‘We remember it not only for the rain that fell, the mud that weighed down the living and swallowed the dead, but also for the courage and bravery of the men who fought here.’
The Prince of Wales was in good voice on Monday at the centenary commemorations of the battle of Passchendaele — more properly, ‘Third Ypres’. It was a pity he couldn’t say that we should remember it not only for the incompetence of the high command, but because the majority of the British troops were at best only half-trained.
One of the enduring myths about war is that armies can be raised quickly. They can’t, because armed conflict is the most complex human interaction known. A soldier’s skill is nine parts judgment. It takes time to acquire — as true today as it was 100 years ago, perhaps even more so. Yet we’re about to make the same mistake as we did before 1914: thinking we can influence events without putting boots on the ground and shrinking the army to a token force. The view in much of Whitehall seems to be that intervention leads only to entanglement — and that intervention by land forces leads only to bloodier entanglement.
‘Mission creep’ isn’t a term heard much these days, but its spectre seemed to be haunting Mark Sedwill, the National Security Adviser, last month at a Royal United Services Institute conference. ‘What is our core national interest?’ he wanted to know. ‘What can we live with in terms of outcomes? What should a western comprehensive strategic plan look like? Only after answering that should we work out what we can and should do.’
The Pentagon’s view of things was certainly putting the fear of God into policymakers at the event. The head of the US army, General Mark Milley, Ivy League graduate and ex-Special Forces, declared with biblical portent that we are at one of those rare moments in history: a fundamental change in the character of conflict, caused by urbanisation and ‘the lethality resulting from electronic emissions’. Were we going to be up for it?
Yet the question could be academic, for the latest Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), announced recently and unusually quietly, which Sedwill is leading, looks like shaping our armed forces in a way that makes boots on the ground simply not an option. The review’s starting point is that the books don’t balance, largely thanks to expensive navy and RAF equipment programmes. The likely forthcoming departure of the chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, to Nato, isn’t a good sign either. Even with the strongest chiefs, reviews have been bad enough.
But let’s be clear: no defence review has ever resulted in more spending. So the army is going to feel the squeeze, and the danger is that the guts will be squeezed out of it. Sedwill says he is ‘interested in effect, not in numbers’. But what if the effect you need is mass? Army numbers have already fallen to 80,000, their lowest in two centuries. Numbers matter because in war, people count. The army’s significant and unprecedented lack of mass is its greatest capability gap. It’s the only one you can’t fill by buying off the shelf as an urgent operational requirement.
The army’s priority will be to keep a mechanised division of two ‘manoeuvre’ brigades and combat support. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to fight alongside the Americans in high-intensity combat, which would mean the end of the special military relationship. Nor could we play our part within Nato. But what of the lighter, more agile units? Troop reductions would make the army little more than a shell. Even now it could not sustain a brigade on operations indefinitely without huge recourse to the reserves. So when intervention is no longer avoidable — Macmillan’s ‘events, dear boy’ — it may have to be on the lines of Libya, Syria, and (to a lesser degree) Yemen: air support, with a few advisers on the ground, some trainers perhaps, and special forces for strategic targets.
But so-called stand-off interventions have two inescapable drawbacks. Without boots on the ground, you don’t influence the strategy. Threats to take away support don’t cut much ice with local forces. They call the shots, metaphorically as well as literally. And even when there is minimal collateral damage from stand-off weapons, they excite moral repugnance, especially with drones and cruise missiles killing from afar, sometimes continents away. Like the French man-of-war in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness shelling invisible enemies in the jungle — ‘incomprehensible, firing into a continent’.
So as the fighting muddles on, the intervention risks slowly losing whatever legitimacy it had. The Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 was a prime example. Had it not been for the build-up of Allied Command Europe’s ground forces on the Kosovo border, under General Sir Mike Jackson, the Serbs could probably have toughed it out until Nato, with no worthwhile and legitimate targets left, was forced by the growing weight of international opinion to stop bombing.
That is the second limitation of stand-off interventions: the pace and duration of the campaign is determined by those who are on the ground, whose priority will probably not be speed. Strategic patience is needed, therefore — a commodity that has been scarce in the past and is not likely to be any more plentiful in the future. For it is another myth that wars are short. Wars between irregular forces are notoriously and irrationally long. Even in campaigns against regular troops, although the initial phase may be accomplished quickly, as in Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, consolidation is long drawn out.
Yet another myth is the belief that special forces — clandestine, deniable — can do it all. They have precision, best directed against strategic targets, but not mass. They are a scarce resource and need a large recruiting base — the rest of the army. When briefing Tony Blair once, the then chief of the defence staff began to get the impression that the PM believed the SAS were much bigger than they really were, so he asked him how many he thought there were. ‘Forty thousand?’ replied Blair. To begin with, take off two noughts.
The final myth is that wars can be won from afar. The truth is that, just as in 1918, the last shot fired comes out of an infantryman’s rifle.
Allan Mallinson’s book Too Important for the Generals: Losing and Winning the First World War is published by Penguin Random House.