General Sir Mike Jackson: Last stand of the armchair general

Now that General Sir Mike Jackson is no longer head of the Army he has started firing off at his old political masters. He backs our campaign. But some soldiers and their families think his words are too little, too late
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The Independent Online

General Sir Michael Jackson was the head of the Army on the day Steve Roberts died. The young Cornishman was the first British casualty of the Iraq war, shot by accident during a riot near Basra in March 2003. The bullets that killed him were fired by his colleagues. The wounds would not have been fatal if he had been wearing enhanced combat body armour, but there were not enough sets to go round.

Sir Michael knew before the invasion that some soldiers would have to fight without desert fatigues or the latest body armour. He sent them into action anyway. And four years later, in an office suite close to Victoria station, he is explaining himself. "I have been accused of being cavalier," says the 63-year-old, "but no commander on the ground was saying this was a show-stopper."

The general is a civilian now. His black brogues have a military shine, but he is nowhere near as imposing in a dark blue suit as he was in the braided uniform of the Chief of the General Staff, which he gave up a year ago. His deep, rich voice still carries the confidence of command, although his followers are now few. Despite the kit crisis on the eve of the invasion he had no choice but to take his officers at their word and push on, he says. And anyway, "you don't want to tell the enemy that you've got problems".

But soldiers were complaining to family and friends back home, some of whom told the press. The inquest into the death of Sergeant Roberts heard that 2,000 troops had to do without the latest armour, which was taken away from the 33-year-old tank commander only a few days before he died. Military investigators told his widow, Samantha, it was "beyond reasonable doubt" that the extra protection would have saved her husband's life.

The general has a book to sell, an autobiography that treats the invasion as history. But the widow's grief must still be raw. So should those shortages not have been a "show-stopper"? Would you not say that, General, if someone you loved had died for lack of the latest body armour?

"That's a very fair point," he says, and some strength leaves his voice. He says it again, quietly, as if to himself. "Very fair point." Then this imposing, eloquent man is silent for a moment.

This is becoming a bit unpleasant, to use army-style understatement (just as Waterloo, for example, was "a bit of a show"). The general prides himself on having been a soldier's soldier. He served with the greatest distinction for 45 years and says it was his "guiding principle" to "stand up for soldiers". His autobiography, published tomorrow, is called simply Soldier. So he won't enjoy being told, face to face, in a way few generals are, that some of his soldiers consider that he betrayed them.

He did it with silence, they say. The charge is that he allowed beloved historic regiments such as the Black Watch to disappear during a drastic army reorganisation; he failed to challenge the Treasury on budget cuts that left soldiers poorly equipped and their families badly housed; and he went along with the Pentagon's way of war in Iraq knowing that the Americans had scrapped all their plans for the reconstruction of that country, a mistake he and other British generals believed would prove disastrous.

He is speaking up now, of course. Sir Michael told Newsnight a few days ago that, while the controversial reorganisation was a unanimous decision by the Army Board, "I regret that it was painful for a lot of people". As reported in this newspaper today, his book includes an attack on Gordon Brown, who presided over the Treasury when the armed forces were being stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan as sorely as at any time since the Second World War. He writes: "The Prime Minister [Tony Blair] was quoted as saying that the Army could have anything it needed – to which the cynical response was, 'Tell that to your next-door neighbour.'"

Pointing out, now, that soldiers on the front line are paid less than police or fire officers back home, he says grimly: "All roads lead to the Treasury."

He believes the armed forces need about 10 per cent a year more – or £3.4bn – to be able to do all that is asked of them now in Iraq and for the "generation of conflict" his successor has predicted in Afghanistan. He wants a review of defence spending but doubts he'll get one under the current PM. "I don't know whether the change of role from Chancellor to Prime Minister will give Gordon Brown a different perspective on the armed forces."

The book makes many criticisms he would never have aired while in uniform. It reveals, for example, that the chiefs of staff did not believe that Saddam Hussein could launch a strike on British territory with weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. "We knew that it was impossible for Iraq to threaten the UK mainland, even if the [government] dossier left that impression open."

They also knew that by ordering equipment late, so as to avoid making war look inevitable, their political masters had created a problem: some of the right gear could not get to some of the right troops on time. The operation could have been postponed, he says, but "Washington was not prepared to wait that long".

The leaders of the UK armed forces were also aware, he says, that detailed planning by the US State Department for the rebuilding of Iraq after the war had been thrown away in favour of a vague Pentagon hope that the people would rise up against Saddam on their own. And the British generals believed it would leave a disastrous vacuum to break up the Iraqi army, as the Pentagon intended.

Given all this, shouldn't he and the other chiefs of staff have spoken up, or said conditions were not right for the British to go to war in Iraq? "That wasn't the judgement," he says. "Sorry."

Why not? "In the run-up to the war the overweening question was, 'Can we defeat this man?' The whole question of where we were going to be post-conflict was only going to be an issue if we got that first bit right." Hindsight lends clarity, he says. The initial invasion was an "outstanding" success. "But secondly, there was a very clear constitutional position. Very clear. I would not have spoken up on this, or indeed anything else that went against the Government. It's 'Put up or shut up'."

Chief of the General Staff is the highest pinnacle a soldier can reach. Mike Jackson joined at 18 and served in the Arctic, the jungle and Northern Ireland (he was second in command at Bloody Sunday in 1972 but will not comment because the Saville inquiry has yet to conclude). He led British land forces in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and his book contains (frankly self-congratulatory) stories about standing up to US General Wesley Clark and the British cabinet member Clare Short. But nobody achieves such rank and honour in the Army without respecting authority and taking orders, even when they consider them misguided.

"Queen's regulations do not allow you to talk to the press without authority," he says. "You must do your constitutional duty and get on with what you've been told to do, or resign." General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia, said he would have resigned over the Iraq war. But Sir Michael – or Macho Jacko as his troops have called him – did not. "His objection, I believe, was to the war itself. I took a different view. I took steps to satisfy myself about the legality of the war."

He still had "worries" though. So did he raise any of them with anyone in political power? "The constitutional position is that the Chief of Defence Staff [Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, at the time] represents the opinions of the chiefs of staff to the Secretary of State. He would be doing that on a daily or even hourly basis." Was General Jackson confident that his views reached Cabinet? "I do not know," he says with a precision born of irritation. "I was not present." But he adds: "The chiefs of staff were of the same view. I have no doubt Mike Boyce represented those views."

Now, of course, he can speak (and for top-ranking serving soldiers too, one presumes, since he admits to having had a "half-day briefing" on the current army situation a week earlier). We are at a consulting firm for whom he advises clients on defence issues. He was reported to have earned at least £500,000 from his book. That drew criticism too. "Cashing in? That means nobody ever writes about what they have done in their life, on the basis that they drew a salary from doing it."

For his critics, his comments on the MoD are too little and too late. When he first broke rank, using the annual Dimbleby lecture at Christmas, a serving soldier said: "Iron Mike's grown some balls at last!"

He laughs loudly, and leans back in his chair. "You've been on Arrse, haven't you?" Arrse, the Army Rumour Service website, has long been a forum for the dissent of present and former soldiers. That is indeed where the comment was posted. "I did note that out of an army of 100,000 there were only 60-odd people hitting me."

Fair enough. But I have someone else to quote: a man from an army family who lives in an army recruiting town and has a son in the military (which is why I will not name him) – and who lost his younger boy in Iraq last year. This father told me: "While Jackson was in office, his silence was deafening."

The general appears hurt and a little thrown by this. "It wasn't, you see ... at times people thought I was sailing close to the wind in what I would say. I find his statement..." There is more. "Yep?" The father said: "Jackson failed to stand up for his people and lost a lot of respect from the rank and file of the Army. He put his pension first, over the welfare of his soldiers."

General Jackson stares at me. The deep bags that used to hang under his eyes were surgically removed, but he insists that was about "vision not vanity". Perhaps this father's criticism has hit home because the general is the son of a soldier, and his older son Mark was in the Paras. The younger one, Tom, has just been accepted for officer training at Sandhurst. After a pause, he says: "I'm very sorry that he should think in that way, obviously. Anyone who knows me and has worked with me, I don't think could agree." Is he as rattled as he looks? "Well, I'm sad that he thinks that, because I believe it not to be true. At all. On the contrary. I fight for the soldier all the time. I would love to know what was in his mind when he said that."

There is much to choose from. Although the problems with personal kit are long past, they remain an issue because bereaved families are still waiting for inquests and boards of inquiry. Some are considering legal action against the MoD for allowing soldiers to serve in Snatch Land Rovers with inadequate armour. Then there are reports of helicopters whose engines seize up in the desert sand and air-cover that doesn't arrive.

Casualties are treated well by NHS consultants at Selly Oak in Birmingham but they resent having to recover alongside civilians – some of whom are hostile to the war – rather than at a military hospital. The injury compensation payments created by a new army scheme are sometimes "insulting", the general agrees. And 41 per cent of army quarters are considered sub-standard. This newspaper considers all of this to be a violation of the Military Covenant, the contract between soldiers and the nation they serve, and is campaigning for change. The general supports that wholeheartedly: "We ought to be able to provide what is required for soldiers to be fully and properly trained, decently paid and together with their families decently housed."

But these things were true while he was in charge. Some of them arose during his time. The bereaved father who believes his son was sent to fight for a cause nobody understood, with technical support so poor it was a scandal, thinks the general should have stopped that happening.

"If that's his judgement," says Sir Michael quietly, "there is nothing I can do." Except perhaps to go on asking for money and support, on behalf of those who feel, as he did at the time, that they must be silent while in uniform. "Part of my criticism of the MoD is because we are in this position," he says. "He seems to think I am personally in a position to make decisions such as whether to have Snatch Land Rovers or not. I am not, sadly. I wish I were."

Further reading: 'Soldier' by General Sir Michael Jackson is published by Bantam Press (£18.99)

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