IN THE early autumn of 2012, I was in my commanding officer’s office in York with some of my young officers prior to the regiment’s tour of Afghanistan. These five young men and women, all under 25, were bright, engaging and fun but recently a tension and nervousness had grown as we moved nearer to deployment.
I had seen this before and understood what it was and that it needed to be talked through. They were not afraid of dying or being wounded, although that rests in all our minds, nor were they concerned about their professional competence as they were well trained. What was concerning them was – would they rise to the ultimate test of combat? Would they freeze, or show fear in front of their soldiers? How would they react the first time they came under enemy fire?
A few months later I watched these young people grow into the exceptional young British Army officers we have seen for generations. Confident, determined and, having passed that ultimate test, they would never be the same again.
War continues to equally fascinate and terrify people. Books continue to be published about the Second World War or the conflicts since which are avidly read.
Despite recent conflicts we have lived through, we have actually enjoyed a period where wide-scale war has not affected us – and since the 1960s there hasn’t been national or compulsory military service.
So war is, on the whole, something someone else does. It focuses on acts of bravery and fortitude, and this can generate an air of romanticism that displaces the reality of war. Valuable lessons can be learnt from leadership in war but it needs to be an honest assessment, not just the lessons we want to hear.
Over the last few days, I have been asked why Putin and China’s President Xi either go to war or threaten war, in the latter’s case around Taiwan. I have already written about this from a strategy perspective, but it also needs to be considered from a human perspective.
There continues to be reports of the physical and mental state of Putin which seem designed to vilify him or paint him as mentally unstable or unbalanced, but this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of why leaders go to war. Painting them as somehow evil or deranged is simplistic and plays to our sensibilities and our sense of right and wrong.
We should also not forget that the West and the East have started wars of choice over the last few decades – several of which I have fought in.
From Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Chechnya to our interventions in Iraq and Libya we have seen a succession of politicians who appear to enjoy being seen as a war leader.
Whether this is based in an honest view of doing the right thing in a complex, sometimes dangerous, world, or arrogance, being surrounded by ‘yes-men’, a character flaw, a need to establish a legacy, ego, or trying to live up to the image of earlier national heroes, I will leave it to the reader to decide.
But there is another, more visceral, point. These leaders, including Putin, have not themselves fought or gone to war. So while war is the ultimate test, and unlike the soldiers who actually have to do the fighting, they do not fear for their own personal safety, then it is a test they seemingly willingly take on.
There will be words of regret – ‘that they had no option’ – but deep down I believe there is excitement. Turning back to Putin, I do not think he is evil in the purest sense of the word – rather I think he does not care about the damage, death and destruction he causes as long as he has met the test.
He has developed a sense of self-importance, a desire to play the war leader, to present himself as a man of steel and to conflate his own future with the future of his entire country.
I am proud of having been a soldier and led extraordinary young men and women into battle. But I have seen and personally suffered the aftermath too.
So while war is the ultimate test it cannot be framed as romantic or generally heroic – it is not. As we lose the last of the Second World War veterans, and their words of caution, perhaps world leaders have forgotten the true lessons of conflict and so we are destined, regrettably, to repeat them.