British Generals in Blair’s Wars – a guest post from Jonathan Bailey

This is a guest post from Jonathan Bailey, editor (with Richard Iron and Hew Strachan) of British Generals in Blair’s Wars

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As the Cold War was ending, the British Army ‘discovered’ the Operational level of war, and officers at all levels were encouraged to study, think creatively and discuss their profession in a way that had perhaps not been seen, or even encouraged, for many years. I was associated with those efforts in various posts for 9 years between 1989 and 2005. I became convinced that an Army which thought about its profession was better placed to succeed than one which did not. I remembered Richard Holmes quoting a senior French general of the late 19th Century, “Any officer who publishes anything is guilty of an act of mutiny”. Students on the Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC) smiled, knowing that today’s British Army was a very different institution.

From 2002 to 2005, when I left the Army, I was the Director General Development and Doctrine, responsible for generating much of the British Army’s doctrine and its lessons learned system. That said, I came to understand that my ability to do this was limited by the authority of the new Joint doctrine organization and the decision to conduct lessons learned from current campaigns, elsewhere. Nevertheless, I was in a good position to follow those operations and to debrief those who had commanded on them. This generation of commanders was precisely that which had first attended the HCSC, about a decade earlier, and it was fascinating to see how the structure of their understanding of their own experiences was coloured by that education.

On leaving the British Army, I retained an interest in the subject and proposed to Professor Hew Strachan that I might run a seminar series at All Souls College, Oxford, as part of his Changing Character of War Programme. The latter took a multi-disciplinary approach, encompassing International Relations, Ethics and Law. It seemed to me that it would be appropriate to match this with a study of the changing practice of war, as it was unfolding in two campaigns, through the eyes of those I knew well and who now bore command responsibilities for those operations. When the seminar series began, there was little expectation that these campaigns would last for a decade, or that the issues arising would be so profound and anguished.

I am heavily indebted to Hew for agreeing to support these seminars, all in keeping with his college’s mission to meld academia with public service. Hew’s credentials as the country’s leading authority on strategy and his enduring support to the MOD on a wide range of military matters made him the ideal person to exercise academic oversight over the seminars.

British Generals in Blairs WarsBrigadier Richard Iron and I had worked together for many years, and I know of nobody else whose knowledge and personality is so suited to the study of conflict in dangerous regions of the world, and who is so adept at identifying key factors and producing new and pragmatic doctrine. When he left the Army, he kindly agreed to join Hew and myself to turn the seminar papers into an edited book, fit for publication. In fact, Richard did all of the heavy-lifting, as well as writing a tremendous chapter on his own experiences in Iraq.

It was gratifying that so many reviews and other comment were positive, valuing this input of diverse primary source material. Some, however, seemed wide of the mark. One reviewer detected an underlying theme, and while chapters may be linked by subject, the contributions were written individually over 6 years with no author being permitted to review their piece with hindsight. Typically an officer, just home from his six- or twelve-month tour, would be pestered by me to speak, just when his thoughts were probably about getting away with his family on well-earned leave. Despite that, a number noted that the seminars had been very worthwhile personally, committing them to analyse what they had just experienced.

While the focus of this collection (and of the HCSC seminars) was on command in theatre, one reviewer noted the omission of material about senior command back in the UK. Happily a study of senior military command in the UK, in PJHQ and the MOD has been undertaken in a brilliant and original book, High Command, by my former colleague Christopher Elliott. His sympathetic yet penetrating study is one which I wish I had written.

A difficult issue at the time of publication was the MOD’s decision not to permit serving officers to contribute to it, even though the editors and publisher were ready to launch. This caused a major delay to publication and became an interesting topic for debate in its own right. Why did the MOD object to serving officers contributing? The right of the MOD to withhold permission for serving personnel to publish is well established, and it was quietly accepted, although it came as a cultural surprise. That said, one senior author, cut from the book, did urge ‘publish and be damned’. This was, after all, the generation educated to value independent thought and the value of professional military education.

The MOD’s decision seemed inconsistent: Security concerns were cited, but the contributors would be among the last people ever to compromise UK security; and that could not really have been the issue as the contributions to the book could be published immediately on the author’s retirement. One contribution had essentially been published some years earlier in a well-known defence journal, having been cleared by the MOD. Most of the material in the book had already been cleared incrementally by the MOD as serving officers prepared for their seminars. What seemed to have changed was the political direction, and it was noted that from about the time of publication officers found far greater restrictions imposed on their participation in Defence conferences.

One of the strengths of Britain’s Defence establishment is the plethora of think-tanks, institutes, and journals, based mainly in London. It became somewhat troubling that the contributions of expert practitioners should be so diminished in the public debate about Defence. Engaging the public in a sustained study of the military profession is an important element of military–civil relations in a democracy. There is a danger that a serious attempt to pursue professional study and education in the national interest can become caught up in an entirely different dynamic, that of immediate news management by the government of the day.

This has not always been the case, and there are many examples of broad-minded Secretaries of State who have taken a more indulgent and enlightened approach, in some cases because of their own genuine interest in military affairs. Happily, as Robin Day once observed, the reign of ministers is short lived.

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About the author: Jonathan Bailey’s last appointment in the British Army before he retired in 2005 was Director General Development and Doctrine. He served in Northern Ireland, commanded Assembly Place ROMEO in Rhodesia in 1979-80; was Operations Officer 4th Field Regiment RA during the Falklands War; and in 1999 was KFOR’s Chief Liaison Officer to the Yugoslav General Staff and to the Kosovo Liberation Army. He has written several books and articles on defence and strategic themes. Since 2005 he has worked in the defence industry, and led the seminar series on Campaigning and Generalship, at the University of Oxford.

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