BOOK REVIEW / The very model of a general: Bryan Appleyard analyses the doubt-free mind of a military man

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Looking for trouble: An autobiography - General Sir Peter De La Billiere HarperCollins pounds 19.99

NO BRITISH institution has survived the paroxysms of the postwar years quite so well as the armed forces. Industry has wavered, politics has blundered, the monarchy has spontaneously combusted, the judiciary has crumbled ignominiously, but, somehow, the rigid ethic of the soldier has endured. Whatever we can no longer do, there can be little doubt that we still fight more effectively than almost any other nation.

As a result, our warriors now stand among us like figures from another age. During the Falklands or the Gulf War, they appeared on television haloed with a curious innocence. These were rigorously trained, brave men and women who seemed quite lacking in the usual contemporary burdens of self-doubt and compromise. They looked clearly at a problem, however brutal and bloody, and set about solving it at whatever cost to themselves.

General Sir Peter de la Billiere is the supreme exemplar of the type. Sinewy, dry, taciturn, he became a star during the Gulf War and has since written an account of that conflict - Storm Command - and now this autobiography.

From the point of view of an absolute military outsider the man is a wonder. His sense of his place in the world is rock solid. He fights for the interests of his nation, however attenuated those interests might seem to others, and he expects his men to do the same. Death and the risk of death are accepted unquestioningly as are the overriding principles of competence, hard work and the suppression of doubt, the personal and the intimate, in pursuit of the common goal.

There is, as a result, scarcely a moment of introspection in the entire length of this fat book. Indeed, only once does de la Billiere admit to such a moment. Fighting insurgents in the Yemen, he thinks his own misjudgement may have been the direct cause of two SAS deaths.

'I was,' he writes, 'in that most difficult of all positions for a commander: full of personal remorse, and yet obliged to press on with the war. Needing to gain control of myself, I walked off into the desert and sat on a rock alone. A few minutes' solitude and self-examination helped clear my mind. This was no moment for self-pity . . .'

A crisis is instantly forestalled by the application of hard common sense. Life and death go on because they must. The one thing the commander cannot afford is a turbulence of introspection. He must regard the world of facts clear-eyed and doubt-free. This makes the book an easy and often thrilling read, though the net effect is inevitably flat and unliterary. Here is the world as seen through an attitude rather than a personality. And it is an attitude that is far too formalised to generate the kind of interest alert readers normally require.

Credible characterisation, for example, is nowhere to be found in this book. Most people are one-dimensionally wonderful and the few who are awful vanish quickly from the scene. Many characters appear just so that the General can say how wonderful they are. Big names are treated with infuriating deference. So Prince Andrew is an all round good egg, Prince Charles raises morale in the Gulf and John Major 'impressed everyone with his directness and his ability to talk straight to all ranks'. Oh, come on. One is reminded of a parish magazine or school yearbook.

The ideological heart of the narrative is an unthinking absolutism of action. The General is never still. Should a spare moment arise, he will run up and down a mountain, practice survival in the desert or sail thousands of miles. The full, good life requires incessant physical trials, an interminable pitting of the body against nature. In what I think is his only aside on the less manly aspects of the modern world, de la Billiere raises this conviction to the level of an explicit morality: 'Shooting, map-reading, compass work and initiative tests are activities which almost all young people enjoy, and they are certainly more constructive than watching television or mooching around the streets at night.' That 'mooching' is quite perfect, the word of a man who doesn't really know or want to know what goes on in the streets at night.

Oddly, however, this is the story of a life that begins badly. De la Billiere's family was hopelessly crippled by the death of his father when he was seven and, as a boy, he was a nightmare - rebellious and tiresomely naughty. By the time one reaches the episode in which he starts shooting through windows at Harrow one is heartily sick of the little savage. The discovery of his military vocation comes as even more of a relief to the reader than it does to the writer.

What the Army provided was a formal, official outlet for this alarmingly fit little hoodlum. In particular, the SAS, in which de la Billiere has spent most of his career, seems to be a brilliant way of exploiting the talents of the pathologically mischievous.

One reads, for example, his matter-of-fact description of the SAS's brilliant covert campaign to wrest the Jebel Akhdar massif from rebels in Oman not so much in wonder at the courage and ingenuity, but rather in awe at the ad hoc, gung-ho, patently irresponsible improvisations involved. And, elsewhere, de la Billiere admits to organising and funding illegal mercenary operations that were clearly against the wishes of the British government. Overall one is left in no doubt that, if the General thought a war was necessary, he would start it. Evidently you can institutionalise mischief, but only on the assumption that it will not always stay institutionalised.

This gives de la Billiere no qualms. The ethic of the SAS he sees as a kind of distillation of all that is best in Britain. 'They are,' he writes, 'a living embodiment of the individualism of the British - a group of soldiers with the essential ability to work as a closely co-ordinated team, and yet able instantly to take the initiative, each man for himself, should the need arise.'

This is fair enough. But one could go further. These are men who have been given an absolutely fixed place in the world with clear standards of success and failure. They live with death and, consequently, they have fewer problems with life.

De la Billiere is pure SAS, an innocent at large. He appears to know nothing of the doubts, passions and uncertainties that inflame the population he is pledged to defend with his life. But why should he? The luxury of our introspection requires that certain frontiers be defended by mischievous, often brutal men with guns. Perhaps this book makes me feel that the General and I would not have much to say to each other. But, on the whole, I am glad his type survives in Britain, always ready to kill the bad guy and warn us of the dangers of mooching.