In defence of Dannatt

Richard Dannatt was right to speak out about the British presence in Iraq. We need more candour from our military leaders, not less
November 19, 2006

The most desirable quality in a soldier is loyalty. Skill at arms, leadership, intelligence, all are useless—even dangerous—if their possessor is not true to his salt. Still, only a handful of countries have managed to place their military leaders firmly under civilian direction, and even among that happy group the principle is sometimes quite recent. French generals, for instance, plotted to overthrow their government less than 50 years ago. In most nations, the process has scarcely begun. For a majority of the human race, political power still grows from the barrel of a gun.

Against this background, it is possible to feel concern when the head of the British army gives broad hints that he and his fellow generals strongly disagree with the policy of the elected government. General Sir Richard Dannatt is not a bluff military simpleton: he knew precisely what he was doing when he spoke to the Daily Mail in early October. But some suggested that Dannatt was acting unconstitutionally by saying what he thinks.

In fact, that isn't true at all. By his oath of attestation, Dannatt is loyal to the Queen, not to Tony Blair or the Labour party. As a practical matter, unwritten like so much of the British constitution, this means that his true superiors are the British public. He has done nothing wrong by giving a professional opinion to his real bosses.

Sadly, Dannatt's outspokenness is unlikely to repeated by his successors. Although he will not be openly disciplined for speaking up on this one occasion—because Tony Blair doesn't want to spend his last months in office conducting a messy purge—once the succession, presumably to Gordon Brown, has taken place, it will probably be business as usual for the civilian-military relationship.

That will be a bad thing, far more of a danger to the British constitution than any fantastical military rebellion. Openness in government and freedom of speech are even more fundamental than military subordination to civil power, and these vital principles have been under sustained attack for some time now. The elected representatives of the British people voted freely to send our troops into Iraq, after all. They did so principally because all professional advice against the invasion was ruthlessly suppressed. The principle of constitutional loyalty was used to crush all authoritative dissent. An intelligence officer, John Morrison, who dared to speak out in 2004 was summarily fired. It has been made plain to military people that they will suffer the same fate if they ever contradict the party line.

But the generals at the very top aren't really afraid of being dismissed, or even passed over. Their careers have already succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation. Most long-serving officers finish as colonels. The most successful rise to be brigadiers, and very few achieve general rank. Only an insanely ambitious man, having soared even higher to become head of the army, would be seriously swayed by the prospect of moving on to be overall co-ordinator of the armed forces. That final step involves no promotion, and arguably a considerable loss of real power. In any case, it can be offered to only one among each generation of service chiefs, leaving the other two free from fear or favour.

And yet they remain silent: not always obedient, particularly on matters of internal reform, but always silent. Typically this is because they believe that loyalty is indeed the cardinal military virtue. On those rare occasions when a general decides that his allegiance might be owed to someone or something other than the ministers above him, it will usually be to the army, seeking to protect or preserve it. Dannatt has given the impression that this is why he has chosen to step out of line.

The generals are wrong. Servicemen are employed to serve the nation, not specific politicians and institutions. We, the public, are their ultimate superiors, and they should be loyal to us. If we need their honest professional advice—and we often do—it's their duty to give it, even at risk of their lives, let alone their careers. And for our part, we should chastise anyone who seeks to punish or discredit them for doing so.