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January 08, 2007

Military Discontents: the government needs to do better and the generals should shut up, argues Jeremy Black

Posted by Jeremy Black

British Generals have recently been voluble in their criticism of the government's neglect of the armed forces. Leading military historian Jeremy Black argues that the government needs to do better and that the generals should remain silent in public.

Much in the news of late, military discontents are threefold:
1. Pay and Conditions
2. Kit
3. Tasking

1. Pay and Conditions are possibly the most insistent. A sense that the military is being insufficiently remunerated is felt across the services and is matched by concern about housing and other conditions. Housing has proved a particularly sensitive issue. It is of importance both for morale and for operational reasons. For example, part of the reason for a continuing large British military presence in the former West Germany relates to the accommodation available there.

2. Kit is a subject that has been much discussed of late. There are issues of quality and quantity, and some concerns are longstanding, for instance over army radios and firearms. The report produced in 2000 by the National Audit Office on British operations in the Kosovo Crisis the previous year indeed indicated that the SA80 rifle, the main infantry weapon, was faulty, while Serbian forces were readily able to monitor British radio communications. Moreover, the report revealed major problems with the RAF. On cloudy days, the planes were unable to identify targets and were grounded, many bombs mounted on aircraft were unable to survive the shock of take-off, heat and vibration damage affected missiles, and Tornado jets were reportedly unable to drop precision-guided bombs effectively. Furthermore, a lack of air life capacity led to a reliance on Russian-built Antonovs, hired from private contractors, but whose use was dependent on Russian certification.

The 2003 campaign in Iraq also revealed significant problems. These focused on the provision of equipment when required, most conspicuously upgraded flak jackets. In part, this was a matter of the difficulties of a fast-moving campaign. However, there was also the more serious question of a contrast between cost-consciousness, with its emphasis on "just sufficient" provision, and the friction and uncertainty that lead to the more costly "just-in-case" scenario. The Defence Select Committee's report on operations in Iraq indicated the need for significant improvements.

The Afghanistan commitment from 2006 greatly focused concerns about equipment and helped make them news. In 2006, the Public Accounts Committee reported "worrying signs of strain", "serious" or "critical" weaknesses in readiness of 30 per cent of the armed forces, and the widespread cannibalisation of equipment to keep units up to strength.

3. Tasking has always had a politicised, if not political dimension, but this became very much the case in the 2000s, as concern about overstretch grew in the military. In part, this was related to "mission creep" in both Iraq and Afghanistan, in the former as British forces were involved in a gendarmerie role in an apparently intractable state of disorder, and in the latter as state-building was transformed into war with the Taliban. This provided the background to the prominent debate caused by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, when he spoke in October 2006 to a Daily Mail reporter. The disclosure of grave unease by a senior commander was followed by subsequent remarks from colleagues that also focused on aspects of overstretch.

The last aspect has attracted the most public concern, in large part because it can be related to an established narrative and analysis in which Iraq serves as a focus for a critique of the Blair government. That is not of course necessarily what senior military figures have in mind when they make public comments, but they should scarcely be surprised that comments are interpreted in the light of pre-conceptions.

Unfortunately this detracts attention from the serious issues also raised under headings one and two above. These relate centrally to the question of duty of care on the part of government and to the danger that if it is not seen to fulfil such a duty others will move forward to call for the filling of what is presented as a vacuum.

This raises the problem of politicisation, but also draws attention to two specific points. First, what is the military supposed to do to better its conditions? As one senior officer pointed out to me in December 2005, it could scarcely be in the interests of society for the military to become unionised. Secondly, is it the case that the Blair government has indeed been negligent in failing to understand that such issues would arise and could not be swept aside by its rhetoric of purpose. In short, a characteristic inability to appreciate the nuances of power seems in this case to have been particularly unfortunate. Generals such as Dannatt do not have to react as they have done, but it does not help if government puts them in a difficult position.

For the military historian, there are broader issues to consider, not least in comparison with the USA. There, in response to the Vietnam War, as well as to more specific subsequent issues, particularly failure in Beirut in 1982-4, there was an attempt to set restrictive parameters for military commitments. What became known as the Weinberger doctrine, after Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, pressed for commitments only in the event of predictable success and a clear exit strategy, and called for the use of overwhelming force. These ideas were taken forward by General Colin Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell sought to push forward military concerns in decision-making properly made by the President, the Commander-in-Chief, not least in the 1991 Gulf War and subsequently over Bosnia.

However, this focus on military concerns helped ensure that the protection of the military took precedence over diplomatic goals and, instead, became the strategic objective. The leading American military historian, Russell Weigley, argued in 1993 that the tradition of military acceptance of civilian supremacy had become precarious [Weigley, 'The American Military and the Principle of Civilian Control from McClellan to Powell', Journal of Military History, 57 (1993), pp. 27-58]. Addressing the issue anew six years later, Weigley suggested a need to stress

a deep-seated and long-standing military distrust of civilians' judgments on military issues,
and was critical of the precepts of the Weinberger doctrine [Weigley, 'The Soldier, the Statesman, and the Military Historian', Ibid., 63 (1999), pp. 807-22. quote p. 810].

To move from Weigley to recent critiques by serving British senior officers is a big leap, but, however understandable in light of the incompetence and selfish folly of the Blair government, their comments are inappropriate. They may be measured, but the practice of public criticism once started challenges not only civil-military relations but also military discipline. What if a warship commander or crew had decided in 1982 that they would be failing in their duty to permit their ship to continue operations off the Falklands in light of Argentinian air power? Improbable, not simply due to service professionalism, but also because the national interest involved could be readily grasped.

The situation is possibly less clear-cut for the future, not least due to the extent to which the envelopes and taskings in which the British military will be expected to operate may less obviously correspond to such a national interest. Furthermore, the extension to the military of the practice of democratisation more generally seen in British society combined with such technology as the mobile phone poses problems.

Douglas Porch has recently warned about [D. Porch, 'Writing History in the "End of History" Era Reflections on Historians and the GWOT [Global War on Terrorism]', Ibid., 70 (2006), pp. 1065-79]

the evolution of a stab-in-the-back as a guiding principle of civil-military relations and its leaching into domestic politics,
and has drawn attention to the specific problems created by counterinsurgency and imperial warfare.

The British military has a political history [see, H. Strachan, The Politics of the British Army (Oxford, 1997); and J. Black, A Military History of Britain (Westport, 2006)], and recent and current events will drive it forward, not least in moulding experience and framing assumptions. The hazards this poses, for both the military and civil society, deserve careful attention.

The desirable compromise is readily apparent: the military deserve good living conditions and kit, and high-spec equipment procurement decisions need to take note of these requirements. The military also has to accept that they should give advice in private and that they cannot pick the missions that might suit them, or even mould them to match how they'd like to fight. In brief, the government needs to do better and the generals should remain silent.

Unfortunately, the Blair government appears unable to meet the challenge satisfactorily, and has accentuated the problem by trying to do everything. Mr Blair himself has displayed a reckless enthusiasm more suited to Mr Toad than to the careful consideration of commitments. It is understandable that the military are vexed, but they need to keep themselves out of the papers. Political intervention might earn them more money, but it will also threaten professionalism and discipline.

Jeremy Black's books include Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004), War Since 1945 (Reaktion, 2004) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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