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Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

Richard Dannatt has probably been Britain’s most controversial General since the end of the Second World War. Not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, he received the support of his men and officers, but at the same time became the scourge of the Brown Government. Not only for his public criticism of Government defence policy, but also for agreeing to advise the Conservative Party whilst he was still technically on the Army payroll.

Dannatt joined the Army in the early 70′s, becoming a subaltern in the Green Howards, a famous Yorkshire Regiment. The early 1970′s were a busy time for the army, with heavy commitments in Northern Ireland. Dannatt served several stints in the province, winning the Military Cross – something which he almost breezes over. Remarkably, Dannatt also suffered a major stroke in his mid 20′s. And even more remarkably, he managed to make a full recovery and serve on to have a full army career afterwards. A picture emerges of somebody who was no doubt a very brave man, with plenty of resolve. Dannatt also served as a senior commander in both Bosnia and Kosovo. All three operations, which involved fighting in and around people and dealing with security and reconstruction, gave a strong understanding of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Dannatt also gained a Bachelors Degree in Economic History – an interesting subject for an army officer to study. This obviously gave him a better understanding of budgets than most Generals ever manage to obtain! He also served in the Ministry of Defence several times, which ensured that he had a good understanding of how the Whitehall machine worked when he reached the top of the tree – again, not something many Generals master. This probably explains his clever use of media interviews to get his point across, rather than constantly banging ones head against the Whitehall ‘wall’.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his work to restore the Military Covenant – the unwritten agreement of support between the armed forces, the Government and society. Within several years, homecoming parades for returning troops are packed. Charities such as Help for Heroes are raising millions for troops welfare. You cannot help but feel that the armed forces matter more to people in Britain more than they have done for a very long time, and this is a real and lasting achievement.

It was undoubtedly a mistake to agree to advise the Conservative Party, particularly as when asked Dannatt was still a paid member of the British Army, even though he had stood down as Chief of the General Staff. Dannatt explains that he had hoped to keep the announcement secret until he had left the Army, but that it seems to have been leaked for mischievous political reasons. Dannatt then changed his mind, deciding not to join the Conservative ranks as a Defence minister. As he quite rightly states, it would have undermined the serving Defence Chiefs to have one of their retired counterparts undermining them from a tangent. It was a rare naive moment for somebody who strikes me as a very astute man. The political management of Defence is in something of a strange situation – we have a scenario where politicians are appointed to head a department, usually with no experience of defence at all – and who are nominally in charge or ordering around older, senior commanders who have 30 years of experience behind them, and have fought and led in wars. It is a strange set-up indeed, and I cannot help but think that the new National Security Council fudges the issue even more.

The Memoirs of Dannatt’s predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, gave the impression of an officer who – although no fool – was definitely one of the lads. Dannatt strikes me as someone who, although keen to stand up for his men, is more of a thinker. This is shown by the last chapter, which is really Dannatt thinking about loud about what he calls ‘the future’, and where we need our armed forces to be to face threats that might – or might not – transpire. He quotes from General Sir Rupert Smith‘s utility of force, going further to suggest that modern wars will not be just amongst the people, but also about the people. And if we think about it, this is exactly what has been happening since the end of the Second World War. Yet still people hanker after a Cold War style armoured clash, the kind of war they would like rather than the kind of war we are faced with in the real world. The Army spent years doing this sat in Germany, until Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leonne and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan forced a change in thinking. We still have, however, the RAF longing for dogfights over the white cliffs of dover, in much the same fashion.

As somebody who was in charge of Defence ‘Programmes’ political parlance for buying equipment – Dannat has some strongs words to say about Defence Procurement. In particular, he repeatedly questions the RAF’s need to buy and maintain lavish numbers of fast fighter jets, when it is hard to see when exactly we will need them. Meanwhile, the Army struggled by for years with sub-standard vehicles and equipment, for wars that were happening in the here and now. Published before the Defence Review, it was sadly prophetic, as the RAF triumphed once again. Helicopters are one of Dannatt’s keen interests – as Colonel of the Army Air Corps, he earnt his Army flying wings at a relatively advanced age for a soldier! He sees the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command as a fudge, as it placed Helicopter support in an area where it was owned by no-one, and ripe for cuts. At a time when the Army needed as many helicopters as it could get.

This is not perhaps as readable or exciting in its own right as Mike Jackson’s memoirs, but in terms of explaining the past three years – some might argue much further – of political-military development, this book is crucial and will have a firm place in the historiography of the British Army. It’s certainly got me thinking.

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Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

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

Image via Wikipedia

 

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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‘But I was only following orders…’

I’ve noticed something striking, and dare I say it, sadly ironic, whilst browsing wikipedia of all places.

1999… Kosovo… British Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson is in command of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, a NATO formation in the process of moving into Kosovo to implement a peace agreement. All is well apart from a Russian armoured column moving towards Pristina Airport from Bosnia. Jackson’s superior, Supreme Allied Commander Wes Clark, orders Jackson to block Pristina Airport to prevent the Russians flying in troops. Jackson considered it a dangerous order, and refused, saying ‘I’m a three star General, you cannot give me orders like that… I will not start World War Three for you’. Jackson phoned the British Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, and stated his objections. Guthrie agreed, and called his counterpart in the US – General Hugh Shelton – who also agreed. Their opinion was passed on to Clark. In the end Jackson flew up to the Airport and met with the Russian General, and over a bottle of Whisky, smoothed things over. Crisis averted.

1946… Nuremberg… Numerous Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg War trials – and indeed, at many other war crimes trails after the defeat of Nazi Germany – claimed that they were innocent, as they were ‘only following orders’. The Nuremberg trials went on to establish the precedent that it is an inadequate defence to claim that you were only following orders, and that the individual has a responsibility, if they feel they are given a dangerous, immoral or criminal order, to not carry it out. The crux is, that military discipline and obedience does not trump all – humanity and reason, however, does. We live in democracies, after all.

But what really distubed me, was to read that shortly after the Kosovo War, a US Senator branded Mike Jackson’s refusal to carry out Clark’s orders as ‘insubordination’. General Hugh Shelton has also called it ‘troubling’ (which is strange, seen as he agreed with it at the time). In effect, US Senators and commanders are advocating an ignorance of the Nuremberg protocol, and suggest that any and every order should be followed without question. The realities of coalition warfare are somewhat different. While serving under NATO command each national contingent commander has a link to his own Government, and has a right of appeal to his national superiors. What makes a good coalition commander – such as Wellington or Marlborough – is to get to know all of the national peculiarities involved, such as who can do what, and work within them. Not to just blindly expect everyone to follow your orders.

I don’t think there will be many historians or military historians who disagree with the fact that setting up a blocking force on Pristina Airport would have been provocative and un-necessary. Of course, there wouldn’t have been an issue if Clark hadn’t given such a ridiculous order in the first place. In Jackson’s memoirs he records that Clark was often jumpy and acted strangely, and that he seemed to have a Cold War mentality, particulary where the Russians were concerned. At one point he ordered the US Admiral commanding naval forces in the region to block the Dardanelles, when right of passage through them is governed by international treaty. He also asked a senior German General, during a video conference, if German soldiers ‘had the spirit of the bayonet’.

Troubling stuff from an alliance commander indeed. But, also, a reminder of why History should never be too far away from the mind of any General…

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‘Extremists hijack’ military name

General Sir Mike Jackson

General Sir Mike Jackson

Four former senior British Army officers have spoken out over the BNP hijacking the name of the British Armed Forces in their campaigning.

Major General Sir Patrick Cordingley, General Lord Guthrie, General Sir Mike Jackson and General Sir Richard Dannatt signed a letter as part of the ‘Nothing British Campaign’, launched today. The campaign is also supported by Andy McNab, Simon Weston and Tim Collins.

The Generals write write: “We call on all those who seek to hijack the good name of Britain’s military for their own advantage to cease and desist. The values of these extremists – many of whom are essentially racist – are fundamentally at odds with the values of the modern British military, such as tolerance and fairness.”

For some time the BNP have used British military symbols, such as Spitfires and Winston Churchill, and claimed to have a strong relationship with the British Armed Forces. How all of this can be claimed by a party on the one hand, but whose leadership have been recorded listening to SS marching songs on the other, is disturbing in the extreme. The second world war was a campaign against fascism and extremism, and to use such symbols is taking historical licence to new levels.

They will probably argue that the campaign is sponsored by the Conservative party, as one of its directors is a well known conservative and Richard Dannatt is a Conservative advisor. On the other hand, Mike Jackson has been rumoured to be a Labour supporter. They will also claim that the Generals said nothing over MP’s expenses, which is not quite true.

These are real fascists, hiding behind a thin veneer of concern for ordinary people. They use real issues that concern people to garner support while hiding the true extent of their extremism. Thats how all extremist parties, past and present, gain support and come to power. History tells us that.

Evil prospers when good men stand by and do nothing. The generals are entirely right to stand up and be counted, and I applaud them.

Check out the campaign here: Nothing British

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