General Sir Richard Dannatt’s verdict: more cash, more time please

General Sir Richard Dannatt’s memoir of his time in the British army manages somehow to be both fascinating and banal.

Fascinating because of the detail he provides to back-up his severe criticism of Ministry of Defence civil servants and politicians, Labour ones in particular but Gordon Brown above all, for failing to fund the army sufficiently for the jobs they demanded of it. Banal because, despite his long experience of counter-insurgency and peace-keeping operations starting with Northern Ireland in the 1970s, his repeated message through the book is one of ‘give the army more money, give the army more time’.

Leading form the Front by Richard Dannatt - book coverThe contrast with the US army and the way, for example, it has massively altered its counter-insurgency approach under General Petraeus is marked. Resources and time certainly feature in the lessons learnt by the Americans, but are very far from the whole picture. The picture Dannatt paints of the British army by contrast is, in this respect, unintentionally a deeply unflattering one because it gives the appearance of an army looking over the last 40 years and pointing the finger at others rather than asking questions of itself.

In fact, the British army has been rather smarter than Dannatt’s account gives out, but how it has learnt the lessons of its mistakes such as those in Northern Ireland or tries to meet the continuing challenge to ensure that soldiers do not go violently out of control in the stresses of counter-insurgency are not stories told in this book.

The one significant area of army error Dannatt does concede in the book’s closing stages is that the army’s doctrine of “Go first, go fast, go home” was a wrong one. But we are left wondering whether some of what he blames politicians for is really the result of the army giving poor advice to those politicians based on its faulty doctrine. If the army’s own doctrine wrongly emphasised getting out of conflicts very quickly, was it really just politicians who are to blame for having planned and resourced the army on the basis that it would get out of conflicts quickly?

Yet Dannatt in other respects show a shrewd mind, particularly in his understanding of how counter-insurgency operations are both political and military questions. As he writes of his time in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, “If I found politics and the military hard to separate over the years, perhaps some might understand that the crossover goes back a long way.”

The book is written in a plain style, with a sufficient smattering of military jargon to give a taste for how rampant acronyms are in the modern military but without having so many as to confuse the casual reader. The account is regularly punctuated by name-checks for those held particular commanding posts, as if out of a sense of duty Dannatt often feels a responsibility to credit them.

The names of soldiers who were killed often feature too, sometimes movingly and always as a reminder about the human reality behind discussions of army deployments, resources or campaign outcomes.

Talking of his time peace-keeping in the former Yugoslavia and the TV reports from the likes of Martin Bell, Sir Richard Dannatt observes how “the necessary though unspectacular detail of our mission was far less important to the editors back home than the prospect of some bloodshed. That always got people excited … If we, the military, are to succeed in these difficult missions, the media have got to be prepared to carry some ‘boring’ stories to record the progress that we are making”. In other words, he too feels that the media’s concentration on ‘the kinetic stuff’ paints a very misleading picture of what is actually happening in peace-keeping and counter-insurgency operations.

Despite these criticisms of the media, he also talks about how he deliberately used the British media to argue his corner for army resources, sometimes very successfully, such as over pay, and sometimes running into controversy for speaking out. This part of the book leads to the most moving sections, where he talks of the awful conditions many injured soldiers were left in and the work his wife and he have put in to raise charity funds to remedy this.

In all, the  book is – perhaps like Dannatt’s own career – solid and competent. It offers much in the way of detail about how he believes politicians got it wrong, but little in the way of insight into the way the army should be organised and operate.

You can buy Leading from the Front by Sir Richard Dannatt from Amazon.

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  • .
    I have this on my list of ‘books to read,’ though it is some way down. It is impossible for anyone outside the armed forces/MoD to fully understand what goes on and the interaction between the senior officers, civil servants and politicians – even after having read autobiogs such as this. However, they do provide a better understanding. I haven’t been impressed with General Sir Richard Dannatt’s contributions on the airwaves and in the press – but it’s difficult to criticise him as an individual, and others like him. Who knows what constraints he faced and what errors he made? All we do know is that by any measure, Afghanistan has been a tragedy – an ongoing tragedy. We haven’t learned the lessons from Northern Ireland. Whether he was was over-ruled on strategy is difficult to tell, regardless of what he says in his book. More money could simply mean more drone attacks, more robots, more death-by-remote-control. It’s horrific and disgusting!

    On a similar story in the news today, how convenient for the government that Hilary Clinton should speak out on defence cuts! She seemed to do similar favours for David Miliband when he was in office. This is where reading autobiogs provides some insight into political leaders in different counties scratching each others backs. US and UK have done it since the late fifties as a way of manipulating public opinion “Harold, if you could get your people to say this, it will help our position back home. We’ll return the favor when you need it.” [paraphrased]

  • Philinlancs 16th Oct '10 - 3:24am

    @George Kendall
    “The British military were briefing the press about how awful the Americans were. Then, our army pulled out of Basra, and left its citizenry to the tender mercies of Iranian backed paramilitaries. General Jonathan Shaw defends the British army saying, “it was a good play of a hand as we could have given the circumstances at the time.”

    The reason for the withdrawal from Basra was political (it even says this in the article you provide the link for on BBC). Jonathan Shaw who was the General in charge of Southern Iraq also says quite clearly that at the time of the withdrawal from Basra the American military were surging as their new strategy whilst British politicians were insisting on reducing force levels. How can this be the result of hubris on the part of the British Army from Staff level down to the poor bloody infantry? Speaking from the experience of having served in H.M. Armed Foces, once the British Army are on operations (killing things) you can just about go for a “dump” before requiring clearance from some political apparatchik.

    The only criticism I can see in this article about the Americans and a lack of will to protect the civilian population is General Jack Keane who was an American Generaland say’s, “Our strategy was to transition to the Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible. The major vulnerability of that strategy was nowhere in there was there a plan to protect the population. We made a conscious decision not to protect the population.” This statement was made pre-surge (more troops) and was as far as I am aware aimed at Iraq in genral and not Basra in particular.

    The problem with post invasion Iraq was that the Americans had not got a plan for the occupation (and by association in this mis-adventure, neither had British politicians). Both US/UK governments made it up as they went along. The French plan was the best, not to go there in the first place…It was a shit idea and all the fault of politicians. Afghanistan ditto…

    Please tell me of a link that I can find evidence that states the intentions of senior officers or troop commanders to apply techniques that were directly applicable to Ulster and it’s unique set of circumstances in Iraq? The only similarity here is Peace-keeping, a poisoned chalice for squaddies who have to do the job be it Ulster, Kosovo or Iraq…

    On Helmand Province, the last time I spoke to a good mate of mine who is a British Army interpreter (Pashtun) I understood that Helmand is and always has been a NATO project. Indeed the area is not only important to NATO and Karzai but also to the Taliban. The area has seen the heaviest fighting the British Army has faced since Korea so I wouldn’t call that an example of senior officers hubris either. Situations change rapidly in the field on an hourly basis, sometimes by the minute…One minute you have a field full of local farmers and the next minute it’s Terry Taliban busting caps at you often placing the civilians in between themslves and NATO forces. Restraint on the behalf of young squaddies is what allows Terry to bug out to fight another day.

    On the time-frame requests side – in situations such as the above it would be more expedient to just call in an air strike and bugger the civilians but that is obviously murder pure and simple and certainly not the way the British Army or NATO does it’s business intentionally. To fight a war of the kind the British Army finds itself fighting in Afghanistan takes time and has to take into account the changing tactics of the enemy. The latest threat is snipers that are being used to deadly effect and of course the IED threat. There is not a great deal that can be done about either of those threats overnight. Again I fail to see where the word hubris could be applied in this instance.

    Afghanis do not want NATO in their country and that could be said of any foreign invader stupid enough to go there.
    The again the last time I checked up on how we ended up in Afghanistan goes back to politicians both US/UK initiatives. Stupidly and against their usually good judgement the French have decided to get involved in this particular mis-adventure.

    Afghanistan looks militarily and politically more like Vietnam as the years roll by. The current political thinking is that we should make the Afghans capable of providing their own security by training and support so that we (NATO) can pack up and go home. In the Nixon era this policy was called Vietnamization and we all know what happened there. The same scenario looks to me all too probable for Afghanistan. Loss of political will mostly on the part of the senior NATO partner the US and the UK.

    If anyone is guilty of hubris in respect of Iraq/Afghanistan it will be our politicians in the Labour Party and of course the coaltion partners of the Lib Dems, the Conservatives, who fully supported both these mis-adventures.

    Military procurement is a political animal. British industrial history is littered with ample stories of the waste and incompetence of political interference in procurement, TSR2, Nimrod, Chinook, Hercules etc

    “Judging from results, the US army, much maligned in the early years of the Iraq insurgency, has risen a great deal in my respect. Sadly, the British Army has not.”

    American policy regarding troops and resources in post invasion Iraq and Afghanistan got off to poor starts requiring a “surge” in both cases. I can’t see why the US military should rise in your estimation for getting the extra troops US commanders asked for when the ground situation demanded it. British Generals did the same but were told no by Downing St. Why do you have a problem with the British Army.

  • @ George Kendall

    You’ve explained in your own words the reasoning behind my earlier comment: We haven’t learned the lessons from Northern Ireland.

    “I’ve read that the vast majority of Taliban engaged in conflict live a few miles from where they are fighting. If, as they are repulsed, many of the insurgents are killed, then the nearby relatives of those killed will bear a grudge, and winning hearts and minds will become much harder.”

    It’s not just the relatives of those killed who are affected in this way. Include the relatives of those detained for long periods. Include the farmers and families whose crops are destroyed by military action. Include the family members whose homes are raided by troops. Add their friends and neighbours.

    What you call “the enemy” is mostly the civilian population.

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