If one man embodies the impossible choices, the unforced errors and the relentless disappointments of Britain’s participation in the War on Terror, then it is General Richard Dannatt.
He was an accidental soldier. Dannatt was born in 1950 in Broomfield, Essex, and, after flunking a Cambridge entrance interview to study law, became a soldier on a whim in 1969, when a day’s pay in the army was still called, as it had been for centuries, “taking the Queen’s shilling”. He signed himself away between the morning and afternoon sessions of a cricket match in Colchester. The Dannatts are East Anglian stock, from a corner of England that has supplied the nation with generation after generation of Christians, soldiers and farmers. Richard Dannatt, like Oliver Cromwell, is all three.
Retired now for over a decade, he has traded his gun for a ploughshare. When we spoke over Zoom earlier this week he looked like the stock image of a gentleman farmer. Ruddy, stout, outdoor healthy; gilet fleece over what looked like a Charles Tyrwhitt shirt. He explained, in a serious, placeless baritone, why strawberries should only ever be eaten seasonally. His is the commanding voice of a man used to being obeyed. Behind him were regimental trinkets, and a cushion decorated with the pattern of his monarch’s crown. Dannatt had fought the Queen’s enemies at home (in Northern Ireland) and abroad (Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan) to end up here in Norfolk, back to the East Anglian land where his family has lived and farmed for hundreds of years, in a room that might have appeared in a Country Life spread.
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Dannatt, now a crossbench member of the House of Lords, is probably the most famous English general since Viscount Montgomery, though for less glorious reasons. In August 2006, as British forces were being overwhelmed in southern Iraq while simultaneously preparing for major operations in Helmand, Afghanistan, Dannatt was appointed chief of the general staff – the professional head of the British Army. Not since the days of Montgomery had a chief faced the prospect of conducting two major land wars at the same time. Montgomery could call on the accumulated capabilities of the British Empire to support him; Dannatt had to beg Gordon Brown’s miserly Treasury for enough funds to buy his soldiers helicopters. (Later, when it was far too late, Brown would write in his memoir that he did not question the evidence that led Britain to war “with sufficient rigour”.) Dannatt compared trying to get politicians to understand what these campaigns required to “constantly beating my head against a brick wall”.
Four months into his time as head of the army Dannatt gave a blistering interview to Sarah Sands of the Daily Mail. Dannatt raised issues that he had previously taken to New Labour politicians – fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan had left the Army “running hot”. It needed more money for vital equipment. This appeared on the front page of the Mail with the headline: “WE MUST QUIT IRAQ SAYS NEW HEAD OF THE ARMY”.
At the start of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the British military was boasting to the Americans that their experiences in Northern Ireland gave them world-leading expertise in counterinsurgency operations. As Dannatt gave his interview to the Mail, his army was losing control of Basra to the Shia militias that had emerged and spread in the aftermath of the invasion. The army was under huge pressure, and would soon be facing more in Helmand. “We were haemorrhaging soldiers,” Dannatt told me. “And our numbers were going down because corporals and sergeants and young officers with families said, ‘Look, we’ve had enough.’ So we were losing people, or we weren’t looking after our people properly.”
The Mail interview caused an uproar. Blair considered sacking Dannatt. Military thinkers as sophisticated as Charles Moore and Michael Portillo called for the general to be removed from his position. Simon Jenkins – a newspaper columnist who believes that the United Kingdom should not have an armed forces – called Dannatt “naive”. I asked Dannatt if he would do it all again, knowing that a storm would follow. “I don’t know. It was what we thought was right at the time.”
He quickly realised that any chance of becoming chief of the defence staff, the top job, had evaporated. “I knew I’d blown that straightaway. But did I feel morally justified in what I was doing? Did I think it was the right thing to do? And, critically, did the soldiers think it was the right thing to do? The answer was yes. So there was a personal cost. But… I think I probably would have done it the same way again.”
[See also: Explainer: The A-Z of the Iraq War]
In Dannatt’s 2016 memoir Leading from the Front, he writes about his first tour in Northern Ireland; four months in Belfast 1971. Nothing there was what it seemed. Places that looked like Coronation Street sets were battlefields. He took cover from sniper fire behind red post boxes. None of his Sandhurst training was relevant in this wretched end-of-Empire war. In his battalion of Green Howards five were killed, 20 seriously wounded and 75 injured. One night Dannatt, then a platoon commander, asked a general how to solve a pressing problem. “Well,” came the swaggering reply, “we’ve got broad shoulders Richard, just muddle through.” Dannatt repeated the story to me, and added, “I’ve always felt from that moment on that we should do better than muddling through.”
Yet that is exactly what Britain did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Muddled through. Basra and Helmand were lost. The Americans, who Blair aimed to impress at all times (Dannatt still talks of the importance of sitting “at the top table” with them, otherwise we will face the shame of being “down with the Belgians and the Luxembourgers”), became disillusioned. The proper funding that Dannatt wanted for the army never arrived, though two vanity aircraft carriers were built for the Royal Navy.
Dannatt decided to crack on; Britain kept fighting. This bullishness is one reason given by the Iraq Inquiry, otherwise known as the Chilcot report, for Britain’s failures in the run-up to, during and after the invasion. As the report observes: “A ‘can do’ attitude is laudably ingrained in the UK armed forces, a determination to get on with the job, however difficult the circumstances – but this can prevent ground truth from reaching senior ears.”
I read the passage from the report to Dannatt. “Well, if the chief of general staff talks bluntly to the prime minister, who’s not listening?” He looked unimpressed. “I couldn’t have put things more clearly. But if you don’t want to listen, and it’s not convenient to listen, you don’t hear.”
Would resigning in 2006 or 2007 have made a difference, or at least left Dannatt with a clearer conscience? Or perhaps in 2002 or 2003, in the build-up to the invasion, when what he called in his memoir the “thin” and “most compelling evidence” for launching the war came across his desk? In 2003, he said, he “wasn’t in such a senior position that resignation would have made any difference”, though he continues to regard the 45 minutes claim as “bunkum” (the government’s “dodgy dossier” estimated it would take this long for Iraqi troops to deploy chemical and biological weapons). As for resigning after the Mail incident, Dannatt admitted: “I did think about resigning. But my number two, who was the commander in chief said, ‘The trouble is Richard, if you resigned, then I’ve just got all those same problems the next morning.’”
I found it hard to argue, at least over Zoom, with a lord who has commanded thousands into battle. Dannatt did more than Tony Blair ever did for his soldiers. He secured a vital pay rise for them that is remembered fondly in the army today, after he found out that the troops were paid less than traffic wardens. (“Well, why go and get your bollocks shot off in Afghanistan when, actually, you could be a metre maid just putting tickets on Land Rovers?”)
Dannatt had an impossible job. He knew that the British did not have the resources to fight two major land wars. Yet when I asked Dannatt, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, whether we should have stayed out of these wars, he answered with a riddle: “No, and yes. Which is slightly different from yes and no; no and yes.”
I rapidly lost track of what he meant. On the 2006 decision to re-enter Afghanistan, when the army was being chased out of Basra, he said that Britain simply “agreed” with America and Nato’s request to begin a new offensive there.
Like a distant, disapproving father, the Americans had to be impressed. To admit that we were no longer “top table”, that Britain could no longer fight two wars at the same time, that we could no longer do more and more with less and less, that “muddling through” was not charming but deadly, and would in the long run destroy the British Army, was not something Dannatt was prepared to do. To admit that would be to admit too much, for it would reveal that what had taken centuries of blood and treasure to maintain no longer existed, and that, in truth, the British did have more in common with Belgium or the Netherlands than the United States.
It happened anyway. As Dannatt himself put it, the army, having expended and exhausted itself in the War on Terror, is today below the minimum “limits” it needs to function properly. “Currently, we can’t put a division into the field,” Dannatt said. “We would struggle to put more than a strong brigade into the field.”
He wrote in his memoir that “history will pass judgement on these foreign adventures in due course”. So I read him a historian’s judgement, from Robert Tombs’s The English and Their History (2015). The foreign adventures, according to Tombs, a Cambridge historian, were “the most gratuitous blunders since the Boer War”. Was that fair?
No, Dannatt said. What he, and the army, were asked to achieve was “improbable”. He said we might have done things differently, that we had less understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan than we might have done. Then, almost with pleasure, Dannatt remembered an anecdote. He was speaking to the commanding officer of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. The officer had gone into Basra in 2003, and an elderly sheikh said to him, “Welcome to my city. This is the third time I have welcomed British soldiers to my city. But if you stay too long, we’ll shoot at you.” Dannatt paused, then delivered the predictable punchline.
“We stayed too long. And they shot at us.”
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