Soldier’s soldier: General Sir Richard Dannatt

Author: By Kim Sengupta

Yesterday, as he arrived back in the country after liberally lobbing verbal
hand grenades about lack of troops and helicopters during his valedictory
tour of Afghanistan, the recurring name in ministerial briefings was “Dannatt”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) press office, meanwhile, was frantically
sending out “clarifications” about the numerous statements from
the general.

The combustible nature of Sir Richard’s tenure as Chief of General Staff came
as something of a surprise. He arrived in the job with a reputation for
being a safe pair of hands and somewhat reserved ? a very different
personality from his predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, the man of the
hour in Kosovo, and someone with a very colourful public profile.

However, while General Jackson had built up a quite a fearsome reputation as a
soldier, he was careful, once in office, to vent his frustrations in private
rather than public. In his first week in the new role, in his first official
meeting with defence and diplomatic correspondents, General Dannatt was keen
to speak about poor pay and conditions being endured by soldiers, something
which was to become a recurring theme. That got a certain amount of desired
publicity without too much fuss. His next intervention in the media,
however, was to cause ructions, and set the pattern for the future. He is
said to have insisted that his first major newspaper interview should be
with the Daily Mail, a publication which does not engender much warmth in
the military. And, when it took place, his comments about the conduct of the
Iraq war, and, again, the neglect of the forces, could not be seen as
anything but an attack on the policy of Tony Blair’s government. Downing
Street, not surprisingly, was not amused.

Whether General Dannatt actually realised the effect his words would have is a
matter of conjecture. His friends say he was surprised by the publicity and
the resultant furore. The contentious passage was apparently buried away in
the middle of a long interview, but spotted by an enterprising member of the
news desk and put on the front page. Senior civil servants in the MoD,
however, insist that Sir Richard knew exactly what he was doing and had, in
fact, a member of his staff monitor the news once the story broke.

General Dannatt is not actually a novice in Whitehall. After distinguished
service with the Green Howards ? during which he won the Military Cross in
Northern Ireland at the age of just 22 ? he had been a military assistant in
the private offices of several defence ministers and held other office jobs
in the MoD. His bluffness, say associates, is at times a cover for a shrewd
strategist who knows how to conduct a long campaign in bureaucratic
battlefields.

The main focus of this campaign, it soon became clear, was the welfare of the
members of the armed forces. The general ventured into areas where other
senior officers had been careful about treading, discoursing on public
finance, stressing that the Government was spending 29 per cent on social
services while devoting just 5 per cent to defence, pointing out that a
soldier often earned less than a traffic warden. “Is £1,150 take-home
pay for a month’s fighting in Helmand province sufficient?” he asked.
The so-called military covenant, the understanding that the nation would
care for its armed forces in return for the sacrifices they make, was now “out
of kilter”.

The campaign was a sure-fire winner. Vast sections of the public may have been
against the Iraq war, confused and sceptical about being in Afghanistan, but
there was a deep pool of sympathy for the men who have been sent to fight in
the nation’s name.

The Government, on the other hand, was in a no-win situation. It could hardly
criticise what General Dannatt was saying. The mantra was “everything
that can be done will be done”; all “funding necessary will be
made available”. However, as it became clear to ministers that they
would get scant credit for putting in more money, and nothing they said
seemed to satisfy Sir Richard, the words began to be spoken through
increasingly gritted teeth. Their revenge, it is often said, was to stop Sir
Richard from succeeding the head of the armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir
Jock Stirrup. However, although this is a convenient argument, there are
doubts as to whether Dannatt would, in fact, have got the job, even if he
had been less troublesome.

In the Army there was gratitude that, especially among the junior ranks, here
was a chief who was on their side and had not followed the path of
predecessors who had grown distant as they hobnobbed with those in power.
The various informal websites used by forces personnel were full of praise.

However, over time, mutterings began within the military about Dannatt. One
result of the general’s continuing confrontation with the Government, it was
claimed, was that the Royal Navy got two aircraft carriers, the RAF got its
fast jets, while the Army got just 10 per cent of the procurement budget.

There was also the feeling that although Sir Richard undoubtedly had done a
great job in raising the nation’s perception of the forces, where, exactly,
it was asked, was the greater vision? What was the geopolitical overview on
Iraq and Afghanistan? How does one react to resurgent and combative Russian
power?

Then there was Sir Richard’s deep Christian beliefs and the regret that this
was shared by a dwindling number in modern Britain. “It is said that we
live in a post-Christian society,” he said. “I think that it is a
great shame. The broader Judaeo-Christian tradition has underpinned British
society. It underpins the British Army. British society has always been
embedded in Christian values. When I see the Islamist threat in this country
I hope it doesn’t make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual
vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian
values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our
society moves with the prevailing wind.”

Sir Richard insisted that his Christianity was not proselytising and, in fact,
he wanted to ensure that greater sensitivity should be shown towards
different religions. On Iraq, he said, “We are in a Muslim country and
Muslims’ views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. As a
foreigner, you can be welcomed by being invited in a country, but we weren’t
invited … The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the
door in.” But his repeated public affirmations of faith did cause
concern. “We have enough bloody jihadists already in the ‘war on
terror’ without having another one on our side,” said one senior
officer. “We have already had Bush and Blair praying together before
invading Iraq; the CGS going on in this way does not help when we are
fighting our wars in Muslim countries, promoting, although we would not put
it in so many words, secularism.”

After leaving the Army next month, General Dannatt will become chairman of
RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) and Constable of the Tower of London.
There are also rumours that he may join David Cameron’s government if the
Tories win the next election.

It has been noticed that as he approaches retirement Sir Richard is concerned
as to what his legacy will be. Indeed, he asks people that directly. The
consensus in defence circles is that the general has played a key role in
gaining the nation’s sympathy for the forces and that he has been steadfast
in standing up to politicians on behalf of his troops. The corollary is he
leaves behind a corrosive landscape in the relationship between the
Government and the military, and his public campaigns have raised important
questions to be answered on just how far commanders should stray into the
political sphere.

A life in brief

Born: Chelmsford, Essex, 23 December 1950

Family: Married in 1977; three sons and one daughter

Education: Felsted School and St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, then
Hatfield College, Durham University, where he was elected President of
Durham Union Society and received a BA(Hons) in Economic History

Career: Commissioned to the Green Howards Regiment in 1971, he later
served in the 1st Battalion in Northern Ireland (where he was awarded the
Military Cross), Cyprus and Germany. From 1994-6 he commanded 4th Armoured
Brigade in Germany and Bosnia, then British forces in Kosovo. From 2001-2 he
was Assistant Chief of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defence before
taking command of Nato’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. In March 2005 he was
appointed Commander-in-Chief, Land Command. He was made Chief of the General
Staff in August 2006, replacing General Sir Mike Jackson. Next month he
hands over to General Sir David Richards.

He says: “British society has always been embedded in Christian
values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our
society moves with the prevailing wind.”

They say: His outspoken comments imply a constitutional change, “namely
that the armed services in our democracy will interfere with the correct
role of the government.” ? David Blunkett, former Home Secretary

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