Generals Against the War?
The head of the British Army giving the elected government its marching orders over Iraq is nothing to cheer about.
There are no heroes in the battle over the British Army chief’s call for his troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. Not the general, not the government, not the opposition parties – and not the anti-war movement, either.
It all started with an extraordinary interview with the Daily Mail, where General Sir Richard Dannatt called for UK forces to get out of Iraq ‘sometime soon, because our presence exacerbates the security problems’. He added that, whilst ‘the differences we are experiencing around the world’ were not entirely caused by the Iraq war, ‘undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them’.
In the furore that has followed, both General Dannatt and Downing Street have made pathetic attempts to argue that, really and truly, they agree about everything. Tony Blair suggested that the general was only saying ‘the same as we all are’ – ie, we should leave when the job is done – and that he had, inevitably, been quoted ‘out of context’.
These denials will not have convinced anybody who read what the general said. General Dannatt’s public criticism of New Labour’s Iraq policy was an almost unprecedented attack by the serving head of her majesty’s armed forces on the elected prime minister of her majesty’s government. In another time and place, the British would normally associate such military interventions in democratic politics with coup-ridden ‘banana republics’.
Nearer home, the only sort-of precedent I could think of was the Curragh Mutiny (more diplomatically known as the Curragh Incident) of 1912, when British army officers stationed at the Curragh near Dublin (then part of the UK) made it clear that they would resign rather than impose the Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill against the wishes of Ulster Unionists. But the comparison is not all that close. After all, those aristocratic officers of the Crown were rebelling against what they saw as a mortal threat to the heart of the British state and the Empire. Dannatt by contrast took the major step of breaking ranks over a relatively minor war where the death toll of British troops – 119 to date in more than four-and-a-half years – is small by any historical standards.
The general has been widely praised as ‘brave’ for taking this stand. Why it should be considered heroic for an army commander to say he does not support an engagement, whilst continuing to command the poor bloody infantry who have to fight in it, is less clear. Unlike the Curragh officers, Dannatt has not even shown sufficient courage of his convictions to resign. His complaints about the intervention in Iraq appear as purposeless and all-over-the-place as the Iraq adventure itself.
What this episode reveals above all is the state of disarray throughout the ranks of the British establishment. Disaffection, division and a lack of loyalty now seem to be afflicting the upper ranks of the military as well as parliament or the cabinet.
The New Labour government has certainly, as others have pointed out, exploited and alienated the armed forces – cutting troop numbers and skimping on equipment whilst sending them on an ever-increasing number of missions around the world. But the army has always griped about being mistreated by governments. The big difference is that the sort of complaints which might once have remained inside the mess are now being made public and politicised, through everything from squaddies’ Internet blogs and discussion boards to the top general inviting the Mail for a chat.
These outbursts confirm the lack of any unifying spirit or sense of purpose to hold the military and political elite together today. In short, there is no modern equivalent of what the Empire meant to those officers at the Curragh. The disastrous Iraq intervention has become a graphic illustration of the problem. The absence of a clearly defined political cause to fight for in Iraq (Weapons of mass destruction? Terrorism? Human rights?) has left the military uncertain and pretty demoralised.
A few months ago, I read an interview in the Manchester Evening News with a ‘boy soldier’ just back from Iraq. He talked in unselfconscious terms about the ‘hell’ of having to go on patrol in a foreign country when nobody wanted you to be there, and you did not know what you were meant to be doing. General Dannatt sounds rather like that teenager, caught in a squalid war for which he can see no higher purpose. Dannatt has subsequently said that his job is to speak up about ‘what is right for the army’, as if the military were just another little lobby group with no real connection to a greater state.
The government has undoubtedly been rocked by the general’s criticisms. Yet here, as so often before, New Labour has helped to make a rod for its own back. As its own standing has declined, the government has leant on military leaders to give some authority to its policies. Indeed, this tendency predates Blair’s election. John Major’s discredited Tory government was also keen to be seen with generals, in the hope that some of their gravitas might rub off on the unpopular politicians.
New Labour has continued this attempt to shelter behind the men in uniform, from the 1999 Kosovo war to the foot-and-mouth crisis. And both before and since the Iraq intervention of 2003, ministers have been keen to field senior military and intelligence figures in a quasi-political role to shore up their policy. General Dannatt’s predecessor as head of the armed forces, General Mike Jackson, was often outspoken in support of Blair’s Gulf adventure. In encouraging this, New Labour paved the way for its current embarrassment. After all, once it becomes seen as legitimate for one army commander to break the traditional code of silence and support the government, it is predictable that another one should feel able to speak out against it.
Now that General Dannatt has come out, by calling for the army to ‘get ourselves out sometime soon’, he has been widely hailed as a hero. Liberal democrat leader Menzies Campbell spoke for many when he declared that the government has an ‘overwhelming obligation’ to follow what Dannatt says. Really?
We at spiked have been outspoken critics of the Iraq intervention since long before it began. And we continue to draw attention to the disastrous consequences of the collapse of that nation (see Iraq: the world’s first Suicide State, Brendan O’Neill). But we do not want to live in a British society where soldiers can make policy, or where democratically elected governments feel an ‘overwhelming obligation’ to follow a general’s orders. Give me an elected government of warmongers led by Blair, or George W Bush or David Cameron any day. At least we can try to get rid of them. However bad politicians might be, I do not want to see them given their marching orders by an unaccountable military commander via the Daily Mail.
In the past, in a developed democracy such as the UK or USA, a general who overstepped the mark in this way could expect to be sacked on the spot. Instead the Blair government rushed to claim that it agrees with him. That was a far more damning indictment of New Labour’s paralysis and collapse of authority than anything the general said.
Opposition spokesmen, too, ran panting to claim the general as one of their own, insisting that they had always said the same thing. Some of us might be hard pushed to recall exactly when it was that the Conservative party demanded British troops be withdrawn from Iraq. And it would be instructive to see how even Campbell’s ‘anti-war’ Liberal Democrats reacted to a military commander publicly criticising their policies. I am not sure which is worse – the naked political opportunism of all this, or the apparently craven soldier-worship that seems to lie behind it.
To top it all, the extra-parliamentary anti-war movement has also latched onto the tail of Dannatt’s trench coat. The Stop the War Coalition quickly put his remarks in the Mail on top of its national petition, calling on the government to give up ‘a war which is opposed not only by the majority of the British public but by their own army chief’. So now it appears to be the ‘Generals Against the War’ movement, with the activists marching in line behind military chiefs. Of course, the left will have to ignore some small differences with General Dannatt – such as the fact that he fully supports the war in Afghanistan, and sees the army’s role in both conflicts as ‘fighting the foreign dimension of the [Islamist] challenge to our accepted way of life’. How much more anti-war can you get than that?
Such is the confused and degraded state of British politics that it seems everybody now hankers after a man in uniform who can give them a frisson of officer-class clout and authority.
What an attractive list of characters we have witnessed playing out this farce. Generals who gossip to the press like cheap celebrities; a conservative newspaper that seems keen to bring about a constitutional crisis; a government that cowers before criticism from a soldier whom it is supposed to command; opposition politicians and anti-war activists who swoon like military groupies.
Whatever happens in Iraq, it is hard to see a winner of this bunfight in Britain. One way or another, they have all lost it.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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