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Bernard Jenkin MP: The politicians and the military must understand each other better to avoid making the mistakes of the past decade

JENKIN-BERNARD Bernard Jenkin is MP for Harwich and North Essex and was a member of the Defence Committee in the last Parliament. He is now the elected Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee.

The imminent departure of Sir Jock Stirrup fundamentally alters nothing.  (Indeed, he was always expected to go soon after the election.)   The conclusions drawn from The Times’ timely survey of the history of recent military deployments must be a key driver of the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review.  There has indeed been institutional denial in the Armed Forces and at the heart of Whitehall.  There are lessons to learn. 

Sadly, the Chilcot inquiry is likely to be too preoccupied with the political chaff surrounding the decision to go to war, rather than with the way that ministers and military chiefs interacted, both before and during the conflict.  Having watched events in Iraq and Afghanistan unfold since 2001, first as Shadow Defence Secretary, and then later as a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, it is clear that the relationship between the MoD and the rest of Whitehall is dysfunctional.

When confronted with the consequences of military failure, each gives a stock response.  The politician says, “We acted on military advice”, as though the Prime Minister could just consult a defence chief like a doctor.  In turn, the military chief says “I am just a servant of the Crown, answerable to ministers.  I can only and advise and act as I am instructed.”  The lid was blown off when General Sir Richard Dannatt took over as Chief of the General Staff and promptly warned, “We must not break the British Army over this [Iraq].” 

Politicians want the military to provide a solution to otherwise intractable problems and the British Armed Forces have more of a can-do attitude than is sometimes good for them.  It can be too easy to turn to these extraordinarily capable people for answers to intractable problems and it is too hard for them to say, “Prime Minister, you are asking the wrong questions”.  American service personnel at all ranks, including the Chiefs, seem much more naturally integrated into political decision making in Washington.  In London, defence chiefs talk of how we have “lost the art of strategy”, but they are not educated or institutionally enabled by the MoD to confront ministers with contrary geo-political, grand strategic advice and training and operational experience does not alone equip them with the skills to ‘tell truth-to-power’.

There have been plenty of exceptions.  First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher effectively wrote a whole grand strategic concept for the UK around the rebuilding of the Royal Navy in the run up to World War One.  Montgomery, with Churchill’s support (both when he was Leader of the Opposition and subsequently when he was re-elected Prime Minister) effectively wrote the UK’s strategic concept for the whole of the Cold War.  By pooling strategy, the Cold War itself consigned the military to a sustained and exceptional period of passive deterrence, as part of an ideological conflict between the West and Russia, but this divide was also reflected in the domestic political divide between Left and Right.  Strategic thinking that challenged the status quo was not encouraged and, to survive, the Armed Forces had to remain visibly aloof from politics during this period.

Today’s global politics, so much more akin the 19th Century than the last one, is a dynamic, complex, networked, potentially factional strategic environment, in which all the best minds need to be engaged in pursuit of the national interest.  Politicians and defence chiefs can no longer enjoy the luxury of the Cold War military-political demarcation.  Each needs a deeper understanding of the others’ realm.

Institutional optimism in the Armed Forces is also an ingrained habit, reinforced by military discipline and political expediency.  MPs visiting operational theatres get detailed military briefings.  There is huge care taken in their preparation.  The MoD wants such briefings to be consistent with ministers’ public statements.  It takes an exceptional officer to tell the whole truth, while the MoD “minder” sits in the tent, taking notes of everything that is said – reporting back like a Soviet era Commissar.  The briefs are informative, but they must be seen in their proper context.

First, a Brigade-level briefing in Helmand is merely that: tactical, not strategic.  It is about what they have been tasked to do and how they will achieve it.  That is a world away from how Nato will “win” in Afghanistan.  

Secondly, soldiers are trained to be positive in the most adverse and impossible circumstances.  Only in one case did I ever hear a Brigadier admit, “We cannot solve this problem: we are just holding our own here, until something more positive starts to happen in Kabul.”  A retired Admiral recalled to me how a senior Army officer was confident in the early 1970s that they would have Northern Ireland wrapped up “in six months”.  The problem is that unless properly constituted the command chain feeds itself up and down with institutional optimism and career ambition.  It is the politicians who need to add the institutional caution, remembering that military successes from Waterloo to Sierra Leone owe as much to serendipity as to good judgement.

There are simple solutions to help guard against all this.  Senior officer and civil service education should discuss more openly about how to deal with military-political interface.  Officers should know when it their duty to speak out of turn - and to be fair, many do.  And the institution should enable them to say and to do the right thing and protect them accordingly.  On the morning after the Argentines took the Falklands, Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward told Margaret Thatcher, to her face, that if the UK failed to retake the Falklands, the country’s international reputation would suffer irreparable damage (and he had already started to requisition the necessary civilian shipping for the task force). 

And politicians need to understand the military mind better.  David Cameron could start by taking himself and a few of his senior colleagues for a weekend of military immersion to the National Defence Academy at Shrivenham – a small commitment which might help him avoid making as many mistakes as his predecessors.  It would also add substance to his determination to put the Armed Forces “front and centre of our national life”.


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