Want to understand the war? Ask the generals

Barely a week goes by without a retired general — and sometimes a serving one — hitting the headlines. The trouble is that they do so more often because of who they are, rather than because of what they are saying. In most walks of life professional expertise qualifies its possessor to articulate an opinion, and indeed can create a moral obligation to do so. But in the case of war we deny the serving professionals that right.

Counter-insurgencies are 20 per cent military and 80 per cent political. To succeed in such wars generals need sophisticated political antennae. Both David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have them — they liaise with an administration in Washington that is unsure of its direction, co-ordinate the actions of allies with differing objectives, and accommodate the aspirations of the Governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. If either were apolitical in practice, he would do his job less well.

We need British generals like them who are more politically astute, not less so. So far, the Chilcot inquiry has told us what we already knew: in 2002-03 politicians made decisions that did not acknowledge the sort of war they were getting into. The ways and means of waging messy and protracted wars can become more important than the ends for which they were undertaken. Prudence demands that the soldier’s knowledge of those means, and an awareness of how unpredictable and volatile war can be, forms part of the decision to embark on it in the first place.

Even more worrying than the inadequacies in the making of the original strategy was the failure to correct them between 2004 and 2009. By 2006-07 British strategy was moving in three different directions. Whitehall was directing that force levels in Basra be driven down, while British troops in southern Iraq were still pursuing operational success and Britain’s principal ally was beginning a “surge”.

If we are to produce more effective strategy, we need a better way of managing relations between civilians and the military, one fit for today’s circumstances. It needs to rest on the recognition of three underlying conditions. The first is that the Army is not about to park its tanks outside Parliament. Britain is not Weimar Germany. We possess a mature democracy, with a robust respect for constitutional proprieties. A greater involvement of the military in the policy formation process isn’t going to turn Britain into a banana republic.

The second is that the expectations of the public should not be overlooked. They pay for war in treasure and (if their sons and daughters are killed) in blood. Over the past seven years the Armed Forces have confronted a paradox, waging wars for which public support has been at best uncertain, while enjoying almost unprecedented public approval. The public, in an age of rolling, instant news, expect and want to hear directly from serving officers about the details of their missions.

And this brings in the third condition: the need for the chiefs of staff to be able to speak to the public through official channels, just as any other professional body would. Regular appearances before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee might be a start; a written annual report might be another. At the moment back-briefings and press leaks, or public interviews that simply peddle the Government’s line, are not the way to make the management of defence more democratic or improve public understanding.

The Conservatives are committed to the formation of a National Security Council and several other Western countries are pursuing comparable solutions. Such institutional arrangements should bring the politicians and the professionals around the same table, so that both have a shared responsibility and commitment to the resulting strategy.

The Chief of the Defence Staff must be a full member of the National Security Council, not — as the Tories propose — a mere adviser. It is absurd and even dangerous to pretend that soldiers do not exercise profound political influence: we need both to recognise that truth and legitimise it.

Hew Strachan, professor of the History of War and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.