Army throws weight behind chief who spoke for his men
Damage limitation in Downing Street, a midnight phone call and a rush to the airwaves, but general does not back down on the essence of his remarks about the aftermath of the Iraq invasion
Ben Macintyre, Philip Webster and Michael Evans / London Times | October 14 2006
IS GENERAL Sir Richard Dannatt naïve, noble or very calculating? When he put his head above the parapet in an interview with the Daily Mail to argue that the continued presence of British troops in Iraq was stoking bloodshed worldwide, did the new army chief anticipate the political firestorm he would ignite?
The Ministry of Defence was unaware of the incendiary device lobbed by the Chief of the General Staff until it went off. Tony Blair and his inner circle were in St Andrews for the Northern Ireland talks. The first they knew of the looming explosion was a call from the BBC on Thursday night asking for comment as the newspaper was rolling off the presses.
Three days earlier, the general had sat down for an hour and a half with the journalist Sarah Sands to discuss Iraq, Afghanistan, the army princes William and Harry, and army pay. Some at the MoD say that they questioned the wisdom of talking to the anti-Government Daily Mail, but that the general wanted to press ahead.
The military press officer present during the interview did not, apparently, believe that the remarks were sufficiently controversial to merit warning Downing Street. Ms Sands said that General Dannatt was giving an opinion that “wasn't intended to be political”.
The newspaper was in no doubt about the political newsworthiness of what it had. The story was catapulted to the front page on Thursday night, and the BBC was alerted before the 10 o'clock news to ensure the widest possible coverage.
Downing Street went into damage-limitation overdrive. General Dannatt was staying overnight on the South Coast, and copies of the article were faxed to him. In a tense midnight conversation with Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, the general said that he had intended to defend the Army, not to open a rift with the Government.
The general then volunteered to take to the airwaves; had he not done so he might have been frogmarched on to them. In a series of interviews, he maintained that his remarks had been taken out of context, that he had said nothing remotely newsworthy, and that the resulting row was a lot of “hoo-ha”. He saw “eye to eye” with Mr Blair, he insisted.
Yet he did not back down from the essence of his remarks: that the attempt to turn Iraq into a beacon of liberal democracy was “naïve” and ill-planned, that the military presence in Iraq exacerbates the violence, and that there is a direct link between the Iraq invasion and the “Islamic threat” in Britain. The general's stance may have surprised and enraged Downing Street, but it has elevated him to hero status among army personnel.
Associates of General Dannatt, 55, describe him as a highly professional, shrewd, dedicated, risk-taking soldier who has seen active service in Bosnia and Northern Ireland during a 30-year career. Cerebral and courtly, he is in some ways an unlikely soldier, with the mien of bank manager in the Captain Mainwaring mould. But he is driven by twin, interlocking beliefs: in God and the Army. As one friend observes: “He's the kind of person that, if he heard there was a soldier in Iraq who needed a flak jacket, would personally get in a taxi and go out there to deliver it. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to imagine him holding a gun or fighting anyone.”
Despite his unassuming demeanour, the general won a Military Cross at 22 for “gallantry during active operations against the enemy”. The details of how he won the award have not been made public, but at the time he was engaged in an undercover counter-terrorist operation.
Five years ago, when he was deputy commander (ops) of Nato's Stabilisation Force, the general masterminded a spectacularly daring bank raid in a night-time military operation to uncover evidence of money-laundering in Bosnia. Those involved in the planning said yesterday that he approached the operation as a master tactician, using British troops, including special forces, as well as former professional safecrackers and locksmiths flown in to assist.
Yesterday the general was spearheading another operation, this time in Whitehall, to “contextualise” his controversial remarks. But in many respects, he appears to have chosen his battlefield intentionally, deliberately picking a fight he believes he can win.
Long before this week's row, he had been marked down by the Treasury as a new “hard man”, demanding more cash and openly campaigning to improve army pay and equipment. Commissioned into The Green Howards, a regiment (now amalgamated) that has spawned numerous generals, the general did not take long to let the Government know that this particular service chief was not going to be kept quiet by the Whitehall apparatchiks.
General Dannatt reflects the growing belief in army circles that the Iraqi operation has reached a point where the military, backed by politicians, needs to start serious planning for the withdrawal of British troops. Like many other senior commanders, he fears that British troops may no longer be the solution to the challenges in southern Iraq, but the problem.
By stating in public what he has long been saying in private to ministers and civil servants, the general has marked himself out as a different type of service chief, who sees himself not merely as an arm of government but as the representative of the Army in public life.
“My intention is particularly to speak up for what is right for the Army,” he has said. “That is my job. That is my constituency.” This is language traditionally associated with politics rather than the military — generals claiming to represent a constituency in opposition to government were common in Ancient Rome, but extremely rare in British military history.
His “constituents” have responded to his remarks with almost universal delight. Colonel Tim Collins, one of the most senior officers in Iraq in 2003, said that the general had given a “refreshing and very honest insight into what the Army generally feel”.
Messages on the Army Rumour Service website included: “The most impressive comments I have heard from someone of his seniority for a long time”; and “I am thoroughly heartened by this and have the beginnings of a thaw in the cynicism which has dogged my service thinking since 2003.”
A senior officer told The Times: “What he has done will be welcomed by everyone in the Army. Tommy Atkins is feeling pretty fragile at the moment with all the fighting in Afghanistan and the endurance mission in Iraq and it's good to have a chief prepared to speak out on his behalf.”
The suggestion that the general may have gone “over the top” because he was too “relaxed” in the interview was flatly rejected by the general. “I don't presume to be relaxed whenever I'm talking to journalists,” he said acidly. “I am not a maverick. I am a soldier speaking up for his army.”
Several of the general's colleagues also dismissed the notion that he had spoken inadvertently, and set off a commotion he did not intend. “Of course he knew what he was saying because it was what he has been telling ministers since taking over as Chief of the General Staff,” said one military officer with long experience of working with the general. “But I suspect he has been a little surprised by the impact his remarks have had and perhaps he did not sufficiently take into account the fact that constitutionally, as head of the Army, he has the right of direct access to the Prime Minister, and, therefore, such remarks look on the surface to be damaging to Tony Blair's policy on Iraq.”
Where the charge of naïvety may stick more easily, however, is in the general's remarks about the “Judaic-Christian tradition” underpinning the British Army, and “the need to face up to the Islamist threat” making “undue progress because there is a moral and political vacuum in this country”.
A military leader defending his territory is one thing, but a leading soldier offering moral lessons to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers may be quite another. A committed Christian, General Dannatt is the vice-president of the Officers' Christian Union. Those beliefs no doubt impelled him to speak out on Iraq: “Honesty is what it is about,” he told Ms Sands. “We have got to speak the truth. Leaking and spinning, at the end of the day, are not helpful.”
He shares his religious conviction with his wife, Philippa, daughter of a well-established land-owning family from Norfolk. The Dannatts have one daughter and three sons, one of whom serves in the Grenadier Guards. The timing of the general's remarks is intriguing: in the US, senior military commanders have begun openly to criticise Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, over strategy in Iraq, and the general's remarks fit into a pattern of discontent at the highest levels of the Armed Forces in both Britain and America.
In his interview, General Dannatt said that troops had gone into Iraq with the hope that a pro-western liberal democracy could shift the balance in the Middle East. “Whether that was a sensible or naïve hope, history will judge,” said the general, plainly hinting that he believes the latter.
Two months into his new job, the Chief of the General Staff has conducted a remarkable three-pronged attack on public opinion: advancing the view that a planned withdrawal from Iraq must come “soon”; establishing himself as the unspun, straight-talking darling of the Forces; and going into battle as a soldier of Christ.
Whether these manoeuvres turn out to be naïve or sensible, history will judge.
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