Andreas Whittam Smith: General Dannatt should be fired forthwith

The legality of the Iraq invasion and its objectives are political, not military, decisions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, should have dismissed General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, on Friday. Mr Blair would have been entirely within his rights to have done so. Sir Richard had given ample grounds that morning by publicly criticising a series of decisions taken by the Government. He did this both in his interview with the Daily Mail and in his appearance on the Today programme.

"The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in," Sir Richard stated. This denies the Government's repeated assurances that the allied invasion was authorised by United Nations resolutions. The general argued that: "We don't want to be there [Iraq] for another two, three, four years." This contradicts the Prime Minister's intention that we should stay for as long as it takes to establish and guarantee a democracy.

In Gen Dannatt's opinion, however, "we should aim for a lower ambition". And that, he indicated, would be the preservation of Iraq as a unitary state. It would be "very important" to achieve that, he added. In other words, the general was attempting to set new priorities for British policy in Iraq.

In his official position, Sir Richard has every opportunity to put his views directly to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Prime Minister. He doesn't lack access. However, the legality of the Iraq invasion and its objectives are political decisions and not military ones.

In a parliamentary democracy, the elected government sets the ends of policy and the armed services provide, when necessary, the means. Were the unelected military command to set the policy itself, then we would have ceased to to be a fully democratic state and we would have handed a degree of political power to the only body capable of imposing its will on the country by the use of force.

Not long ago, the political thinker, Samuel Huntington, spelt out the rule: "if the statesman decides upon war, which the soldier knows can only lead to national catastrophe, then the soldier, after presenting his opinion, must fall to and make the best of a bad situation".

Can a defence be made for Gen Dannatt? To do so, we can only read between the lines. Sir Richard told his interviewer that "honesty is what it is all about". And he must have quickly discovered after his appointment that deceit is part of the warp and weft of 10 Downing Street. Why, Mr Blair even declared on Friday that he "agreed with every word" Sir Richard had uttered. How could he?

What Sir Richard will have noted, however, is that while the Prime Minister often declares that the army gets whatever it needs to carry out its mission in Iraq, in reality there are grave shortages of equipment. He may also believe that British policy is in fact wholly decided by the White House, despite appearances given to the contrary.

This notion that the army and the nation are in some sense being deceived by the Government would link General Dannatt's outburst directly back to the only comparable case in British history, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice's letter to the newspapers in May 1918, just a few months before the end of the First World War.

General Maurice believed that the prime minister of the day, David Lloyd George, had been guilty of misleading Parliament about the number of men in the British Army. He thought that the Prime Minister was deliberately holding back troops from the Western Front in order to undermine the position of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. He decided to write to the newspapers to give the true figures.

Like General Dannatt, Sir Frederick was a devout Christian. He said in a letter to his daughter Nancy that: "I am persuaded that I am doing what is right and, once that is so, nothing else matters to a man. That is, I believe, what Christ meant when he told us to forsake father and mother and children for his sake."

Sir Frederick's letter was duly published. He was immediately suspended from duty. A debate was held in the Commons on the General's charges, which the Government won. Gen Maurice was then retired from the army and was refused the court martial which he requested.

Sir Frederick may well have been right, but that is not the point. Likewise, I agree with General Dannatt's views. I would put it starkly: British soldiers in Iraq are losing their lives because the Prime Minister cannot admit that the invasion was a terrible error. But, again, in relation to Gen Dannatt's public expression of disagreement, that is not the point. Mr Blair didn't act as Lloyd George correctly did, because he was weak or thought he was. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister could have, and should have, sacked the general.