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Reality in a Dangerous World.

by on 28 November 2016

Boots on the Ground

talk by General, The Lord Dannatt

at Duke Street, Richmond, 16th November

Review by Thomas Forsythe

We are privileged in Richmond, in Britain, and in the free world to be able to enjoy the wide sweep of the arts. That enjoyment is important in giving us an opportunity to contemplate the full meaning of the world and life in this world.  However, we are only able to have the luxury of such contemplation in a world that is civilised, safe and secure.  We would not be able to enjoy that civilised world and without its protectors, the military.

It was in this context that Arts Richmond, the umbrella organisation for the encouragement and support of the arts in Richmond-upon-Thames, invited Lord Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009 to talk about his latest book, Boots on the Ground.


Lord Dannatt in emphatic reply

Lord Dannatt epitomises that crucial element of the safety of society of which we should all be proud, whom we often laud, but seldom listen to: the soldier. Lord Dannatt knows the reality of being a soldier.   When aged 22, he was awarded the Military Cross as platoon commander in Belfast, and has personally seen action in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.  He knows, to use his own words, “the sights, sounds and smells of the battlefield”. Lord Dannatt knows the reality of being a parent of a soldier.   His own son has had long periods of active service in the Middle East.  Lord Dannatt knows the reality of the lives of the soldiers who have been under his command.

In his 2010 autobiographical book, Leading from the Front, written when he was a defence advisor to David Cameron, he was controversial in his indictment of New Labour, and particularly of Gordon Brown, in its failure to fund and equip the armed forces for the war in the Middle East, and in the over-stretching of the military by simultaneous operation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Boots on the Ground he develops a thesis that rather than military history following political history, military expediency is the driver of history.  The book specifically considers the role of the military since the end of World War Two.  He considered Palestine and India in the 1940’s, and Malaysia and Korea in 1950’s, with reference to the political impact versus the funding expended on defence, from 46.37% of GDP in 1943 to 11% during the Korean War. Following Duncan Sandys’ defence review in 1957, when many regiments of the British army were disbanded, the spending was cut to 8½%.  In spite of the Falkland’s War, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11 defence spending has been slashed for 5% to 2½% of GDP.  This was in spite of crucial military support in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and elsewhere.  Since then there have been major engagements in the Middle East yet spending is now at an all-time low of 2%.  Since World War Two, over 16,000 lives of British service men and women have been lost.  It these days when there are so many violent threats from around the world, with the increasing involvement of Russia in world affairs, and especially in the destroyed country of Syria, with terrorism an increasing threat, and with the horror of the barbarous rise of Islamic State, Lord Dannatt argues in Boots on the Ground that this is woefully insufficient.

Away from the political field, Lord Dannatt’s concern for his soldiers, sailors and airmen is apparent in his support of charities such as Help for HeroesHe is a committed Christian and his faith has always informed his actions in his long career in the military.  Lord Dannatt knows that for a soldier in the field, spiritual belief is heightened in the reality of life and death on the battlefield. In his support for others, Lord Dannatt can, however, underestimate his own role.   Lord Dannatt’s name is on the cover of Boots on the Ground , but when you read the book, you may note that his name does not appear anywhere in the text. He writes modestly as an historian, not as a maker of history.

In the question and answer session, chaired by Air Vice-Marshal Graham Skinner, many robust and searching questions emerged. These ranged from should National Service, in the 1949-1963 style, be re-instituted (no, we could not afford it); how does one “win hearts and minds” (money, mercy, muscle); to is war with Russia in 2017 as possibility (Putin could be “the man who destroyed NATO”).

Air Vice-Marshal Skinner was the Commander-in-Chief of RAF Logistics Command and so many of Lord Dannatt’s concerns about equipping and moving the armed forces would have chimed strongly with him. He was “local boy” (and still is a governor of Hampton School, where he was educated), and our “home ground” audience warmed to his easy style, informative introduction and his skilful handling of many enthusiastic questioners.

In Lord Dannatt, we have a champion for that important balance between executive in government and the military. In his talk we clearly perceived that Lord Dannatt has not only the physical courage that goes with being a soldier, but the moral courage that goes with being a leader.

Thomas Forsythe

November 2016


Editor’s Note: This talk was one of an annual trilogy of talks in Arts Richmond’s Books for our Time series, which form the highlights of the annual Richmond upon Thames Literature Festival

From → Literature, Reviews

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