Taking Command by David Richards

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

Taking CommandThis was an unusual read for me, as I know the author pretty well, having worked alongside him for a very busy and intensive year in 2006/7, but I knew little about the details of his life after Afghanistan, and only some of the stories from his earlier career.  This has actually made it much harder to review, not easier – partly because I do not want to criticise someone I admire so much (though I assure you that never stopped me when I was advising him), and also because where I disagree with his view, or his presentation of an issue, I can imagine that he was under considerable pressure to pull his punches – not at all a Richards habit – for security or political reasons.  No doubt the book had to be cleared with the MOD, and I imagine – though I do not know – there was a fair bit left on the editing room floor.  In which case, David, wait a few years, and give us a revised version, warts and all – especially on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, where I am sure there is more to tell.

Let’s start with the basic point of David Richards’ career – he has clearly seen more active service than any other British officer since 1945, in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Afghanistan, and he was Chief of the General Staff or of the Defence Staff (the top army job and the top armed forces job) during Libya and Syria.  At any level, anyone interested in either the military story or the political one over those years would find this book of huge interest.  And his career included lots of great stories – from the trivial, like providing bodyguards for Joan Collins in Berlin, and guarding Rudolf Hess, to the strategic, like taking UK government policy in Sierra Leone into his own hands in May 2000.  Some of the best stories may need to mature a few years before they can be told!

On the other hand, one of the keys to David Richards’ success is, to my mind, a weakness of this book.  He is immensely self confident, very brave – in every sense – and can be very dismissive of others’ views and motivations, especially if they are too cautious, or if suspects them of arse-covering or ‘bean counting’.  This can lead to a descriptions of events, and evaluations of others, which make me think, was it really that simple?  He would, I’m sure, in cases like dying children in Sierra Leone or atrocities in East Timor, say “Yes, Jagger you bloody wuss, it damn well was!”.  And who I am to say he was wrong in any of those cases, though that was actually my job on some occasions in Afghanistan; but he was always very thoroughly briefed, knew his history, and did allow challenge and debate (though you needed to be pretty tough to keep on arguing sometimes!) – but generally felt that there was too long taken over anguished discussion at the administrative and political level – which is why he more than once cut it out by the simple expedient of not telling London what he was doing!  Although I was over-ruled or circumvented more than once, I take great comfort in an early comment in the book, that until he had called you a fuckwit (though he uses asterisks, I wonder why), you were nothing.  On that basis, I made it – though I hope two passing comments quoting me in the Afghan chapters do not represent the whole contribution he thinks I made there!

David Richards had probably most political impact over Gaddafi’s overthrow and thinking about Syria, and these are interesting chapters, though again I’m sure the blue pencils at the MOD are stopping us getting the full story – but I will devote my last paragraphs to Afghanistan, where I worked with him, and where he became the first British commander to command US forces at the theatre level since 1945.  General Richards always felt the UK did not understand what he was being asked to do in Afghanistan – he had to struggle for resources, and was constantly being criticised for being “out of his lane” when working in either the political sphere or with the media.  I think this is largely unjust – a campaign like Afghanistan must be an integrated military, development, and political effort, and he did what had to be done.  He did tread on toes, for sure, and I sometimes tried to reign him in (getting my card marked by him for trying and being bawled out by London more than once for failing), but generally he was moving everyone in the right direction and doing so at pace.  It is often assumed that, in this day of modern communications, NATO in Brussels or the MOD in the UK knows as much as the commander on the ground, but nothing can be further from the truth.  I briefed NATO headquarters every week by video, and it never ceased to amaze me how intelligent, dedicated and well-briefed people in Brussels never had the same flavour of events, the same sensitivity to personalities, that you got by being on the ground. And David was very skilled at pulling all the threads together and imbuing people with his own energy and sense of urgency.  But he never got his own air transport in Afghanistan, which is astonishing, and never had a reserve at his disposal; there was always a sense of him being under scrutiny, kept short of resources and given limited freedom of action, and his frustration at that comes through loud and clear.

He covers Afghanistan with an overview of the preparation and the achievements, then with extensive extracts from his diary from that year.  But the extracts mute much of the criticism of other countries and people he found less than cooperative, and either space or security/political considerations make the big issues – the decision to launch Operation Medusa, the Musa Qala incident, and the innovations of the PAG and ADZ (two multinational multi-sector administrative initiatives he forced through) are actually underplayed.  It would be great to have a full length book on his time in Afghanistan – and I have all my diaries and would love to offer them to him for another view!

This is a fascinating book; it is an easy read, by the most combat experienced British soldier of the last 65 years.  It is a really good introduction to the UK’s recent military history, and is enlightening on the relationships with politicians and international partners.  My only real regret is that David, who can be brutal in his frankness and directness, has not been able to put all that on the page.  But he was probably wise not to!

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Terence Jagger had the challenge of being General David Richards’ political advisor when he commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, 2006-7.  There was a lot of very hard work, some considerable achievements, and even a lot of fun, but he believes there are easier jobs than advising this particular general!

General David Richards, Taking Command (Headline: London 2014) ISBN 978-1-4722-2084-4 345pp, hardback, £20.

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