Generals v Politicians – a war of words

Every request that the military commanders made to us for equipment was answered. No request was ever turned down.
(Gordon Brown, Iraq Inquiry, 5th March 2010)

Fighting a war brings all sorts of challenges. There is a foe to contend with, but it’s harder when your armoury’s missing some key bits of kit, or when you step onto hot desert sand and find your boots melting. Effective transport is crucial, but the Snatch Land Rover used in Iraq and Afghanistan has been described as a ‘death trap’. And helicopters have been slow to arrive, their absence sometimes blamed by parents who feel their injured sons might have survived had they reached a field hospital sooner.

In some cases, parents report shelling out for better kit: webbing or helmets for example.

So what was the problem? The Prime Minister is careful not to accept blame for this under-resourcing. Why then do the generals (or admirals/air marshals) feel compelled to say they didn’t have enough?

He cannot get away with saying ‘I gave them everything they asked for’. That is simply disingenuous.
(
Lord Guthrie, Chief of Defence Staff 1997-2001, speaking on 6th March 2010)

He is dissembling, he’s being disingenuous.
(
Lord Boyce, Chief of Defence Staff 2001-3, speaking on 6th March 2010)

There is a clear sense of frustration among some key military leaders. They haven’t accused Mr Brown of lying; the word ‘disingenuous’ is their weapon of choice. It makes me curious. Did the generals ask for what they needed? Did they go to war claiming they had what they needed when in fact they did not? Should they have resigned for resource reasons as Robin Cook did for political reasons?

Gordon Brown hinted his predecessor would not have gone to war if the generals told him they were unprepared. Well, of course not! But it’s a rhetorical point. The generals are unlikely to say ‘no’ to their masters; it’s not in their blood. They know that fortune favours the brave. They know the difference between essential and desirable. And with the essential kit, they know that all things are possible.

What our troops lacked in Iraq and Afghanistan could perhaps best be described as ‘highly desirable’ rather than essential. While the political struggle continues, we have been able to undertake military operations with broad success. The generals have their cut their cloth as required, but some men and women needed better provision and have paid for its absence with their lives.

What the Prime Minister yesterday said… narrowly and precisely was correct… What Gordon Brown didn’t address… was the underlying underfunding of defence that goes right back to the outcome of the defence review in 97/98.
(General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of General Staff 2006-9, speaking on 6th March 2010)

Finally some clarity. As I expected, while the fact-claims of the generals and the politicians appear to conflict, the truth accommodates both.

But now we have a problem. In recent times, retired military chiefs have routinely criticised the government. We don’t expect this so much from serving officers; as men under authority, such insubordination would be at odds with the career that took them to the top.

General Dannatt is a notable exception. Before his retirement, he was happy to make life uncomfortable from time to time for his political masters. In so doing, he voiced publicly what other generals may have said in private to the ministers. He is a man of great experience and wisdom. He also has a natural outspoken honesty which I believe may be sorely tested under a Conservative government.

That’s because General Dannatt is now an adviser to the Conservatives. If they win the general election, he will take a peerage, but won’t become a minister. He will bring great strength to David Cameron’s team, but his decision is clearly a controversial political judgement. The announcement was leaked while he was still in the pay of the army. I believe it has dented his authority.

With regard to the other defence chiefs, an explanation has arisen as to why they might have felt motivated to speak out against the prime minister.

When Guthrie and Boyce attack Gordon on defence spending note they are consultants and non-execs of defence coys. and have vested interest.
(Lord Foulkes, via Twitter, 13th March 2010)

Well, perhaps they do. But what they said is either true or it isn’t. If it is true then I would expect to hear from them. In these circumstances, who else could speak out? If it is not true then Guthrie, Boyce, Dannatt and others are all singing from the same flawed hymn sheet. Gordon Brown had plenty of facts at his disposal for his appearance before Sir John Chilcot. But they were spun carefully and the truth behind them was hidden.

In any case, Lord Foulkes has form. He sees the military as the enemy. He is a tribal Labour loyalist who defended Speaker Martin when the game was lost, freely attacks those he regards as his opponents without regard to the arguments and tried to smear General Dannatt last summer.

Am I saying the politicians are wrong and the generals are right? Not at all. We live in a world of limited resources. And it is for the government to decide on the allocation across ministries. I have no doubt that generals will always want more. So will doctors, head teachers and many others. When the resources fall short, they’ll have to make do. Or if not, then resign as Norman Tebbit has argued.

Resignation is the ultimate political statement. It is a very tough decision, especially when the stakes are so high. For most of us, there is a very practical reason we might not want resign our jobs. How would I pay the mortgage? For generals and politicians the reason is likely to be more philosophical. Had Lord Boyce resigned before the Iraq war he could have pulled the plug on the whole adventure. Unless that was his objective, it would not have been an attractive option.

So while resignation is always an option, for the most part it is far from ideal. But speaking out against a sitting government is fraught with problems as Professor Vernon Bogdanor explains. We are not about to be led by a military junta, but the generals must think very carefully before engaging in politics. And if they back off, the politicians must show more respect.

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One thought on “Generals v Politicians – a war of words

  1. Pingback: Brown’s correction « World of Wad

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