On Wednesday at the national daily briefing, the UK government visibly acknowledged its anxiety over its COVID-19 response to date as talks of an Inquiry mount, just days after a Sunday Times article highlighted a series of spectacular blunders that prompted a detailed 2,000-word rebuttal.
The tell…? Wheeling out the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter GCB, CBE, DSO, ADC. One would be forgiven for thinking it relatively benign, given that the military has been squarely involved in delivering PPE, construction of seven Nightingale hospitals in England and seconding its medically trained staff to the NHS, to name a few tasks. However, in terms of strategic communications and public relations, the presence of General Carter tells a subtly different story if analysed more forensically. With public sentiment for the government’s national response wavering, albeit with the public still seeking a successful outcome, this briefing ceased to be purely ‘science-based’ and pivoted firmly towards the realpolitik in the hope of injecting some confidence in flagging and lacklustre Ministers. Who better to do this than the head of an organisation that is consistently held in high regard by joe public and is currently unparalleled by any other state organisation, other than the NHS?
General Carter used his soap box to reveal that coronavirus has been his “single greatest logistic challenge”, and went on to outline military measures in support, including creating 260,000 square feet of distribution warehousing, with between three and four thousand service persons being actively involved and 20,000 held at readiness to assist. There is a reason US General Omar Bradley’s adage has some truth to it, that ‘amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.’ The relevance here, is that General Carter is not and has never been a professional logistician. His career has however, seen strategic, operational and tactical appointments as a professional infanteer to Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan amongst other conflict zones. His indirect comparison of the rigours of kinetic and asymmetric warfare with the complexities of coordinating and delivering PPE across the UK on largely empty roads seems to be comparing apples with oranges and on the face of it, lacks some authenticity and the very realism that he was brought in to convey. This is not detrimental to the well-deserved recognition of military support so far, but more a criticism of the evident political interference.
To his credit, whereas what General Carter claims may be strictly true, some may view it as thinly veiled misrepresentation and a public relations stunt aimed at cutting the government some slack. What it has done, is conceptually moved military accountability closer to the centre of decision-making gravity in government both in practice and in the public psyche; was the ‘scientists told us to do it’ narrative simply not cutting it anymore? After unprecedented growth in support of the UK Armed Forces in the public eye in recent years, it is unsettling to see its leader misused like this. Five weeks in since the UK declared war on the coronavirus, it’s a very curious (and late) time to deploy General Carter to the pulpit, against a backdrop of commentators and devolved governments discussing exit strategies with others musing on whether infection and death rates have passed their peak.
That said, General Carter is hardly infallible, despite a decorated and distinguished military career. It was under his stewardship whilst Chief of the General Staff (professional head of the Army) that saw him implement capability crushing austerity at the behest of successive Conservative governments and deliver record levels of under manning, foundering retention and rock bottom morale in his own troops. Maybe these resource shortfalls that he was complicit in creating, contributed to his belief that this is his greatest logistic challenge to date?
Before anyone rushes to grant Piers Morgan’s Twitter wish of making General Carter the ‘interim Prime Minister’, they may want to pay heed to the ingrained command and control strictures of the military. Examples like the absence of a statutory union to represent personnel and levying punishment on them if they take to social media to raise awareness about the conditions they’re made to live and work in are two censorious aspects that liberal democracy leaders must reject on behalf of their people. So no, he shouldn’t be interim Prime Minister, but this may be one of General Carter’s most blatant forays into politics yet.
And finally, not to be facetious, but I’m sure the fine folk of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Argus were out of sorts hearing their vessel referred to as HMS! Hopefully General Carter’s future reshow will be under more auspicious circumstances.