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Outspoken but not always right: General Sir David (now Lord) Richards (right) with the former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Kabul

During his three-year tenure as head of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, General Sir David Richards was never shy about speaking his mind. On one occasion, shortly after his appointment as Chief of the Defence Staff, his outspokenness even earned a public rebuke from David Cameron who, following a characteristically robust Richardesque intervention on the conduct of the Libyan conflict in 2011, remarked, "You do the fighting, and I'll do the talking."

Politicians and their senior military advisers rarely see eye-to-eye especially in times of conflict. During the Second World War General Sir Alan Brooke constantly clashed with Winston Churchill over strategy, at one point denouncing the Prime Minister as a "public menace".

Richards never went quite that far, but Cameron's desire to achieve a quick victory in the campaign to overthrow Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi often placed him at odds with his most senior military adviser. Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, as he has now become, explains in his highly opinionated autobiography, Taking Command (Headline, £20), that the origins of the very public spat between the Prime Minister and himself lay in Cameron's desire to make Gaddafi himself the direct target of military action.

In common with many other senior members of the government, Cameron believed that if Gaddafi were to be killed or captured, resistance would quickly crumble and success would be assured. But Richards, scarred by his experience of the Iraq conflict, insisted the campaign must be fought within the parameters of international law, which did not allow for Gaddafi to be made a target per se unless he was located in a military complex or another setting where he was helping to direct the war.

Ambushed by a BBC reporter as he left Downing Street after giving Cameron a progress report on the state of the campaign, Richards stated bluntly that, in his opinion, Gaddafi was not a legal target, thereby provoking the Prime Minister's public reproach.

This unseemly episode might easily have been avoided if Richards had observed the custom practised by other senior Whitehall officials of leaving the building by a more discreet exit, such as the underground passageways that connect Whitehall's various government domains, thereby avoiding contact with the pesky media. But that is not Richards's style, and the media-savvy general would have been more than aware that, simply by airing his view in public, he had put a stop to any more dangerous talk in government circles about conducting war by illegal means.

This anecdote from Richards's memoir is worth highlighting because, at a time when we still face the depressing possibility of engaging in conflict on many fronts, it provides a telling insight into the strains and tensions that will inevitably arise among those responsible for making sure any form of military intervention is a success.

The Libya campaign might now be a distant memory — and, given the chaotic state we've left the country in, politicians will hope to keep it that way in the run-up to the general election — but there are many other serious challenges looming on the horizon that are likely to occupy our attention for the foreseeable future.

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