General Dannatt Confirms Military Reality


Sir Richard DannatThe story that broke in the Daily Mail on 13 October (based on an interview that had taken place on 10 October), when General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff spoke bluntly, but hardly surprisingly, about the need for an early reduction in British troop levels in Iraq, started quite some time ago, when it was announced that Britain would deploy a strong force to Afghanistan. This would not cause overstretch, it was said, because the force already deployed in Iraq would be down-sizing. Since then the force has deployed to Afghanistan, been reinforced, and may need to be reinforced again. The force in Iraq has been reduced, but not by as much perhaps as was hoped at the time. That is fine provided there are strong operational and strategic imperatives for taking these measures, and the Army can continue to cope.  Neither those imperatives nor the Army’s continued ability to cope are self-evident.

Sir Richard remarked in the Summer 2006 edition of RUSI Defence Systems that ‘People ask me, ‘Can you cope?’ My answer is, ‘Yes’. Then I pause for a moment or two before I say, ‘Just’. That remark has been frequently quoted since, but was made when he was Commander-in-Chief Land Command, the operational level commander of the British Army, and when General Sir Mike Jackson was still Chief of the General Staff.There seems to be little difference between saying that our soldiers were coping ….just, and that we should be reducing our force levels soon. In fact to emphasize this point, Sir Richard continued, ‘I wouldn’t wish to continue indefinitely at the current level of operations because it carries a penalty’. Thus the scene was set. Interestingly, Sir Richard’s remarks, in the Daily Mail and in innumerable subsequent interviews, have met with almost universal agreement from the Prime Minister down. As well, in substance, did everyone else. Journalists did so in droves, though there were some who threw their hands up in faux-horror suggesting that Sir Richard was a constitutional menace and might have to go. So the problem was not so much what Sir Richard said, but the fact that he said it at all.

Coincidentally, the military opinions being voiced in the United States were much the same; I was in Washington in the week that Sir Richard spoke out, and in talking with several very senior US Army officers and officials, and some members of Congress, the messages I received from them were consistent with Sir Richard’s and were received with acclaim. Furthermore, one might reasonably speculate whether his remarks caused quite the shock that was so widely described. Perhaps the precise timing and the vehicle for his concerns might not have been expected, but it is stretching credulity too far to suppose that the Daily Mail article was the first that his political superiors or his Chiefs-of Staff-colleagues had heard of his concerns. Indeed, it seems more probable that they had heard, and agreed. In other words, they agreed both before and after his utterances.

Sir Richard remarked in the Summer 2006 edition of RUSI Defence Systems that ‘People ask me, ‘Can you cope?’ My answer is, ‘Yes’. Then I pause for a moment or two before I say, ‘Just’. That remark has been frequently quoted since, but was made when he was Commander-in-Chief Land Command, the operational level commander of the British Army, and when General Sir Mike Jackson was still Chief of the General Staff.  There seems to be little difference between saying that our soldiers were coping ….just, and that we should be reducing our force levels soon. In fact to emphasize this point, Sir Richard continued, ‘I wouldn’t wish to continue indefinitely at the current level of operations because it carries a penalty’. Thus the scene was set.

Interestingly, Sir Richard’s remarks, in the Daily Mail and in innumerable subsequent interviews, have met with almost universal agreement from the Prime Minister down. As well, in substance, did everyone else. Journalists did so in droves, though there were some who threw their hands up in faux-horror suggesting that Sir Richard was a constitutional menace and might have to go. So the problem was not so much what Sir Richard said, but the fact that he said it at all.

Coincidentally, the military opinions being voiced in the United States were much the same; I was in Washington in the week that Sir Richard spoke out, and in talking with several very senior US Army officers and officials, and some members of Congress, the messages I received from them were consistent with Sir Richard’s and were received with acclaim. Furthermore, one might reasonably speculate whether his remarks caused quite the shock that was so widely described. Perhaps the precise timing and the vehicle for his concerns might not have been expected, but it is stretching credulity too far to suppose that the Daily Mail article was the first that his political superiors or his Chiefs-of Staff-colleagues had heard of his concerns. Indeed, it seems more probable that they had heard, and agreed. In other words, they agreed both before and after his utterances.

Sir Richard might have spoken out when he did for one of two reasons. First, he did not consider what he was saying to be anything significantly out of the ordinary. Indeed, reading the entire transcript of the wide-ranging Daily Mail interview does not give the impression that he seeks to strike a do-or-die blow for the Army. Rather, he is extrapolating a little the argument that he had already deployed in RUSI Defence Systems. Second, he may have felt that he was being painted into a corner, that his concerns were being heard but not listened to. There has been no suggestion that he had exercised his right to see the Prime Minister, and it is not helpful to speculate on why he did not take a particular course of action. Certainly the track records of Chiefs of Staff crossing the road to No 10 is neither propitious nor encouraging to the Service concerned.

One thing has changed in the last few years, and that is that we live in an era of bloggers, and there are many blogging soldiers. Unsurprisingly, few bloggers routinely write that they are well fed and comfortable, have good kit, admire their commanding officers, and agree wholeheartedly with the edicts of Whitehall. But some very real concerns can stand out. My point is that until a few years ago, deployed forces were disconnected from home, apart from letters and then the occasional ‘electronic bluey’. We encourage journalists to mix with deployed soldiers, and indeed embed journalists with them. This is at least in part because soldiers often provide vivid insights that differ from those of corporate communications staffs. This produces a plethora of different viewpoints, some of which are highly representative, some are not; there is nothing wrong with that. 

But in a time of comparatively unfettered communication, when the morale of deployed forces is a public issue, there must be a strong lead from the professional heads of the Services, in the Army’s case, Sir Richard Dannatt.  He has to lead them, he has to connect with them on the issues that are uppermost in their minds; he has also to talk frankly to the wider array of people who sustain the Army, whether they are family, friends, or those who work in their many diverse capacities to support it. All of them want to hear what Ministers have to say, but they want to hear what the Chief of General Staff has to say as well. Ministers and senior soldiers have different perspectives, and both should speak truly. This has absolutely nothing to do with a challenge by the military to civilian control; it is not even a crack in the paint-work.  The military are its greatest supporters; though some would say, from the outside looking in, that the Armed Services’ ‘can-do’ attitude often lands them in taking on too many commitments with too few resources.  Sometimes making awkward points is both necessary and appropriate.

The jobs of the Chiefs of Staff are bifurcated: first, to act, with the other Chiefs of Staff, as principal sources of military advice to ministers and the Prime Minister; second to act as the professional head of Service – to be the leader, with all the challenges and responsibilities that entails.  The globalization of information may not change the former, but it changes the ways and means of the latter.

It may be helpful to remind ourselves of what General Dannatt actually said in the Daily Mail interview on 10 October.  Reading the transcript, it is quite tricky to find bits that are contentious.  There are parts where Sir Richard discusses the extent to which we have consent to be in Iraq, as opposed to Afghanistan. He suggests that ‘whatever consent we may have heard in the first place, may have turned to tolerance, which turns to intolerance, which turns to difficulty. That is a fact of life.’ In other words, he is reporting facts as he sees them to exist, not making a political point, even if others extrapolate his remarks to mean that we are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  If that is contentious, one may recall Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s remark quoted in Bob Woodward’s book, State of Denial: ‘I’ve always felt that foreign troops are an anomaly in a country, that eventually they’re unnatural and not welcomed really. There’s always the concept of declining consent’.

However, Sir Richard’s comment that has been most avidly seized upon was that he ‘would like to see us from early next year reducing our troops there,….from practical army management to take pressure off so that we can reinforce in Afghanistan, which is a much more doable mission.’  He went on to say that he did not ‘want to be just coping indefinitely’.

The context of these remarks, as outlined above, was that two years ago, when the government announced that we would deploy troops to Afghanistan, it was made very clear that it would be done so in the context of reducing force levels in Iraq.  This has happened to some extent but not as much as anticipated at the time. General Dannatt was therefore commenting on military reality and on facts in the public record; he was not making a political criticism.

The Prime Minister, on BBC News 24 on 13 October, said that, having read the transcript, he agreed ‘with every word’ of General Dannatt’s comments. While the Prime Minister went on to paint a rather rosier picture than Sir Richard had done, they were speaking in reasonable harmony, if not in unison. It may be true, as some have suggested, that no matter how fed up the Prime Minister or the Defence Secretary were that Sir Richard had spoken out, they could not overtly disagree with him, nor fire him. But there seems to be no reason for Ministers to be fed up; indeed Sir Richard’s comments may have turned out to be very useful to the Government, allowing the debate to move towards where it should have been for some time, and buttressing public perceptions that this was a government alert to the needs and concerns of the Armed Forces. 

The Army has I believe got real and substantial problems in prosecuting simultaneously their campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan and in continuing indefinitely.  Sir Richard and others have commented upon these problems cogently, correctly and with some vigour. That is as it should be.

When I first heard of the Daily Mail article on arriving into Heathrow on the morning of 13 October, I wondered if I might get drawn in to defending the indefensible; instead I found myself reinforcing the unattackable!

By Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold CB, Director of RUSI


The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute





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