General Sir David Richards, who has taken over as Chief of the General Staff, assumes this office at a critical juncture, with British troops engaged in a dangerous, and increasingly controversial, mission in Afghanistan. The past two months have been the costliest in terms of British deaths and injuries in a military commitment of almost eight years. There is a risk – although the judgement might be premature – that the election, for which these lives were sacrificed, may not carry the credibility or have the stabilising effect that was hoped for. A fresh period of reassessment cannot be excluded in the coming months.
That British forces are heavily engaged abroad, however – mainly, but not exclusively in Afghanistan – is not the only reason why the spotlight is on the new head of the British Army. The other reason is that he succeeds a military leader who did not shy away from speaking military truth to political power and had a knack for catching the public eye. General Sir Richard Dannatt, more than any other single individual in recent years, brought home to civilian Britain that our troops were fighting in this country's name and were owed respect for doing so, regardless of the unpopularity of the wars.
As Chief of the General Staff, General Dannatt can be said to have fought on two home fronts simultaneously, as well as overseeing the Army's operations abroad. He drew the wrath of ministers by tirelessly drawing to their attention what he saw as the neglect of the army in terms of funding and equipment. He also took the public to task for not giving the armed forces their due. It is probably fair to say that he was more successful in his efforts to revive the unwritten military-civilian covenant than he was in his representations to the Ministry of Defence.
With British troops still engaged in Iraq, General Dannatt made a very public appeal for greater understanding of the soldiers' plight. He drew a distinction between the responsibilities of politicians for the wars they committed the country to, and the professional soldiers whose job it was to fight. He lamented the disrepair into which he said the traditional military covenant had fallen and did his utmost to restore it. The homecoming parades and the crowds that turn out to pay tribute as coffins are transported through the streets of Wootton Bassett are the visible proof of what he achieved.
His increasingly outspoken complaints about the treatment of rank-and-file soldiers at home and shortages of specialist troops and equipment in the field set him at odds with successive ministers. Relations deteriorated to the point where he was accused recently by a Labour peer of giving succour to the enemy because he had drawn attention to a lack of helicopters and heavy armoured vehicles. As he prepared to leave office, an apparent attempt to discredit him – scandalous if this is what it was – rebounded when he released his own accounts with testimony to cut-price entertaining that put most MPs to shame.
General Dannatt's further advancement, to Chief of Defence Staff, was blocked, which means he retires to fight his next battles from the sidelines. With the Government's strategic defence review to be launched this autumn, his contributions will be keenly awaited. Questions of strategy, spending and procurement will be under scrutiny as rarely before. We trust he will use his new freedom to maximum effect. As General Richards said, he is a hard act to follow.