Is it really possible that General Sir Richard Dannatt had little idea of the tumult that his comments recommending a rapid withdrawal of British troops in Iraq last week would unleash? Despite claims that the Chief of the General Staff - Britain's most senior serving soldier - must have calculated the effect of what he said, aides say he was profoundly surprised by the 'hoo-ha' as he called it that his interview with the Daily Mail caused. His tone in the interview, say friends and colleagues, reflected the man: straightforward, earnest, serious, a senior officer who knows the facts and is not afraid to state them, bluntly if necessary, to his political masters, to inquisitive journalists, to his own men and to the British public.
An intellect, if not an intellectual, according to one retired senior general who knows the new CGS well; a fighter decorated within a year or so of leaving his Sandhurst; an ambitious soldier who has risen rapidly through major operational commands; a thinker who took time out of a busy schedule two weeks ago to attend a lecture on the future of defence in Europe at the Royal United Services institute, sitting, almost unnoticed, in the audience like everyone else. A man who, as he says, would never send a soldier where he would not go himself.
For Dannatt, the interview, given with the assent of his political bosses, was meant to mark his arrival in the top position in a sensible, no-nonsense way, to do away with 'spin'. 'If there is one thing he cannot abide it is blustering or bullshit,' said one former subordinate. The interview was, everyone insists, not a bid to spark a political row.
But no amount of backtracking and finessing can mask a major embarrassment for Tony Blair's government, so committed to the ongoing military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are proving considerably more complicated than anyone - at least those in power - ever bargained for. The army, despite occasional scandals, maintains its position in British public life as one of the few institutions with genuine authority and genuine respect.
While the reputation of the intelligence services has been badly tarnished by successive failures to either gather or disseminate accurate information, the army has emerged from the chaos of Iraq and mismanagement of Afghanistan with its professional and moral credibility, justifiably, intact. We like our soldiers in Britain, and when they criticise politicians we like them even more.
Dannatt's statements are astonishingly honest for a man in his position. His most high-profile predecessor, the charismatic, unpredictable, brilliant Sir Michael Jackson, was a master at the political game. Dannatt appears to be almost deliberately looking to establish a rather different role.
'He's very much in the old-fashioned officer mode,' says General Sir Patrick Cordingley, the former Desert Rats commander. 'He believes his job is to look after his soldiers, to bring missions to a successful close and to pass on the army to his successor in good condition.' His leisure choices are also distinctly traditional, centring on a love of sport, particularly when holidaying with his family in Cornwall, and practising his strong Christian faith.
With the efficient and practical intelligence for which he is known, Dannatt has united these three objectives. With motivated, well-equipped men, he believes, he can fulfil the tasks given to him by his political masters without running Britain's military machine into the ground. So, less than two weeks into his new job, the general had already warned of over-commitment. 'We are running hot,' he said. 'Can we cope? I pause. I say, "Just."'
Two other key issues - soldiers' pay and their treatment in civilian hospitals in the UK if wounded - topped his agenda. After a trip to Afghanistan, he told the government that a monthly salary of £1,100 was not a fair recompense for weeks spent among heat, flies and Taliban mortars in Helmand province and won a tax-free bonus for his men. Sir Tim Garden, a former Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, points out that such issues are as politicised as the general's controversial statement that British troops in Iraq were as much part of the security problem as the solution to it.
'The chief of staff has always had a dual role,' says Garden. 'He is the chief shop steward for the nation's armed forces, but also the elected government's top soldier.'
Dannatt's message is clear. If his troops have what they need - and
Dannatt has repeatedly referred to the respective size of the government spend on social services (29 per cent) and on defence (5 per cent) - they will happily fulfil the undoubtedly heavy demands this government's foreign policy is making on them. If they are not, then that government can expect problems.
Dannatt is reflecting the views of the vast bulk of Britain's soldiers. Almost all serving men are happy to go to war if they believe they have what they need to do the job - and they have the nation behind them. Parachute Regiment soldiers returning from their recent deployment in southern Afghanistan - where they have taken not insignificant casualties by today's standards - complain not about conditions or being sent there in the first place but about not having enough air support.
They are also angered by a lack of basic intelligence. 'Someone somewhere down the line f**cked up, and it wasn't us. We were well-prepared, but not for the right war,' said one. In Iraq, soldiers in Basra are pleased that the top brass is telling the government what the situation is in clear and simple language. 'Finally someone senior is telling them exactly what the situation is,' said one email received from a soldier in the theatre last week. 'I'm sick of hearing all the rubbish that is spouted by the politicians.'
More broadly, Dannatt's comments about the Iraq conflict fuelling extremism around the world, about naive, over-optimistic and sloppy planning for the aftermath of the war and about unrealistic expectations that Iraq would become a shining 'exemplar' of liberal democracy in the Middle East reflect the conventional wisdom among Britain's soldiers, senior and junior, voiced again and again on the ground and privately in the UK. Again, they like it when they hear someone in authority saying it public.
This is partly because soldiers are desperate to keep the nation's support. This year, senior officers in Afghanistan insisted that 'public opinion' was a key element of their overall strategy. That included hearts and minds locally, of course, but it was clear that they really wanted to keep 'Britain' behind 'our boys'. Dannatt described the war in Iraq as 'unpopular' and that in Afghanistan as 'misunderstood'. One officer, recently returned from Iraq drily commented: 'That's the least he could say.'
Yet, the CGS's view of the role of the army and its relation with the public goes way beyond the exigencies of any particular operation. For Dannatt, the army is representative of, and a key component of, British society, reflecting its values and, hopefully, reinforcing its better ones. There is, according to Dannatt, a 'military covenant' between a nation and its armed forces. And it is here that he is straying on to heavily mined ground.
His use of religious terminology to describe the relationship between the military and the larger population is revealing. His vision of the nation outlined in the Daily Mail interview is conservative and Christian. 'It is said we live in a post-Christian society. I think that is a great shame,' he said, a statement not entirely in accord with the multicultural image the army has sought to project domestically in recent years or one that will particularly help soldiers on the ground in Muslim countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, where western troops are already described by militant propagandists as 'Crusaders'.
According to Dannatt, it is 'the moral and spiritual vacuum' in Britain that has allowed Islamic extremism to flourish. The general, who married a year after leaving university, clearly believes that there is a whiff of decadence about our modern society that discipline, religious observance and 'courage, loyalty, integrity, respect for others' - the very values that are incarnated by the army - would set right.
Some joke about Dannatt's muscular faith - 'Someone's got to be president of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Scripture Readers' Association of course, though perhaps you don't necessarily have to enjoy it quite as much as Richard does,' said one retired senior officer - but others are more wary, asking whether the timing of such intrinsically political statements is ideal.
Almost every incoming CGS has his fingers burned by the media and the new incumbent will have learnt his lesson. But the fact that this modern, professional Christian soldier spoke with the authentic voice of the British army is undeniable. The old adage that you only start worrying when soldiers stop moaning will be scant consolation to the Prime Minister this weekend.
The Dannatt lowdown
Born December 23, 1950. Educated at minor independent Felsted School, Essex. Married Philippa, a fellow Durham university undergraduate, in 1977, a year after graduating. Three sons - one, Bertie, in the Grenadier Guards - and one daughter.
Best of times The 'ritual' family holiday in Cornwall in August. Cricket, rugby, shooting, fishing, skiing.
Worst of times Winning the Military Cross as a platoon commander with the Green Howards in Northern Ireland in 1973 less than a year after passing out from Sandhurst - an episode that the general never talks about.
What he says 'I am not a maverick... I am a soldier speaking up for his army... Honesty is what it is about. The truth will out. We have to speak the truth. Leaking and spinning, at the end of the day, are not helpful.'
What others say 'It is not acceptable really that generals intervene in this way in political matters. I think it has probably been naivety. I think it has probably been a mistake, but it has been quite a serious one.'
Lord Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff from 1997 to 2001