Richard Dannatt: Christian soldier

He has clearly decided to begin his spell as head of the Army not with a whimper but with a public bang
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Army generals and politicos rarely see eye to eye: one of Lloyd George's field marshals used to storm angrily against "the frocks", a reference to the long coats sported by the politicians of the day. Ministers in return would roll their eyes about generals they viewed as slow, old-fashioned and distinctly lacking in political antennae and often unable to see the bigger picture. Such differences were entirely familiar to the Romans.

The key question concerning General Sir Richard Dannatt, who has just created such a storm with his remarks over Iraq, is whether his artillery barrage against the Government was launched deliberately or inadvertently. Did he set out to undermine government policy, embarrass Tony Blair and force a review of Britain's military fundamentals? Or did he, as a previously quiet professional soldier, simply not realise the impact his words would have?

His Daily Mail interview, he insisted yesterday, had been authorised by Defence Secretary Des Browne and had been conducted with a Ministry of Defence press officer sitting in. It was "a very general background interview for the middle of the newspaper", he explained, adding that much of what he said was not newsworthy. Given the interview's content, it is quite difficult to take this entirely at face value.

Certainly, the press officer's jaw must have dropped in astonishment at various points in the interview, as the General advocated early withdrawal from Iraq, as well as criticising both the planning for the conflict and the overall mission. And certainly the cautious Des Browne would never have dreamt that the head of the Army would unburden himself of such thoughts. Soldiers may often say such things in the security of the officers' mess, but dictating them into a Daily Mail tape recorder is a very different matter.

Part of the shock and awe about all this came from the stream of controversial remarks, but another part sprang from Sir Richard's record, the very model of a modern major-general. There is, in a long career which has taken him to many international trouble spots, no previous sign of him ever rocking the boat like this. He has clearly been an effective general but, outside the Army itself, he has been a quiet one with little, if any, public profile.

His record suggests that he is a soldier who gets on with the job. It certainly gives no hint that he has ever questioned the fundamentals of policy or expressed opinions on matters which are, as they say in the American military, well above his pay grade. Yet it is his long years of service that may help to explain why he said what he did and why he said it at precisely this moment.

He originally joined up for just three years, but quickly distinguished himself in Northern Ireland. His regiment, the Green Howards, had suffered particularly high casualties in Belfast, with five members killed by the IRA in the republican Ardoyne district in two months in 1971. But he had been commissioned for only a year when he was awarded the Military Cross, a high decoration which was to be the first of his current chestful of medals.

A graduate of Durham University, Sir Richard, who is aged 56, lives in Norfolk with his wife Philippa. They have a daughter and three sons one of whom, Bertie, has followed him into the Army. He recently served in Iraq where three of his contemporaries were killed. According to Sir Richard: "When my son was deployed he got into some quite hairy situations. I was a dad as well as being Commander in Chief. I am still a dad as well as being Chief of the General Staff. I wouldn't send an army where I wouldn't send my own child."

Since Sir Richard's time in Northern Ireland he has has spent almost 40 years in uniform in places such as Cyprus, Germany, Bosnia, serving as commander of British forces in Kosovo. A spell as assistant chief of the general staff in the MoD was followed by a term in command of Nato's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. He became Chief of the General Staff in August last, taking over from Sir Mike Jackson.

The fact that the Army is his life is emphasised by his involvement with a string of military organisations. He is a keen sportsman, listing among his interests cricket, rugby, tennis, skiing, shooting and fishing. He is a distinctively Christian soldier, active in military groups such as the Scripture Readers Association and the officers' Christian Union. This helps to explain the emphasis he placed on religion in his Daily Mail interview when he declared: "When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn't make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country.

"Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind." The fact that Sir Richard had this, and more, to say on religious and spiritual matters suggests that after only two months in the top job he decided to go for broke and clearly set out a wide range of matters of concern to the military.

"I'm not a maverick," he said yesterday. "I'm a soldier speaking up for his army." Many parts of that army now seem to feel more than usually alienated from the politicians. At lower levels this is particularly obvious from the e-mails which front-line troops are sending to relatives and others back home, telling of rifles that melt in the heat, Land Rovers that frequently break down, and shortages of vital gear such as radios and thermal imaging equipment.

"Two days ago we ran out of machine-gun ammunition in our forward location," according to one e-mail to a Tory MP. "The Taliban were dodging around in great numbers at about 700 metres and firing at us from there from behind all sorts of cover. We ran out of machine-gun ammunition and we couldn't get any more in overnight because of the darkness and the weight of fire. We were within RPG (rocket) range which they use superbly. We used our mortars to good effect, but again, ammunition ran short."

It is very much the military norm for combat soldiers to grumble and complain in this manner, but now their concerns can be transmitted back home instantaneously and in uncensored form.

At a much elevated level Sir Richard has just done pretty much the same thing, freely expressing his thoughts even though they conflict with official political policy. Yet many of his comments - apart perhaps from his religious ideas - are not just personal observations but also recognisably reflective of attitudes among a solid section of senior officers. The whole episode looks like a military version of telling the truth to power. Sir Richard's predecessor, Sir Mike Jackson, seemed a more likely candidate for standing up and publicly saying what the Army actually thought, yet despite his plain-speaking image he never actually did. By putting discretion before valour he disappointed many in the upper ranks who regard themselves as fighting too many political wars with too few troops and inadequate equipment and grossly inadequate funding.

They grumble about alleged political interference, about being overstretched; they question the wisdom of foreign conflicts such as Iraq and they wonder what sort of long-term military planning is going on for, say, the Army of 10 years' time. Armies often do not easily adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and the British Army is in transition from the requirements of the Cold War. Then the battle-lines were remarkably static and familiar, with endless exercises and rehearsals for conflict with the Soviet Union.

Now it grapples with the dangerously unfamiliar in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan against enemies which are fighting on home terrain and which display an alarming ability to adapt their tactics. Today, in Sir Richard's words, the Army plucks units from the UK "and fires them off to some faraway place".

In other words, there is much muttering to be heard in the senior officers' mess, though it is hard to know how much of this can be put down to traditional military grumbling. When Sir Richard protested that what he said was not new or newsworthy he was probably referring to his earlier remarks that the military machine was "running hot, certainly running hot", and was only just coping with the demands made on it.

The fact that he has repeatedly registered such complaints suggests that feeling in military quarters is unusually strong. It may also indicate a sense on his part that his concerns were not being taken on board by the politicians. Army officers pride themselves on their loyalty, but at the same time they often use the word "contract" to describe their relationship with governments. They protect the nation, they say in their old-fashioned way, but the corollary is that the nation should not let the army down. Sir Richard uses the word contract and also the word "covenant" to convey this.

His interview has raised profound questions, in the first instance about whether the civilian authorities are pursuing an approach which is militarily unwise. On a more profound level, there is the issue of whether the armed forces should have the independence to disagree publicly with government policy: until now the understanding has been that any differences should be kept discreet and preferably silent.

But Sir Richard has clearly decided to begin his spell as head of the Army not with a whimper but with a public bang. This cannot be what the authorities had in mind when they appointed him two months ago: they must be taken aback to see such an apparently orthodox soldier make such a completely unconventional move.

Comments