Army: Behind the New Frontlines – what's the point of the British Army?
As a new documentary on BBC2 examines the role of the British Army post-Iraq, Major General Rupert Jones tells broadcaster Justin Webb how serving in the Armed Forces has changed
Major General Rupert Jones doesn’t want to talk about himself. “I have this all the time, and I would rather not say any more.”
Fair enough. The General is the son of a famous and much respected father, Colonel H Jones, who died in the Falklands during a one-man charge on an Argentine trench in the Battle of Goose Green. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Rupert was 13 at the time.
He mentions his father in his contributions to this series – points out that he understands very well the cost of war - so naturally, the question arises, did you think twice before signing up for your own army career? Did you do it because of your father, or perhaps in spite of him?
In his pre-broadcast interview with me the General will say only this: “I never made a conscious decision to join the army, it’s in my blood. I care passionately about the British Army and the soldiers in it.”
His mother’s view of his career choice? “Like all parents my mother supported me in what I wanted to do.”
And you see what he does in this compelling set of programmes, along with what the junior ranks do, and get to make up your own mind about whether the tasks we set our army in 2017 are right and fair and whether the soldiers seem up to the job. An army smaller than at any time since the days of Cromwell is being asked to do everything now, but fight. In 2016 no British soldiers died in combat, the first year with no loss of life since 1968. Post Afghanistan, post Iraq: what is the point of the army? What do we want them to do?
Let’s start at the top with General Jones himself, the man we see in charge in the first programme of the series on the ground in Iraq: steady, practical, thoughtful, open, with enough of that stiff upper lip to prevent him talking about his father but not so much to make him insensitive about the complex job he needs his troops to achieve.
It’s tough work and he is open about the frustrations: “The days of the clean-cut war, the clean-cut battle, the Union Jack flying over Port Stanley, you had a good guy and a bad guy, you had the battle, you won the battle: that isn’t how warfare feels now.”
“It sounds lame,” the general admits to me, but modern soldiering is “more about government objectives met. There’s not going to be a victory parade.”
General Jones is back from 13 months of operations in Iraq and Syria, operations that epitomise the modern army. Not fighting, but training. Fixing broken vehicles. Staring out at the desert and trying not to be blown up by an enemy you may not yourself attack. An enemy who might easily infiltrate those local people you come across and work with. As one of the junior soldiers says in the first programme, “we have the approach of always being totally charming to every single person we meet and work with but always have a plan to kill them.”
It’s all hellishly complicated. Some of the Iraqi troops being trained by the British soldiers were themselves trying to kill them only a decade ago when we invaded and occupied their land.
And now our troops are back but cannot fight anyone.
“We signed up for the infantry because we wanted to get directly involved,” says a junior officer.
“It is frustrating,” says a soldier, “we want to go out there and do the job ourselves.” He glances out at the desert: “For reasons that are above our pay grade that doesn’t happen any more.”
They are torn, these men. They want to fight. But they want to survive and they know very well what happened in Afghanistan and the cost in life of what seems to many like a very small gain.
And General Jones is clear that the modern soldier cannot be a gung-ho taker of territory. “He’s a thinker first and foremost," the General says. "He’s a communicator. He uses his brain, he uses restraint.”
And that is what you see in the dust of the area near Mosul as these British troops try slowly and methodically to allow the Iraqis and Kurds to get into enough shape to win their own battles and re-take that city from so called Islamic State. That is the job ‘our boys’ are doing and, with some grumbles, the thrust of the programme is that the job is being achieved. The General suggests as well that the Iraqi victory is one we can celebrate, at least to some extent in that old-fashioned, clear-cut way. I am not sure his soldiers see it that way. Given their very different ambitions for the future of Iraq I am not sure the Kurds or the Iraqis do either.
We shouldn’t be too sentimental about all this. I remember being in Bosnia with British soldiers on peacekeeping duty who were equally frustrated at their inability to get stuck-in and kill the bad guys. Bob Stewart, now a Conservative MP but then the officer in charge, became quite a celebrity for his arguments with louts at checkpoints. But he couldn’t shoot them. In a sense restraint has always gone along with the job in the post second world war British army. In Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, and in other more minor engagements, it is often the job of the squaddie to try to defuse situations. And often they have been very good at it.
What has changed is that the threats seems as great, or perhaps greater, than ever. And yet the ability to fight, to find a target and kill it, has been reduced to dust. The series will go on to look at the Russian threat and I suspect it will feel like a relief. A real enemy! In tanks! Massed and ready to come!
Now that’s soldiering.
Army: Behind the New Frontlines begins on Wednesday 18th October at 9pm on BBC2