It’s fashionable for military top brass to attack politicians when things go wrong. But, says Paul Robinson, many of the army’s problems are of their own making
In recent years, failure to ‘support the troops’ has become the ultimate political sin. The Conservatives’ soon-to-be defence adviser, General Sir Richard Dannatt, blasted Brown a few weeks ago, letting it slip that his brave plea for 2,000 extra troops had been ignored by our callous PM. But has Gordon Brown really ‘betrayed’ the troops in the field? A good degree of cynicism is in order. In reality, both as Chancellor and as Prime Minister, Mr Brown has given Britain’s armed forces a lease of life which they had no reason to expect, while the country’s military leaders, including and especially Dannatt, a former army chief, must share the blame for the difficulties their troops have faced in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Of course, it’s deeply unfashionable these days even to think of blaming soldiers for anything. The days of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’ being abused by the people are long gone. The temper of our times is more in tune with William Topaz McGonagall, writer of ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, widely considered the worst poem in the English language, and author also of some sparkling ‘Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins’ (‘Then hurrah for Tommy Atkins, he’s the people’s friend/ Because when foreign foes assail us he does us defend’). But a McGonagall-like desire to help the ordinary serviceman or woman on the front line should not serve as cover for the senior officers who lead them. Nor should it prevent us from criticising the institutional culture in which they serve. One element of this culture is that professional soldiers tend to look at themselves as part of a select order, upholding the highest moral and professional standards, while seeing politicians as self-serving hypocrites.
As a result, when things go wrong, the natural tendency of many in uniform, especially the generals, is to blame the politicians rather than to look in the mirror. The combination of this self-satisfied culture and the moral elevation of the soldier in the popular imagination has led to a modern version of the infamous dolchstosslegende, the stab-in-the-back theory which encouraged Germans to believe that they had not really been defeated in the first world war.
For the past two years, elements of the British press and the British army (with General Dannatt to the fore) have worked all out to propagate a similar myth. The sharks at the Daily Mail have led the way. ‘A shameful betrayal of our servicemen’; ‘Treachery, politicians, and the shameful betrayal of this man of honour [Richard Dannatt]’, its headlines have screamed. Sensing blood, the rest of the press have joined the frenzy (‘The betrayal of Britain’s troops’ — Independent; ‘How Labour has betrayed the troops’ — Sunday Express, and so on).
The army’s humiliation in Iraq, and its failure to bring peace to Helmand, are not, we learn, its fault. Rather, the Labour party, and in particular Gordon Brown, coldheartedly sent the troops off to die without the proper equipment and without the reinforcements which might have enabled them to achieve victory. If only they’d had the tools to do the job, our fine ‘boys and girls’ would have dispatched the Taleban long ago.
This is, of course, perfect nonsense. One of the more galling sounds of the past two years has been that of Americans smugly observing that the British have been slow to learn the lessons of modern counter-insurgency. The criticism has been especially hard to bear because it is true. Many of the British army’s problems have been of its own making. As one officer participant has eloquently put it, the decision in 2006 ‘to scatter small groups of soldiers across the north of Helmand, in isolation, in an intelligence vacuum and with complete disregard for the most basic tenets of counter-insurgency was, quite simply, a gross military blunder’. And even if it is true that this decision was the result of ‘political pressure’ from London, it was the responsibility of the generals to resist such pressure and to insist that the troops be used sensibly. In the second world war, General Alan Brooke would argue all night with Churchill when he thought that the Prime Minister was making absurd military judgments. This does not seem to happen any more.
That said, the problems British forces have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan stem far more from strategic than from tactical errors. The invasion of Iraq was strategic idiocy from the start, the intervention in Helmand almost equally doomed. Antonio Giustozzi, one of the foremost experts on Afghanistan, comments that ‘the insurgency is the result of aggressive and predatory behaviour of local authorities’. When Nato troops deployed to southern Afghanistan in 2006, ‘local communities interpreted the deployment as being intended to strengthen the repression to which they were already being subjected’, and therefore rose up in arms. The very presence of British troops, rather than being a solution to the rebellion, has thus been a major cause of its growth. More men, more helicopters and better vehicles might have saved the lives of some soldiers, but would not have prevented Helmand from descending into chaos.
In the end, it is the politicians who make the decisions on whether to deploy troops overseas. Nevertheless, senior officers have a duty not only to ensure that troops are used in sensible ways, but also to ensure that they are used for sensible purposes, and to tell the politicians what those would and would not be. Alas, Britain’s military leaders have failed to restrain the Labour government from its strategic follies.
Bureaucratic interests explain why. In the late 1980s the British armed forces were orientated almost entirely towards the Soviet threat. The collapse of communism left them without a raison d’être. It would have been easy for the Labour government to make major cuts in military spending. It did not. Rather than destroying Britain’s military, the Labour party saved it. The 1997 strategic defence review provided a new mission — expeditionary warfare to be a ‘force for good’ around the world.
We live in a remarkably peaceful era. There is no direct military threat to the United Kingdom, and the magnitude of global conflict has declined by 60 per cent in two decades. Nonetheless, the top brass have embraced the new purpose with zeal. Their existence depends on it.
All these factors together mean that the armed forces are institutionally averse to recognising a fundamental truth — that the problems they have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan derive not from a lack of resources but from the very nature of the missions themselves. Recognising this would mean admitting that expeditionary warfare is not a good idea, and admitting that would cast the whole defence budget into doubt. Blaming Mr Brown provides a convenient way out of this impasse.
In 1997, the Labour government gave the country a new strategic direction. It has not worked out well. If, as expected, the Conservatives take power next year, they will inherit and complete the latest defence review. In the process, future defence ministers, including possibly General Dannatt, need to do more than merely juggle resources. They need to re-examine fundamental strategic assumptions. The stab-in-the-back myth stands in the way. It maintains the pretence that the basic direction was all right, and merely the implementation went wrong, so that all can be solved with the application of additional funds. While this story may serve some narrow bureaucratic interests, it does the people of Britain no service at all.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He has been a military intelligence officer in both the British army, as a regular officer, and the Canadian forces, as a reservist.