NS Profile - The doubting generals

Some of the most senior military leaders echo the questions engraved on the banners of the anti-war

It has always been one of my ambitions to be called a traitor by the Sun, and one day at the height of the "war on terror" last November, I finally made it. I felt a bit of a fraud, naturally. In a sad reflection of declining standards under new Labour, you no longer need actually commit treason to qualify. My own offence, according to the paper, was to question whether any essentially military campaign could ever defeat terrorism. The Sun got awfully worked up about this. What it may not have realised was that, on this subject, I was echoing almost exactly the publicly expressed views of no less a figure than Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of Defence Staff.

It seems unlikely that Admiral Boyce will ever be called a traitor, even by the Sun. But his comments were part of a trend: the increasing desire by military commanders, in private and in public, to stem the excesses of political and journalistic gung-ho. The caricature of macho generals and wimpish civilian leaders may still apply in certain Latin American republics. But in the developed world, when it comes to military operations, the top brass are often the most cautious people on parade.

This kind of tension is not new. At the height of the Second World War, an army officer called Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke confided to his diary: "Churchill knows no details, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense . . . the wonderful thing is that three-quarters of the population believe that he is one of the great strategists of history, and the other quarter have no conception what a public menace he is." Alanbrooke happened to be Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Churchill's closest military adviser, at the time.

Now Iraq has arrived as the topic of politico-military debate. And on Iraq, it can be no coincidence that the member of the US administration least convinced about the merits of war, Colin Powell, is also the one with the most experience of it. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1990s, General Powell was a notably un-hawklike Gulf war military commander, and many of his late-career battles in that job consisted of attempts to hose down politicians who were, as he put it, "over-optimistic about the possibilities of military intervention".

General Powell is sometimes dismissed as a man unduly scarred by the formative military experience of a Vietnam combat command. But in Britain, too, an energetic vanguard of ex-military commanders has led the charge. Public questioners of a war on Iraq include General Sir Peter de la Billiere, Britain's Gulf war commander; Major General Patrick Cordingley, commander of the main British armoured brigade in the same war; and General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of UN forces in Bosnia and, like de la Billiere, a retired commanding officer of the SAS. Only last month in the House of Lords, Lord Craig, the former head of the RAF, questioned whether any replacement for Saddam Hussein would necessarily be any less of a threat than what there is now. In America, General Anthony Zinni, a former head of US Central Command - which will be running most of any fighting in the Middle East - has expressed his doubts, along with a clutch of other retired officers, in Congress.

The views of the leader-page generals are not a totally infallible guide to current thinking in the armed forces. "They get religion when they've got time on their hands," says one cynic on the active-service list. But over Iraq, the anti-war lobby would be fascinated to learn that many of the questions engraved on the demonstrators' banners are also on the lips of some of Britain's most senior serving military leaders.

Inside the forces, the issue is not whether war is right, but whether it is necessary. "Whatever happened to deterrence?" asks one serving two-star general. "Saddam was deterred [from using weapons of mass destruction] in the Gulf war by the threat of retaliation. Why shouldn't that work again?" The definition of threat is "not just possession of offensive military capability but the intention to use it", says another. "The evidence for the capability is quite weak and the evidence for intention is almost nil."

The reason for all this caution is obvious enough. Unlike the politicians who will give the orders, still less the journalists who shriek encouragement ("He's got 'em - let's get 'im"), the military will actually have to do the fighting, and possibly the dying. Only one Labour MP has ever served in the armed forces. The worry is that a polity and public almost wholly bereft of military experience, raised on a diet of largely casualty-free operations and easy victories in the Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan, can become too eager to begin wars, too ignorant of where they might lead. "We have to try to make people understand that even in the era of the precision-guided bomb, fighting can turn into a pretty squalid and physical business," says one infantry battalion commander.

British commanders do not believe that a war with Iraq will be hard. "Iraq's army collapsed in a few days in 1991," says one. "It was much stronger then than it is now, and we and the US were weaker. How many Iraqis actually want to fight for Saddam?" Even the prospect of biological or chemical attack is not quite as frightening as it sounds. "We have the protective gear we need," says the same officer. "It'll be a psychological thing as much as anything else - the novelty of fighting in it." Street-fighting in Baghdad - never a British speciality - is the only thing that really sends shivers up every military spine.

There is some concern, too, about the quality of British equipment. A recent National Audit Office report on a big desert exercise, Saif Sareea II, found problems with tanks, radios, rifles and uniforms, none of which coped at all well with sneaky, unpredictable features of the desert environment such as heat and sand. There is deep concern about the atrocious state of the military medical services. But other kit crises are regarded in the forces as a little bit "got up" by the media. If British tanks are to be deployed to Iraq, there's a relatively simple technical "fix" that can address their problems - though in what is perhaps an interesting sign of the direction a British contribution might take, it doesn't seem to have been done yet. And ultimately, Britain will be playing little brother to the Americans. Their equipment may not be much better, but there is more of it.

The question that really worries the senior ranks is the politics. There is deep concern about being sent to war without clear public support - being "caught in the middle of a national argument", as one figure puts it. Against that, however, there is an expectation that once the troops are in action, the British public will come round. There is worry, too, about what happens afterwards.

Generations of colonial wars and, especially, Northern Ireland, have made the British army politically rather sophisticated. Like Colin Powell, it is acutely aware of the limits of military force. "We slightly disagree with the American tendency to think that military action is an end in itself. It's actually more like a beginning," says someone who served in Afghanistan this year. The same man is concerned not that the campaign against Iraq will be tough, but that it will be all too easy. "The danger is the US will start to get a taste for this sort of thing," he says. "Where's next? Iran? Syria?"

But don't get the idea that the military will be joining New Statesman readers on the next Stop the War march. They are not opposed to a war, only ambivalent. They wouldn't be in their jobs if they didn't believe in the value of force. Quite a few soldiers also rather want to use the skills they have spent so much time practising, to fulfil themselves professionally.

If he thinks about it at all, the average soldier may well be pretty sceptical about the wave of genuine synthetic anger now being whipped up by Britain's leaders about the dastardly, if rather old, threat of Saddam Hussein. He may be less than convinced, perhaps even cynically amused, by Tony Blair's commander-in-chief persona (though most who have actually met the Prime Minister speak rather highly).

But the average soldier does not fight for Tony Blair, or Britain, or to make the world a safer place. He fights for his unit, his mates and for the principle of not letting himself down in his job. The military leadership may advise, may influence. But in the end, the armed forces believe in doing what they're told, and they will do it this time, too.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic correspondent of Radio 4's Today programme