We need to listen to our military experts – and that includes retired generals

General Sir Richard Shirreff when serving as commander of the British forces in Kosovo in 2000. Phil Noble / PA Archive/Press Association Images

General Sir Richard Shirreff caused a stir with his book, 2017: War With Russia. The book sets up a doomsday scenario in which, to avoid encirclement by NATO, Russia seizes territory in Eastern Ukraine so as to open up a land corridor to Crimea. It then invades the Baltic states, triggering a war with the West in 2017.

It is fiction of the Tom Clancy variety: a thriller with a warning, informed by intimate inside knowledge. Its publication has prompted two lines of attack: one that Shirreff is pot-boiling for personal gain and the other that generals should be seen and not heard.

Shirreff is self-evidently qualified to comment on security issues. Before retiring from the British army in 2014 he had been deputy supreme allied commander in Europe and participated in NATO’s growing concern over Russia’s behaviour, fed not only by events in Crimea and Ukraine but also by its invasion of Georgia in 2008.

The first criticism of Shirreff is the one which deserves serious attention. If it were to be upheld it would undermine Shirreff’s determination to see NATO’s defences improved. Many experts doubt Russia’s capacity to wage major war and argue that so-called “hybrid warfare” – which focused on “little green men” in Ukraine but is really little more than another fashionable label open to varying interpretations – is largely a NATO invention.

Shirreff’s book says more about NATO’s perception of its own weaknesses than it does about Russia’s strengths. But this does not gainsay Russian president Vladimir Putin’s capacity to use strategy in more proactive ways than the leaders of Western democracies. Where there is vulnerability, uncertainty or opportunity, he takes the initiative.

In the West, politicians talk big, using the rhetoric of World War II, but they rarely match their words with equivalent actions. They oversell and then underdeliver – when they should do the reverse. In the process they undermine the credibility of NATO’s defence.

Travel to the Baltic states or to Scandinavia, and you will find plenty of evidence that Russia’s nearer neighbours are taking the threat from the east seriously. Norway has called for a reassertion of deterrence, Lithuania has embraced conscription, and Sweden and Finland (both non-aligned in the Cold War) are now discussing possible NATO membership.

Separation of powers

The second charge is more reflective of a British domestic debate: this UK government in particular appears determined to silence senior officers. It sees apolitical professional soldiers as a norm of civil-military relations. It is not one derived from British political practice: up to 1945, many serving soldiers were also members of parliament – and senior officers regularly aired their professional concerns in public.

The expectation that soldiers should be silent is an import from the US, but one which Britain – like other democracies – has increasingly internalised. It is somewhat bizarre that, as the probability of a military coup declines to zero, we behave as though any robust enunciation of military views challenges the core values of the state.

There is an important distinction between a serving officer expressing an opinion on party politics and one on policy. The last kerfuffle along the civil-military faultline involved the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nick Houghton. In November 2015, he said that if a British prime minister declared he would never use nuclear weapons, he would undermine the credibility of the British deterrent. He was right, and as the principal strategic advisor to the government he would have been wrong to say anything else.

However, the Labour party is divided on the renewal of the nuclear deterrent – so Jeremy Corbyn asserted that Houghton had strayed into party politics. He was right, too, but his conclusion was wrong: we need to normalise, not demonise, senior officers speaking out on matters of strategy if we are to have a mature debate on defence. How can we speak about the Trident replacement if we are prevented from hearing the views of those whose job it is to give sustained attention to defence?

Houghton was still serving; Shirreff is not. It is true that, while he still wore uniform, the latter was no shrinking violet. The story that Philip Hammond, when defence minister, wanted Shirreff court-martialled goes back to remarks Shirreff made just before he retired. But today the former general is a private citizen and, whatever our norms in civil-military relations, they do not muzzle him now. Rather, precedent points the other way.

In 1978, at the height of the Cold War, General Sir John Hackett, who had ended his career in command of NATO’s Northern Army Group ten years previously, published a comparable work of fiction, The Third World War, August 1985: A Future History. In 1968, when still serving, he too had upset his political masters by calling for NATO to be strengthened, but nobody took exception to his book.

Indeed, who – apart from those who have exercised senior military rank – could write authoritatively on such subjects? In many respects, the bigger issue is not that they have worn uniform but that they are not still doing so. The enforced silence of those currently serving implicitly authorises only retired officers to speak, and so more readily locks the debate in the immediate past, rather than the future.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.