Bruce Anderson: The British admire their Army – but they don't understand it

No organisation in history has devoted so much care to training its members

Monday 20 July 2009 00:00

There is a paradox. The modern British public has never admired its armed forces more, or understood them less. The incomprehension has been reinforced by social and cultural changes. In the first place, personal contact with the services is increasingly rare. You would need to be well over 80 to have fought in the last War, while the youngest former national servicemen are approaching their 70th birthdays – and since the IRA, off-duty soldiers have rarely worn their uniforms.

Though always warlike, we British have never been militaristic. We had peacetime conscription for a much shorter period than any other major power. But in the Fifties and Sixties, the forces were part of everyday life. Almost every family included someone who had served. Even after conscription, the Cold War ensured that the services were much larger than they are today. Now, we are returning to the 19th century, when the relatively small armed forces were much more cut off from the rest of society than they were from the Boer War until the last phase of the 20th century.

There is a further factor; the decline in belief in an afterlife. At the end of the Chanson de Roland, as the last Frankish knights are overwhelmed, Archbishop Turpin assures them that he and they will shortly be feasting in Heaven. Few of us now think that our fallen heroes will be similarly compensated. At the same time, fewer and fewer people have exhausting and dangerous jobs. By volunteering for discipline, hardship and danger, the forces stand apart.

This has lead to a widespread misconception. Confronted by this willingness to risk death and eschew comfort, far too many otherwise intelligent people have reached an ignorant and stupid conclusion: that soldiers volunteer because they are thick. Over the past few weeks, a number of journalists who should have known better have expressed surprise at meeting soldiers who could do joined-up talking.

The hacks in question should get out more. In the average officers' mess today, they all read books and some of them intend to write one or two. The table-talk is lively and stimulating, as one would expect, given the context of modern military operations. The phrase "pol-mil", short for political-military, is in regular use, because today's soldiers – even when much junior to Richard Dannatt – always have to be aware of political factors.

That does not only apply to the officers. Owing to lack of opportunity, those in the ranks are usually less well-educated. This does not mean that they lack either intellect or intellectual curiosity. They ask probing questions and expect thoughtful answers. They want to know what they are doing and why.

The NCOs are the backbone of any good army. They effectively train the young officers. But so do the men. It is not easy to lead thinking soldiers, which brings us to another common misconception. A lot of people who know nothing about the military assume that officers have an easy life. No need to worry about trade unions or contracts of employment; just bark out your orders, and the automata will obey.

The reality is more complex. It is true that basic training instils obedience. It is equally true that no officer will get the best out of his men unless they respect him. Any officer who cannot earn that respect will not last long. All regiments have time-honoured ways of squashing youngsters fresh from Sandhurst who are foolish enough to think that because they have been commissioned, they must know a thing or two. The Greenjackets will tell a new officer that although he has passed the driving test, they will now teach him to drive.

All this brings out the best in young platoon commanders. When he was Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie rejected the suggestion of an all-graduate officer entry. He argued that plenty of useful 18-year-old boys were fed-up with book-work. So let them spend a few years jumping out of armoured vehicles and helicopters – if they can find one – or leading their platoon up a wadi.

Then, if the boy is serious about soldiering, there will be the junior division of the Staff College, followed by Staff College itself, to teach him to think about the profession of arms. Charles Guthrie was right. We do not need to insist that all officers are graduates. The Army already ensures that almost everyone promoted beyond Captain is of good graduate quality.

With the possible exception of the Jesuits, no organisation in history has devoted so much care to training its members as the modern British armed forces. In that respect, over-stretched budgets have their uses. Because their resources are so limited, the forces have learned to make maximum use of everything: their manpower above all. In the 1650s, Cromwell's Army was the best in the world. A couple of years ago, today's Army could have made a similar claim, at least on a man-for-man basis.

In recent months, however, there has been a difficulty. This is nothing to do with the calibre of the men, which is as high as ever. But the equipment shortages are imposing a cost. In Iraq, we found it increasing hard to keep up with the Americans: in Basra during the Charge of the Knights, embarrassingly so. Something similar is happening in Afghanistan, and there is a further problem.

The British Army has another age-old custom: patronising the Yanks, along the lines of a pre-war story. American warships arrive in Hong-Kong harbour, and their flagship signals to ours: "How is the second-biggest Navy in the world this morning?" The reply was instantaneous : "We're fine. How is the second best?"

Apropos of Iraq and Afghanistan, one heard the same story. The Americans were splendid fellows and their muscle was indispensable. What a pity they could not do hearts and minds.

That may no longer be applicable. As often happens under the stress of conflict, American military doctrine has evolved. They have adapted to the terrain and they are now better at hearts and minds. Not only has British humour failed to keep up with these developments: the Yanks are aware of what we say about them, and they do not like it. There is not yet a crisis. But if the Americans were to conclude that we were better at bitching about them than at joining in the heavy lifting, a defence partnership that once seemed unbreakable could be in jeopardy.

We urgently need a defence review, and not in order to produce further economies. Although there is scope for re-deployments, there is no scope for reducing the defence budget – unless we want to imperil our ability to conduct high-intensity warfare. We have to think through the relationship between resources and commitments. That will not happen under this brain-dead Government. Perhaps the Tories should ask General Dannatt to undertake the task, once he retires.

In the meantime, there is one conclusion to be drawn. Anyone tempted to despair of our country's future should consider the armed forces, and think again.

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