 1940 London was a sprawling Metropolis of millions of people. It was also the captial, so of course it was always going to be a target. Yet smaller cities such as Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Liverpool were heavily bombed too. And when we consider the size of these cities, and that in some cases most of the damage came in a handful of raids, they underwent what was in many ways a heavier ordeal. Yet the Blitz has become an overhwelmingly London phenomenon, filed somewhere between Barbara Windsor and Jellied Eels.

Barnett writes that morale did not collapse in Britain during the Blitz, and neither did it during the Allied Air Forces strategic bombing assault on Germany later in the war. This, Barnett argues, is a lesson for modern warmakers who think that shock and awe undermines the enemy’s resolve to resist. Yet this is a poor argument – societies have changed immeasurably, sense of community and togetherness is not quite what it was. And the waging of war, and the munitions that can be used, have changed too. Strategic Bombing was imprecise and indiscriminate. Yet Cruise Missile strikes send the message ‘we can target you, anywhere, anytime’ – something that can hardly make one feel like putting up a fight. Morale in the Ruhr and Berlin may have ‘held’ in 1943 and 1944, butt holding on is not the same as thriving. Albert Speer, the Nazi Armaments Minister, was quite clear in his opinion that allied bombing severely hampered the German industries. What more evidence do we need than that?

I would not think of myself as a revisionist when it comes to the Blitz, far from it. It’s amazing to think the kind of ordeal that our ancestors – including my Grandparents – went through in those dark days. But at the same time I am also very cautious about buying into myths that have more to do with drama and popular culture than with reality.

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