The soldiers preferred Margaret

Can Tony Blair be an effective war leader? Only if he accepts that armies can't worry about politica

I once heard a brigadier gently reprove a subaltern's disobliging remark about Margaret Thatcher: "One must never forget that Mrs Thatcher is a very good commanding officer." Army officers thoroughly disliked the then prime minister's assault on collective loyalties - those were the days when the organised working-class and the traditional officer class were both suffering accelerated disintegration - but they admired her moral courage as a leader.

Servicemen seem to view Tony Blair differently. Blair describes himself as part of "a new generation of leaders in the United States and in Europe who were born after the second world war, hail from the progressive side of politics, but are prepared to be as firm as any of our predecessors, right or left, in seeing this thing through". Yet, while claiming to measure up in war leadership terms to Churchill and Thatcher, Blair appears to be disproportionately concerned with the risk of casualties.

His approach to the war, as is true of Clinton, has been one of hi-tech, low-bodybag. He has claimed to feel "humble" before those who will fight; and his demeanour in addressing the issue of potential casualties has been apologetic throughout. One of his colleagues said openly that he would not be able to look his constituents in the eye if any of their sons were killed.

This attitude, despite the shifts in policy, with hints of intervention on the ground, cannot conceal a viscerally anti-militarist Labour Party.

General Philippe Morillon, who had been the French commander in Bosnia, emphasised that the American theory of "zero deaths" was the best way to end up totally ineffective. "Who are these soldiers," he demanded, "who are ready to kill but not ready to die?"

The British army is still fortunate to have officers and soldiers whose thinking on the subject is pretty straightforward. But can we be sure that this will still be the case with all the pressures on the armed forces to be an equal-opportunities, health-and-safety-at-work, politically correct employer?

Soldiers, whether peace-keeping or engaged in conventional war-fighting, are liable to encounter horrors for which no civilian profession is prepared. Potential recruits and their training must measure up to the nature of the task. Thus, the "beasting" in old-fashioned basic training, whatever its unenlightened origins, is part of a very necessary toughening process.

In today's politically correct new Labour climate, though, "beasting" and the concomitant weeding-out of oversensitive flowers are frowned on as a form of institutionalised discrimination. Yet if the army did decide to change its character and training system, the new soldier would probably go to pieces in the first chaotic and horrific moments of a firefight.

The same is true of servicewomen, who now play a role in almost every area of military life. The argument in favour of their unrestricted combat deployment was based on the notion that conventional war had become increasingly irrelevant. Peace-keeping, the argument continued, required good communication skills to keep warring sides apart, and women were better than men in taking the heat out of a situation.

Yet peace-keeping, as one general recently said, "means common sense and self-discipline . . . It does not mean that the average soldier should have a degree in interpersonal communications. Even if it did, how on earth would the army be able to attract those sort of people? It would be like expecting vegetarians to apply for training in the meat trade."

We may want to think that war has no part in the modern world but, as Disraeli observed, we tend to confuse civilisation with comfort. We ignore at our peril that war is a terrifyingly atavistic activity - as reports from Kosovo of massacre, rape and the torching of villages confirm daily.

One of the most astonishing aspects of the Kosovo crisis is Blair's triumph in the polls, with a rating much higher than Margaret Thatcher's after the Falklands war. What does that say about leadership today - surely "war by focus group" must be the opposite of true leadership?

I am sure that Blair takes little pleasure from this success born of disaster. One hopes that at least it will make him see the urgent need to educate himself to the hard choices in international and military affairs.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party has at last started to realise that tyrants do not respond to reason. They often do not even act in their own self-interest. They respond only to superior military strength. To defend humanitarian values in the "new world disorder" you need rapidly deployable, war-fighting armed forces, not an international gendarmerie.

Well-meaning politicians must recognise the paradox. If they want troops capable of defending innocent civilians, then they must not be squeamish about recruiting and training soldiers to kill and, if necessary, to die. Whatever his poll rating, Blair has some way to go before he, too, will be considered a "good commanding officer" by those responding to his orders.

Antony Beevor's "Stalingrad" will be published in paperback by Penguin on 6 May