Like most people who reach the top of the army, General Dannatt’s career is the stuff of legend. Though he only meant to be in the army for three years, he distinguished himself while serving in Northern Ireland, earning the Military Cross and setting-off on a career that in would see him serve in Cyprus, Germany, Bosnia, and Kosovo. A tour in the MoD was followed by command of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.
Yet when he replaced the gruff and outwardly popular Mike Jackson, few people knew what to expect of Dannatt. The Mail even reported that some thought that he “would be a managerial, John Majorish figure”. Perhaps more like Michael Boyce than Charles Guthrie.
But General Dannatt turned out to be rather different. He seems to have understood, perhaps better than his predecessor, the extent of unhappiness in the army – not just over underfunding and operational overstretch, but also over the reforms introduced by the government in 2004, which saw many regiments amalgamated and the infantry’s arms plot (which involves an infantry battalion performing one role for a period of time before being posted elsewhere to re-train and take up another role) ended. Though these reforms may have been necessary at the time, the manner and content of them angered many.
Perhaps partly to address this sense of dissatisfaction, General Dannatt did what may have produced his most lasting legacy – the championing of a new “military covenant”. His push for greater respect to be afforded soldiers and veterans was crucial in changing societal attitudes to the military and pushed the government into creating an Armed Forces Day, now celebrated across Britain.
General Dannatt also spoke up for the army in other ways, raising the issue of military pay and questioning the validity of a British presence in Iraq. It was probably his comments on Iraq policy, his first act of genuine outspokenness, that not only broke the mould of what Army Chiefs are expected to say, but began the rocky relationship between himself and successive Labour governments.
I still feel that General Dannatt went too far.
For an Army Chief to criticise the government as openly as he did seemed out of place in a democracy like Britain’s. Had Tony Blair been stronger at the time, he would have probably forced the general out – and been right to do so. But he was not and so General Dannatt stayed, perhaps feeling comfortable speaking honestly and publicly when he disagreed with government policy.
The other time when his frankness jarred in many quarters was the talk of his faith. A devout Christian, General Dannatt made no bones about this. He told the Daily Mail:
To many, this was not only uncomfortable reading, but a foolish statement at a time when British forces were deployed in many Muslim countries and were arguing hard that they were not on a religious crusade.“
"When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn't make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind.”
General Dannatt’s role over Afghan policy has now been mired in political controversy, but where his there can be no question of his perspicacity is on the issue of military reform. In a number of speeches, including at RUSI, the institution he will soon chair, General Dannatt laid out bold reforms of the army, much of which will probably be picked up by his successor, General David Richards.
Careers, especially controversial ones like General Dannatt’s, are rarely summed up fairly. If Labour has anything to do with it, fairness will not play any role. Though General Dannatt was on occasion too outspoken for my liking, he may have done more than many of his predecessors in raising the morale of – and society’s respect for - the Army at a difficult time, while charting a course of future military reforms. That is an impressive legacy.