Sir Mike Jackson: The armchair general

The former Chief of the General Staff has taken flak for coming to the aid of British troops from the comfort of retirement
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The Independent Online

General Sir Michael Jackson's criticism of the Government's treatment of the Army, made in his Dimbleby Lecture last Thursday, has refocused media attention on the recently retired Chief of the General Staff. The usual phrases - "exemplar of the fighting soldier" - have been trotted out by the military analysts but, the trouble is, Sir Mike has never done any real fighting. It is in part this lack of military experience, especially as a young officer, which has made him the controversial figure that he is today.

Born in 1944, he was educated at Stamford School in Lincolnshire. In 1963, he took a degree in Russian at Birmingham University, after being commissioned in the Intelligence Corps.

The Corps insists that its young officers undertake an attachment to a front-line unit before immersing themselves in the rigours of intelligence analysis. Sir Mike undertook his with the Parachute Regiment and enjoyed it so much that he transferred, as a captain in 1970, to 1 Para in Northern Ireland. Two years later, the battalion would be involved in Bloody Sunday.

He has outstanding soldierly qualities. His drive, enthusiasm and dominating personality were always popular with his soldiers and drove him to the top of his profession. But he has also had some good luck. Nearly all the other officers involved in Bloody Sunday, however unfairly, had their careers ruined by the incident in Londonderry, where paratroopers shot 13 civilians dead during a civil rights march. Jackson as adjutant, in charge of discipline, was untainted.

Ten years later he overcame strong competition from battle-hardened colleagues in his own regiment. The heroes of Goose Green and Mount Longdon in the Falklands were led by his exact contemporaries. Despite this, and his own disappointment at missing the Falklands campaign, he secured promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Married, with three children, Sir Mike has style in spades. And soldiers respond to it. He fixed on his manner as an imposing commanding officer of 1 Para in the mid-1980s and refined it commanding a brigade in Belfast in the 1990s. But it really came to the fore when he commanded Nato troops during their intervention in Kosovo in 1999. The essential props were the red beret, the gravelly voice and the glass of whisky at the end of the day. He hit our television screens then and has remained a media attraction ever since - although the then trademark bags under the eyes have since been removed.

Throughout that campaign, he crossed swords with his nominal boss, the US general Wesley Clark. The men clashed over what is now called "The Dash to Pristina". As the allies entered Kosovo a small contingent of Russian paratroops made a dash to secure Pristina airport. It was a quixotic gesture meant to remind the West that Russia was still to be reckoned with in the area. In military terms it was irritating but meant little. Sir Mike saw this, but Clarke over-reacted and ordered him to assemble a force to eject the Russians.The British officer demurred: "General, I am not going to start World War Three for you."

But the suspicion has always been of a triumph of style over substance. Perhaps that is why in the end he became the very model of a New Labour general. To be fair, any senior officer of ambition in 1997 realised they would have to work well with their new masters if they were to get on. But Sir Mike's public pronouncements while serving often had an unnecessary - and for the Government convenient - enthusiasm. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he maintained after an inspection of the troops in Iraq that they were properly equipped and was later slow to admit the difficulties of fighting on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps his most controversial intervention came when he praised the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in August 2006 a few days before his retirement. It gave a military gloss to Tony Blair's embattled decision not to join the worldwide condemnation of the operation.

Ultimately, his lack of real fighting experience has tortured him. This is clear from interview after interview. But the one quality he should have drawn from inexperience, humility, seems absent.

The sympathy for the politicians was not matched by any sensitivity to the feelings or views of his subordinates. It was he who forced through the disbanding and amalgamation of all Britain's infantry regiments - 350 years of history junked at a stroke. It was his brutal confidence that pushed the measures through despite fierce opposition. Ironically, many feel that it is the spirit of these famous regiments which, more than anything, has helped sustain the Army through the difficulties of Iraq and given comfort and support to their families at home.

General Sir Michael Jackson's Dimbleby Lecture was in many ways, as so often in his military career, about himself. He seems to be worried about his place in history, particularly after his successor General Sir Richard Dannatt's early and vigorous condemnation of the Government.

In the history of the British Army, Sir Mike will be remembered for two things. He trained, equipped and organised the army we dispatched to defeat in Iraq. And he did away with the historic and effective infantry regiments - with aplomb.

His own view of himself is clearly as a man who fought mightily in private against the scheming politicians and civil servants to protect and preserve the Army he so loves, while in public enthusiastically endorsing all their actions and opinions. This view will be a strong thread in his autobiography, due out next year.

What of the most important view of all, the soldier's view? What does Tommy Atkins think of General Sir Mike Jackson GCB, CBE, DSO? These days they can often speak for themselves, particularly on websites and blogs. These are not always that complimentary. His view of them is clear too - at least of the difficulties, dangers and privations they have been forced to suffer because of cutbacks and poor logistics. His reply to a BBC interviewer in March 2003 after returning from a tour of inspection in Iraq says it all.

Pressed on the chronic lack of equipment and basic supplies - lack of body armour, poor medical facilities, unsuitable vehicles, let alone decent food and water - which as we now know have led directly to the deaths of troops in Iraq and subsequently Afghanistan he went for another one of his classic put-downs: "Missing your lunch is not exactly the end of the world."

Lieutenant Colonel Crispin Black served in the Welsh Guards from 1981 to 2003