This biography, written in lucid and workman-like style and with the co-operation of its distinguished subject, is well worth reading at several levels. First, it tells the pleasing human story of a life of high felicity in the Roman sense, with general good fortune partnering conspicuous merit to yield an almost unbroken sequence of happy outcomes. A resolve to use considerable talents to very best effect in everything undertaken is manifest not just in the central career to the professional summit but also in the attainment of notable skill as an amateur painter and of cricketing ability not far short of first-class, and readiness in retirement to give unabated energy to a diversity of tasks ranging from Lord Lieutenancy through Presidency of the Marylebone Cricket Club to leadership in the Imperial War Museum and the Travellers’ Club.
The second dimension of interest is the insight provided into the practices, values and standards of what is probably the best all-round professional army in the world. Lord Bramall had a notable fighting year, as the Military Cross testifies, in the final stages of the Second World War, and then as a lieutenant colonel he commanded effectively in the twilight mid-sixties ‘confrontation’ with Indonesia; and though he did not, in more senior days, find himself in operational roles in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, his determined commitment to pragmatic, modern and flexible training shows powerfully through. The portrayal of Army life as a whole deserves to be widely noticed.
A third level is the account given of Bramall’s advocacy, beginning well before this became conventional wisdom, of the role of British military expertise as a versatile instrument of policy in ways reaching beyond the direct application or threat of force against open adversaries. His writings from the early 1970s onwards tellingly foreshadow the fruitful strand of exploitation subsequently highlighted in George Robertson’s ‘defence diplomacy’ theme of the late 1990s. His contribution in this way, while mostly not seeking to rival the confident incisiveness of such figures as Michael Carver, Shan Hackett, David Fraser and Nigel Bagnall, reflects an active mind fully open to new and broad ideas. (This offers, in passing, a reminder that it must be something about professional culture, not just chance, that underlies the intriguing fact that across the past forty years the top ranks of the Army have been markedly richer in strategic thinker-writers than the other two Services put together.)
The book’s least successful elements are those dealing with the final period of Army service, as Chief firstly of the General Staff and then of the Defence Staff. There are factual slips – the account of the transition from Polaris to Trident, for instance, is all over the place. More importantly, though Lord Bramall’s overall record in those years is unquestionably admirable, the Tillotson portrayal – which elsewhere commendably manages to avoid mere hagiography – tends hereabouts to slide from empathy into uncritical apologia, reluctant ever to allow on any issue that those who from the standpoint of different responsibilities took a divergent view might sometimes have been right; and a more detached observer might have been readier to raise an eyebrow at the low-profile wariness that seems occasionally to have marked the Bramall stance in the 1981 ‘Nott’ defence review and the 1982 Falklands War. A striking generalized antipathy – more the author’s own, one hopes, than his subject’s – to civil servants is on display, with at its worst a grating blend of the ignorant and the offensive. Just for example, senior Ministry of Defence officials of the period would be perplexed to hear that ‘thanks to the Civil Service system of switching staff members from one Department of State to another…they seldom develop any real loyalty to the one in which they are currently employed’.
It would, however, be a pity if such shortcomings were to drain attention away either from the book’s significant strengths or from the value of having a permanent record of a life of notably varied yet consistent distinction. Any serious military library should have a copy.
Sir Michael Quinlan
Visiting Professor, Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College London