Thursday, February 22, 2007

War is too important to be left to the generals

Famously said by the French politician and former prime minister Georges Clemenceau, this is becoming an issue in the prosecution of the war in Iraq – and war it is – as evidence begins to emerge that much of the current British strategy is increasingly being dictated by the military, with insufficient political input.

One of the many clues to this lies in an article in last week's Sunday Telegraph, which pointed out that the current Labour government front bench are "total strangers to front line".

The piece was by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who pointed out that every prime minister from 1940 to 1963 had served as an infantry officer in the Great War. Even Winston Churchill, after he had resigned from the government in 1915, commanded a battalion in the trenches for several months. Attlee and Macmillan were badly wounded, one at Gallipoli, the other on the Western Front. Eden won an MC for rescuing his sergeant under fire.

By contrast, in the present cabinet, there is not a single member of the Government who has ever worn uniform, let alone heard the proverbial shot fired in anger. Tony Blair did not even serve in the cadet force at Fettes and, with the exception of "the preposterous Major Eric Joyce", there is no Labour MP with any military experience.

Wheatcroft, however, sees this in terms of "military virgins" who wage war now that they are too old to serve. "Never has there been such a gulf between the forces and politicians," he writes, "few of whom know any soldiers or sailors even socially. Never has there been such a breakdown of true responsibility."

What this conveys is an impression that the political novices are imposing on the military, dedicated professionals who are suffering the ministrations of the amateurs, and suffering as a result.

However, there are different ways of looking at this. In his book, "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime", published in 2002, just before the second Gulf War, Eliot A. Cohen – described as the (American) nation's leading scholar of military-civilian relations – argued for more not less civilian interference. In the history of warfare, all the great civilian war statesmen interfered in things military.

This, Cohen says, was unavoidable:

The goals of the military - the definitions of victory - are ultimately political questions; as Churchill wrote in 1923, "The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one." Not even military professionals have real practice employing military tactics: They spend most of their careers not fighting. "It is quite true that conventional war can hardly be made by complete amateurs," Cohen concludes, "yet neither can it be handed over to the professionals."
Cohen then cites examples of great civilian statesmanship: Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War; Georges Clemenceau in World War I; Winston Churchill in World War II; and David Ben Gurion in Israel's war for independence, demonstrating the need for a hands-on approach to military affairs.

He thus challenges the long-held view that military strategy should be a sphere wholly apart from civilian leadership, disagreeing that military strategy is a matter of technical expertise, which must inevitably be degraded by civilian, and does not accept that the political role is merely to set the goal and leave the military to decide how to get there.

Another clue emerges from a remarkable interview for Australian television of Dr Rosemary Hollis from Chatham House. She claims that the current British strategy is "one driven to a large extent by the advice of concerned military leaders in Iraq who have warned that British troops may be doing more harm than good in the country."

Other sources, of a diverse nature seem to confirm this, pointing out that, far from taking a hand-on approach to the day-to-day management of the war, the Tony Blair and his ministers, handicapped by their lack of military experience, are leaving too much to the generals. They are too willing to defer to their judgement, even when the outcome has profound political implications.

For sure, as even today another group of experts pointed out, the armed forces are undergoing a cash crisis, but this is largely long-term and related to the strategic objectives of the forces.

As far as the prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned, the money is not actually drawn down from the defence budget, but found from contingency reserves, funded directly from the central budget.

One thing which has puzzled us is the continual refrain that that the armed forces are short of key items of equipment – ranging from armoured vehicles to more helicopters – all of any of which can be obtained through what are known as the "Urgent Operational Requirement" (UOR) process. Yet, we are constantly assured by ministers – who could so easily be contradicted on this, if they were not telling the truth – that all UORs, which have been approved by the chain of command, have been sanction by ministers.

Ministers themselves do not have the knowledge to generate orders for equipment, and neither does the system work that way. The armed forces have to trigger the process by asking for what the need. And, from this we must conclude, some of the reason why specific equipment is missing from the field is simply because it has not been requested.

That actually seems to have been the case with issue of armoured vehicles to supplement the "Snatch" Land Rovers, with the reasons why they were adequate coming, in the first instance, not from ministers but from the higher echelons of the military, who have been opposed to the idea of taking on new equipment.

We have explored what might be some of the reasons for this in an earlier post and sufficient emerges from that, and other posts (such as here and here), to confirm that the military has a far greater role in the running of its own affairs – and the current war strategy - than is popularly imagined.

Thus, while we see a growing legend, as expressed in one blog, that the, "Soldiers have done a sterling job under impossible political conditions…" the top brass, as well as the politicians, seem to have some of the responsibility for the current situations.

That is not in any way to exculpate the present government – ministers bear the ultimate responsibility for any failures (in theory at least). But, unfashionable though such a view might be, this post simply serves to offer a corrective suggestion. Simply, if we are going to be locked into that oft quoted paradigm of "lions led by donkeys", it is as well to remember that, when that phrasing emerged, many of the "donkeys" were in uniform. And that might apply with some force in this current situation.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.