General Dannatt's moral message questioned

By Bernadette Meaden
October 16, 2012

Last year General Sir Richard Dannatt gave a lecture in which he proposed that the military could teach society a thing or two about ethics and morals.

In his lecture, called The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Morality and Warfare Today, the General spoke of his Christian faith and said that when he was Chief of Staff he had instructed the Chaplain General “to make sure that everyone deployed on operations has some understanding of the Christian message.” He felt it was possible to teach young men and women to kill and to be compassionate at the same time.

He went on to suggest that the moral and ethical standards of the military leadership were so high, and they were so practised in transmitting them to the lower ranks, that they could be something of a moral beacon for society:

"So by aiming to set high moral and ethical standards as an Army, a Navy and an Air Force, should we not consciously be trying to set an example to our society at large? Is there not a moral and ethical example that the military can set and perhaps even give a lead? I may be being presumptive, but I think it is something to consider, and was a question I sometimes discussed with my people. After all, our Armed Forces exist to serve the Nation; and maybe there could perhaps be no better way to do this; but perhaps I am guilty of wishful thinking."

It was unusual for a military man to enter such an arena, but the General has never been afraid of courting controversy. As Chief of the General Staff he was outspoken in his criticism of the Labour government, but denied he was flouting the convention that military leaders remain aloof from politics.

However, just weeks after retiring from the Army, during the 2009 Conservative Party conference, he was appointed as an adviser to David Cameron. Yet again, there was concern his appointment could undermine the tradition of political neutrality in the Armed Forces.

So the General is a controversial figure and his lecture expressed surprising views. But given that a series of scandals have undermined our trust in other areas of the establishment, his argument could have been persuasive to some. After all, the military does have different values from much of society. Nobody joins the military to become rich. Service personnel are not primarily motivated by money, and much of what they are motivated by is admirable: duty, loyalty, honour, service to their country. Nothing as tawdry as financial gain. And the ongoing sacrifice of young lives constantly renews our compassion and concern for the young men and women who go wherever they are sent, do whatever they are ordered to do, often paying the ultimate price. Nobody can question their commitment, no matter how much we may disagree with their mission.

But now, the General and several other former military leaders have themselves been accused of using their connections to lobby for defence companies.

The General strenuously denies being a lobbyist, but admits having obtained a seat at a dinner with the Ministry of Defence's new permanent secretary, Jon Thompson, to help a company called Capital Symonds, which is bidding for a £400million contract to manage the MoD's estates. He denies having done anything wrong, but whilst young amputee veterans are denied meagre disability benefits, these activities of their former superior officers are at best distasteful.

The General’s claim that the military is somehow on a higher moral plane than the rest of society, and can give us a lesson in ethics and Christianity now looks not just wishful thinking, not presumptive, but frankly deluded.

When all is said and done, whatever the character of individual members of the armed forces, as an institution its raison d’être is to kill. To suggest that it is an institution that can teach us morality, or even Christianity, is quite bizarre.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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