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Boots on the Ground

Richard Dannatt

Profile,  October 3, 2016

Boots follows the fortunes of the British Armed Forces from Montgomery’s taking the German surrender on Luneberg  Heath in May 1945, to the present day. Given the author’s background, latterly as CGS, it is little surprise that the main focus is on the Army, but that is how it should be. The book was commissioned following his successful autobiography, Leading from the Front (2010). The reader is I think left wanting – wanting some personal opinion – as he covers the many wars that have engaged our forces since 1945. Perhaps Dannatt feels he has expended his opinions in his earlier volume.

 

Boots is a rigorous, if generally orthodox,  coverage of the subject; a necessary and unsurprising theme is the relationship between the government of the day and the forces, given a jolt by periodic defence reviews (of varying utility). Dannatt chronicles the endless reduction in size of our forces, which has not been accompanied by a proportionate or concurrent reduction in the ambition of our politicians. The book serves as useful reminder that Britain no longer carries much clout on the international stage. It also reinforces the notion that history is forgotten at our peril (Afghanistan being the obvious example). A less obvious example:

 

“In 1946, one Moscow-based diplomat stated in a despatch: ‘Soviet security has become hard to distinguish from Soviet imperialism, and it is becoming uncertain whether there is, in fact, any limit to Soviet expansion.’”

 

Another example: the success against Malaysian guerrillas came as a result of “strategic patience”. That campaign must have exhausted our national supplies of this commodity….

 

Dannatt also gives us a useful reminder that there was a chasm between US and British aspirations for post-war Germany, as discussed at the Potsdam conference.  He is sympathetic to the political debate amongst British politicians in the Fifties about the size, shape and existence of an independent British nuclear deterrent.

 

The book gains texture and authority when it reaches the era in which Dannatt served.  The resolution of the Irish Troubles is well-handled, success being achieved despite the IRA betraying the original peace talks. Dannatt quotes Field Marshal Bramall’s approval of Thatcher as commander in chief through the Falkland’s Campaign. This is in stark contrast to the behaviour of Blair in his subsequent international gambles. Blair and then Brown’s unwillingness to fund the forces in line with their ambition is unsparingly related.  The distance between New Labour and the reality of defence issues  is perhaps best shown by the quote from the mouth of Peter Mandelson, who called the Household Division ‘chinless  wonders’, and the Trooping of the Colour  as ‘doing incomprehensible things with flags’!

 

Its strength is that, like any good officer, Dannatt is capable of seeing issues from the soldier’s viewpoint, so, whilst Boots generally has a top-down perspective, it is enlivened  with nuggets of soldiering encumbrances, like the need to conceal overt Christianity when engaged in GW 1& 2. The public’s growing compassion for the services, when their employers showed scant concern for the welfare of their families, is chronicled at length. Whilst early in the book the author sets out the case that Whitehall struggles to structure the forces with appropriate strategic thought, so later in the book (with Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) he sets out how it fails to manage campaigns, or rather post-conflict reconstruction. His case for the abolition of DfID is well made.

 

The book is thoroughly referenced, and students of the subject will find plenty of suggestions for further reading, indeed these are underlined at the book’s end. Dannatt relies almost exclusively on material already in the public domain (Hansard in particular is a frequent source).  This is also perhaps the first major British book to make good use of the Chilcot Report for source material. One regrets he did not use his extensive network of contacts in the international defence world to extract some new quotes and material.