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Man of war talks of peace

06 October 2010

General Sir Richard Dannatt, former head of the British Army, talks about conflict-resolution and his faith to Paul Handley

SIR Richard Dannatt has written an odd book. Leading from the Front is a set of soldierly recollections, as one would expect from a man who rose to be Chief of the General Staff, the most senior post in the Army. There are modest references to being in action (he won the Military Cross in Northern Ireland), and rather longer sections on his wrangles with the previous Government over equipment and resources, which might well have lost him his crack at the very top job, Chief of the Defence Staff, at the head of all three branches of the armed forces.

Then there is a long section, perhaps a quarter of the book, where Sir Richard pleads for a realistic debate on Britain’s future defence needs and their proper funding. When he became Chief of the General Staff in 2006, the Army was expected to continue implementing the budget cuts demanded in a previous review while at the same time conducting two fierce wars, in southern Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army was over-stretched, and he said so. It led to the headline in the Daily Mail “We must quit Iraq says new head of Army”, and a reputation as an outspoken maverick.

Sir Richard retired in 2009, but this seems merely to have freed him to become more active on the Army’s behalf, first, perhaps incautiously, briefing the incoming Government, and now presenting his views to a wider public. The timing of his book is significant, if fortuitous. The Government’s defence review, the first since 1998, was expected to be published later this month. Last week’s leak suggests that agreement has not been reached. The Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, objected in a letter to David Cameron that the forces could not wear the ten-to-20-per-cent cuts that were being contemplated. Mr Cameron has been moved to reassure the Conservative Party conference that he would not “take any risks with Britain’s defence”.

Finally in the book, there are the photos of the General’s four children while they were growing up, fooling about on a five-bar gate, by the stands in the football ground at Middlesbrough. There are frequent references in the text to his long-suffering wife Pippa (they moved house 23 times during his career), photos with Prince Harry at the Royal Norfolk Show, a painting by his (then) six-year-old daughter, and so on.

Reminiscence, advocacy, senti­ment: these three elements emerge from the book and, to a degree, typify Sir Richard’s life so far. He probably would not admit readily to the third, but it shows in his passionate concern for the welfare of the personnel under his care, some­thing that clearly did not stop on retirement.

RICHARD DANNATT grew up near Chelmsford, in Essex. He thought of going to Cam­bridge to study law, but the pro­fessors at his interview thought otherwise. Instead, he turned to the Army, in search of a “practical, out­door life”. “I often joke that I joined for three years and stayed for 40.” A chance meeting before joining up pushed him in the direction of the Green Howards, the East Yorkshire regiment. (In 2006, after more than 300 years, it was absorbed into the new Yorkshire Regiment.)

He cut his teeth in Northern Ireland, and writes about it in a classic, understated way. One spell near the border he described as “not without incident”, admitting over the page that they were often “fighting for our lives”. One one occasion he stopped to study an aerial photograph. The rest of the group walked on and were blown to pieces by an IRA bomb. On another occasion, he was policing a Protestant demonstration in East Belfast which got out of hand. He writes: “I was aware of a lot of firing, but as the commander I was more focused on what we were trying to do than on my own personal circumstances. Afterwards the others told me that bullets were whipping around me in an alarming fashion.” He was awarded the Military Cross, “an honour I was happy to share with my platoon”.

Already, though, Sir Richard’s career was getting complicated. There were a degree in economic history at Durham, periods on training courses, more periods running the training courses, more academic study. Then began the spells in Whitehall. Over the 40 years, he held nearly 20 posts, often with two or three honorific posts on the side.

“In my last 20 years I alternated between command appointments — battalion commander, brigade com­mander, divisional commander, corps commander, Army com­mander, head of the Army” (he rattled them off faster than my recorder could pick them up) “— with staff appointments. So half my time was spent with soldiers. I had four posts in the Ministry of Defence in that period; so I got a fair understanding, at four different levels, of how the Ministry of Defence worked.

“It’s a young man’s game, joining at 20, retiring at 55 so if you want to get people to the top you’ve got to move quite quickly.” He was clearly aware that he was on a fast track, but says he was not ambitious. “I’ve always taken the view that I should do to the best of my ability the job I’ve been asked to do. If they want to promote me to something else, then fine. But I think if you spend your whole life trying to predict where you’re going to go next, you just wish your life away — and you might find you finally end up somewhere actually not that exciting.”

Meaning Whitehall? But he was clearly a successful administrator and politician; so perhaps he enjoyed working in the Ministry of Defence and liaising with ministers?

“It’s a bit of a jungle. You’ve got to know how the system works, know people’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to outmanoeuvre them, as in the field. It’s not hugely enjoyable, no. Compared with the exhilaration of a command appointment, getting out with soldiers, directing opera­tions, whether on a training exercise or whatever, it’s a grind.”

His most sustained period in the field was in the Balkans, first Bosnia, then Kosovo. It was a different sort of warfare, and one that he found frustrating, not least because the Army’s mandate from the United Nations tied their hands when it came to providing humanitarian help, even over something as simple as clearing roads, though things re­laxed later. “We found the experience of being an armed referee in the middle of someone else’s war hugely difficult and unattractive.

“A friend of mine at staff college, while we were developing a new war-fighting doctrine, he was developing a new peacekeeping doctrine, which he called ‘wider peacekeeping’. He char­acterised what we were doing in Bosnia as a football match; but whereas in a normal match everyone knows the rules and the referee runs around during the match and makes sure they are obeyed, in Bosnia, the rules were not being followed by anybody; indeed, the crowd was coming out of the stands and joining in. We didn’t take a side: we were there just to prevent them doing terrible things to themselves.”

He is clearly happier where it is possible to take sides, and this has been the British experience since then. The Balkans, he suspects, was an atypical experience. “We’ve had to be much more partial in Iraq and Afghanistan, against obvious in­surgents who had an agenda which we were opposing on behalf of the elected government.”

He is clearly happier where it is possible to take sides, and this has been the British experience since then. The Balkans, he suspects, was an atypical experience. “We’ve had to be much more partial in Iraq and Afghanistan, against obvious in­surgents who had an agenda which we were opposing on behalf of the elected government.”

IRAQ, though, cast a shadow over our conversation. Early in the book, he quotes his great-grandfather, a farmer, writing at the outbreak of the First World War: “The main thing is to feel that the wars we are engaged in are in the right, and promote righteousness and justice in the world. If we are engaged in any war which does not promote and further these objects, we had better be the conquered ones.”

It was “absolutely critical”, Sir Richard said, to understand why one was fighting, “and also to believe that you are doing it in the best interests of the nation, and that the nation, collectively, is behind you”. Of Iraq, he says: “Of all the campaigns I’ve been involved in over 40 years, the one that gets us closest to ‘Can we believe this is the right thing to do?’ is undoubtedly that one. Whereas Afghanistan, as difficult as it is, and as misunderstood by many people as it still is, actually is very important, and the soldiers know that.” His description in the book of the Iraq venture is peppered with words such as “naïve”, “utter foolishness”, and “abject failure”.

I took the opportunity to ask about civilian casualties, an element that the military and the politicians seem seldom to consider when judging the success of a campaign.

“Undoubtedly in the invasion of 2003, in the bombing, people were killed whom we would not have wished to be killed, and in engage­ments subsequent to that people may have been caught in the cross­fire, or there may have been the over­use of certain weapons or munitions at certain times, and people get killed; but the greatest number has been killed by insurgents.” But on our watch. “Certainly on our watch, and probably as a result of us being there.”

The lessons have been learnt in Afghanistan, he hopes, where the troops pursue a policy that the Am­eri­cans call “courageous re­straint”. “Soldiers, when they’re engaged in combat, are actively encouraged not to return fire on a speculative basis — only to return fire when they’ve got positively identified targets — potentially putting themselves at even greater risk. That, for soldiers, is quite controversial and difficult to do.”

As a coda to the Iraq episode, though, Sir Richard adds: “If I were to take you to southern Iraq today, and to Basra in particular, you would find it a place of much better op­portunity and potential than ever it was under Saddam Hussein’s regime. The mission itself, whether we should or should not have gone into Iraq, is contentious; but the fact of the matter is the elected gov­ernment of the day decreed that we should do it, we did it, we lost 179 people, but southern Iraq has greater opportunities than it had previously; and that’s important.”

THE unpopularity of the war was undoubtedly a motivating factor in Sir Richard’s “Get out of Iraq” argument on becoming head of the Army in 2006. There were calls for his resignation after the Mail story, but, since withdrawal from Iraq was already official policy, he was not technically being disloyal.

The chief problem, though, was trying to conduct two wars at the same time — and at a time when the military budget was being cut back. “At times of high threat, it’s easy to justify an increased expenditure on defence. When the Cold War finished, this was a classic occasion for the government of the day to make reductions. Then, almost immediately, we found ourselves in the first Gulf War, and then almost immediately after that we found ourselves in the Balkans.”

Sir Richard’s contention is that the present defence review is vital, and should be repeated every five years. The key thing is to assess the sorts of demands that are likely to be made on the armed forces in the future, then make sure there are enough funds to cover their operations.

This means having a looser hold on the traditions that Sir Richard clearly holds dear. He finds it easier, of course, to loosen a hold on other people’s traditions. When talking of potential cutbacks, he repeatedly mentions “fast jets — very very expensive”; and he questions the symbolic place given to the two aircraft carriers currently on order. He is very much an Army man, though; he questions, for example, the size of the British presence in Germany.

As for a replacement for Trident, he chooses his words carefully: “I believe it is right — just — to maintain our current independent nuclear deterrent, but may take a different view in five or ten years’ time in the light of changing strategic circumstances.” The Gov­ern­ment is right, he thinks, to defer a decision, and it ought in the mean time to be looking at alternative forms of nuclear deterrent which, while not as good as the current system, might be “good enough”.

To be fair to this pro-Army view, with the exception of the Falklands War, all of the recent British military engagements have been land-based. The trouble is that soldiers, too, are expensive, requiring training, equipment, housing, and pensions. And so amalgamations and cutbacks have been happening over the years, including to Sir Richard’s former regiment. Its strength, he says, was built on the fact that it was very local.

“It’s really a question of getting to what has been the motivation of the British soldier, giving him the capacity to go over the top. Is it love of country? Is it for glory? It’s prob­ably more to preserve the good name of the regiment and not let your mates down, because, when you’re all recruited from the same area, if Smithkins funks, it would get back to the home town that Smithkins didn’t do very well, and he wouldn’t want that to happen.

“We’ve attenuated that, diluting the links to home. Probably every time there has been a series of amalgamations, people have said: this is about as far as we can go. The round that we’ve just had is, probably, just about as far as we could go.”

As for future conflict, he fears that Iraq, and more particularly Afghan­istan, far from being aberrations, are actually signposts. “It would seem to me that, in the very disordered, difficult, and complex world that we live in, these are the kinds of operations that we might find ourselves involved in in the future.

“States don’t have the monopoly on violence; insurgent groups do, transnational terrorist groups do, and very quickly you’re getting to al- Qaeda, and the Islamist extremist agenda, which is transnational. Those sorts of movements thrive in failed and failing states, and in ungoverned space. That charac­terises our operations today, and what we can predict for the future, and is probably where we want to put the balance of our investment.

“It is also our assessment that there is no conventional threat to the territorial integrity of this country for the foreseeable future, which tends to play against, therefore, hav­ing conventional armies, navies, and air forces capable of fighting a state-on-state war such as classically we trained to do during the Cold War. So that frames the question of where the balance of investment should come in the future.”

Parallel to this, Sir Richard thinks, there needs to be a debate about Britain’s national ambition: “Do we stay as we are, or do we reduce our ambition — ‘strategic shrinkage’, I think William Hague called it, which he doesn’t think there’s much ap­petite for.”

So the decision is not merely a military one. Nor is it free of what he calls in his book “destructive vested interests”. Once the defence review has made its judgements, he asked, “Are you going to accept those judgements, and follow the logic of where they take you? Or are vested interests going to come into play — ‘Oh, my goodness, we can’t cut the aircraft carriers, because of all the jobs in the Clyde,’ or the submarines in Barrow-in-Furness, or whatever — that’s when the real world cuts into the logic and the purity of the process.”

So the decision is not merely a military one. Nor is it free of what he calls in his book “destructive vested interests”. Once the defence review has made its judgements, he asked, “Are you going to accept those judgements, and follow the logic of where they take you? Or are vested interests going to come into play — ‘Oh, my goodness, we can’t cut the aircraft carriers, because of all the jobs in the Clyde,’ or the submarines in Barrow-in-Furness, or whatever — that’s when the real world cuts into the logic and the purity of the process.”

HAVING spent a fair bit of our conversation at the macro-level, I wanted to know how the Christian faith fitted into this life spent training for and using violence.

A significant episode in his life was Armistice Day in 1977 when, at the age of 26 and just eight months married, Sir Richard suffered a severe stroke, which paralysed him down his right side.

“When you’re lying on your back and paralysed, and you can’t move, and you’re going to be there for some time, it’s an enforced opportunity to reflect on what is and what isn’t important in life. This isn’t a dress rehearsal: we have one life. I think it’s incumbent upon us to lead it in the most productive and useful way that one possibly can. I had seen people killed, and come quite close to it myself, but just kind of brushed it off: it didn’t affect me. But at that moment, it did.

“Having grown up in a Christian environment, I came to the conclu­sion that, actually, the tenets of the Christian faith, and the person of Christ, were what I wanted to follow; and the teachings of the Bible were a sound foundation, and were founded in truth — I decided that that was going to provide the tenets that I was going to follow. Yes, that moment of quiet reflection was quite formative.”

One detects the sort of weighing up that characterises Sir Richard’s military decisions. And the same sort of reticence: “I suppose those who knew me knew I thought Christian principles and Christian values were important, but I’m not someone who wears it too openly on their sleeve.”

He also talks about the Judaeo-Christian “bedrock” of this country, and how this is matched in the military, naturally enough. “An institution like the British Army is part of our heritage and culture, and therefore there are church parades at prominent times of the year, as one would expect. There is an insti­tutional relationship with estab­lished religion which most people would be aware of, a fair number would understand, a small number would be enthusiastic about, and a smaller number yet would be pos­itively enthusiastic about — that’s no different from our society at large — though possibly, because of the nature of the military, it would be a little more hierarchical and disci­p­lined, a little more conservative.”

There was, none the less, a degree of concern in the Army hierarchy that a new generation was growing up without a strong enough link to this traditional morality. Never knowingly undeterred, the hierarchy proceeded to devise its own moral structure, which is now taught to all recruits.

“We wanted to establish certain core values: courage, discipline, loyalty, integrity, selfless commit­ment, and respect for others. Some of them are fairly self-evident: courage, discipline, loyalty, integrity: obviously fairly critical. Selfless commitment, doing something counter-intuitive, for the greater good, often at your own cost: that needs a little explaining for people to understand.

“Perhaps the most important one is respect for others, because without it, in training and at home, you’re very quickly into bullying and harass­ment; when you go overseas on deployment to a country less fortunate than ourselves, and you abuse the individuals you’ve gone to help, then you go from the moral high ground to the valley, publicly, in an instant.

“Those core values establish a moral baseline, and maybe for many that’s sufficient; but people have to ask themselves whether there should be a spiritual baseline as well. I think that’s spiritual with a small ‘s’ at this stage: I think it’s up to people to question for themselves — it might be belief in the mission, or belief in my family, or belief in a religious understanding.

“But I know, when push comes to shove and the chips are down, and people are being taken to the limit, and people are being killed around them, most people are looking for something bigger than themselves. I think you need to have thought through what that bigger thing is, so that when you find yourself in those sorts of circumstances, you know what you’re turning to.”

So how did these core values survive in an atmosphere of violence? “Soldiers have to know how to use violence, but to put it in its wider context, is really important. One of the principles is the use of force as a last resort. There has to be a mature understanding that in a nation such as ours, the first duty of government is to make sure it has armed forces able to protect its national interest. That means you’ve got to have military people who are capable of using violence on behalf of the state.

“We also think about more peace­ful techniques, and certainly in some of the peace-support operations we’ve been involved in — Bosnia and Kosovo spring to mind, and Northern Ireland, for a long period — trying to find ways of resolving a situation other than the resort to violence will often be more effective in terms of achieving the aim.

“But when the judgement is made that this problem has got to be addressed by the use of violence, we’ve got to be trained and able to do that. Gratuitous use of violence is counter-productive and is wrong, and over-use of violence is wrong as well.”

I pressed him, because, to the young man being shot at and shooting back, the legitimising of his actions by a distant government cannot make much difference. And clearly, even if you use one of its eu­phem­isms — “action”, say — fight­ing is a big draw in the recruiting office. At another point in the interview, Sir Richard spoke of the increased attraction of life in the Army since the ending of the Cold War and “a whole foment of conflict and tensions in the world — that’s led to a very exciting life.” Exciting, pre­sumably, because containing more fighting.

“If those people actually enjoyed it for its own sake, then I’d be worried. If they understood the necessity of it, that it’s actually a last resort, and when that resort is called on, then you’d do it thoroughly and profession­ally, that’s the right ap­proach.

“You can spot people who enjoy violence for its own sake, and you’ve got to get rid of them.” How? “Someone like that will probably implode, because they will do something stupid at some point. Hopefully you can pick it up in training, or on an exercise, before it really matters.”

But even legitimate violence has a traumatic effect, and there are many reports of the brutalising influence caused by a spell in Helmand Province. Sir Richard maintains that the Army is getting better at alleviating these effects.

“There is no doubt that these extreme circumstances, when there is violence around you, and violence you’re using yourself, have a huge psychological effect. We’re very conscious of that. And particularly in Iraq in 2006-2007, and in Afghan­istan from 2006 onwards, we have a very large number of young people who have been caught up in very violent, very extreme sets of circumstances, which they find quite difficult to deal with for quite a number of years to come.”

Various programmes have been set up, including an informal pastor­ing scheme which, since everything has to have an acronym, is called TRIM, Trauma-Risk Management. In addition, troops leaving Afghan­istan do not go straight home to their families, but spend some time in a camp in Cyprus, a form of decom­pression, “where everything begins with B: Briefings — how life might be different, how people might react; some decent food — Bar­be­cue; a bit of Beer, which they haven’t had; and they do it on a Beach.

“But, that said, we know we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg, with probably quite a lot of psychiatric injuries to be dealt with in future.

“If it wasn’t essential to the national interest, you could say this was irresponsible; but if one accepts that some sets of circumstances in our complicated world today can only be addressed by the application of violence, then, without sounding like John Wayne, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

IF THERE is an answer, Sir Richard believes it exists back on the macro level: conflict pre­ven­tion.

“What should we, as a responsible nation, be doing in terms of the future? I think at least part of our energy, if not a lot of our energy, should be going into what I would call horizon-scanning, as to where we think future trouble spots might be, and engaging with whatever passes for a government at this present time, and helping them to up their own capability, so that they don’t become failed states.

“According to the old adage, prevention is better than cure, and on that basis, investing in nations to prevent them from failing, in order to head off conflict, is going to be cheaper, better, than allowing a situation to deteriorate, so that you get saddled with a long-term opera­tion which might be controversial.”

The United Nations could have a part to play, but as long as it depends for funding on its constituent mem­bers, those sovereign powers will continue to be in the lead. As things stand, his experience of the UN is that it is over-stretched. “I think we just about managed our way through the Balkans; but Rwanda was a complete nightmare. That terrible genocide should never have hap­pened.”

Just as war studies and peace studies have a respectable academic grounding, he believes that conflict- prevention demands a much more rigorous approach. And, once the academic work is done, governments must be persuaded to understand and engage with people in different parts of the world.

“Now, this sounds altruistic, and perhaps it’s pie-in-the-sky, but if we can pull it off, then it’s probably more cost-effective than having to use violence to respond to a situation which you otherwise could perhaps have stopped.”

Leading from the Front is published by Bantam Press (£20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-0-593-06636-2).

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