The MT Interview: General Sir Mike Jackson

The rugged features of Britain's most senior soldier first became familiar through newsreel reports from Kosovo.

by Andrew Saunders and Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

After Bette Davies and Medusa, he has the most talked-about eyes in town. 'Until recently,' commented the Spectator, 'under each eye, he had bags of record dimensions. They looked like long service decorations - though hardly good conduct ones - from interesting campaigns. When he had them excised, he was much teased: "Mike, you are the last chap anyone ever thought would go in for cosmetic surgery".'

General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff and the UK's most senior soldier, also known as 'The Prince of Darkness' and the Hero of Kosovo, wasn't too amused by this sarcastic banter. He rebutted the suggestion that he'd indulged in some vain facial nipping and tucking, and wrote back to say so. It was, he said, performed by the NHS on the basis of medical requirement: 'The matter therefore turns on vision rather than vanity.'

When you're in the presence, it's not just the eyes that command attention.

From the miraculously shiny brown Oxfords on his feet to the three rows of medal ribbons on his chest, his whole demeanour and appearance is deeply impressive. Not for nothing is he widely regarded as the toughest-looking general in the northern hemisphere. His teeth, which bear witness to the smoking of many a small cigar, are the kind of unreconstructed gnashers that Americans call 'English'. The whole ensemble is crowned by a face that speaks eloquently of the life of a soldier, lived as much in the field as on the parade ground or, latterly, in Whitehall. It's a ravaged and weatherbeaten visage, which, as the poet WH Auden said of his own face, looks like a 'wedding-cake that has been left out in the rain'.

He's a bit self-conscious about his appearance and doesn't like being photographed. Unlike a normal MT photoshoot, which can take over an hour, Jackson bursts out of the session after eight minutes flat. Nor does he take kindly to being told what to do. When Harry Borden, the photographer, asks him to put his hands by his sides, the General's 'No' - growled basso profundo - brooks no argument. It's not rude, but he makes it perfectly clear to all concerned that it would be best not to repeat the request.

The MOD building on Whitehall has just undergone a big refurbishment, but for all that it's newly fitted out and freshly painted, the general's floor looks like the set from The Office.

There's a marked absence of uniformed staff, and the only indication that someone very important is to be found here is a small plaque saying CGS above the door to his private lair. The one thing that differentiates the open-plan blandness of the main space from that of Wernham Hogg are the 'To Bomb Shelter Area' signs dotted about on the walls.

The resemblance to a normal office is more than superficial. His 'employees' may be armed and dangerous, but most of the issues he's wrestling with will be familiar to CEOs the world over: strategic planning, leadership training, recruitment, restructuring, innovation, minding the budget - all the usual disciplines and challenges of corporate life plus a few more unique to the job of running the British Army.

It's the restructuring section of the pie that is exercising CGS's mind most particularly at the moment. When he joined the army in the early '60s - only a few years after the end of conscription - it was 189,000 strong. Current strength is just under 104,000 and a cash squeeze from the Government means that this number is going to have to come down even further, by about another 1,500, by 2008. All at a time when the three British services, and the army in particular, have rarely been busier.

Like the rest of us, the General is learning the meaning of 'lean'.

The cuts are unlikely to have been Jackson's idea. 'We have been slightly squeezed, that's a fact,' he admits. 'The Government makes up its political mind as to the allocation of funds for this or that function of state, and we have got what we have got. When due process is done here in this building, I end up with an army of about 102,000 people for the future.

Of course I'd like more - who wouldn't? - but it's OK. I can get an effective army out of that.'

Suggestions of dumbsizing - blindly reducing the headcount with no thought for the consequences - are quickly squashed. The process, says Jackson, is rather a question of the army taking a long hard look at exactly where it wants to go. 'It's about the macroscopic structure - what does the army need to look like in 15 or 20 years' time? And starting from defence planning assumptions of what you are likely to need where - how many minesweepers, how many tanker aircraft - there's a very intricate intellectual construct that gives you the answers.'

But the real-world drawbacks of intellectual constructs - as thinkers from Galileo to Einstein would attest - is that the answers they produce can seem to some more unpalatable than the problems they are supposed to solve. The infantry bears the brunt of the general's plan and, under the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin expression of Future Army Structure (no corporate gobbledegook), it will lose four of its 40 battalions: two from the English regiments and two from the Scottish. Historic regiments such as the Cheshires, the Devonshire and Dorset, even the Black Watch - moved north last month into the thick of the Iraqi action to free up US troops for Fallujah and taking casualties almost immediately - will cease to exist in its present form. Unsurprisingly, this has provoked a barrage of criticism and even charges of disloyalty from former servicemen, who have accused Jackson of favouring his alma mater, the Paratroop Regiment, over the rest of the service.

He argues that the make-up of our existing forces is no longer fully effective. Of seven fighting brigades, three comprise heavy armoured units, three are intermediate mechanised units and only one consists of light troops. Given that the most likely roles will be for a rapid-reaction, flexible force to take part in increasingly multinational operations, 'that is out of balance - we use the light forces more than the rest'.

So there will be more light forces, and a new family of lightly armoured vehicles to replace ageing Land Rovers and armoured personnel carriers.

The burden of maintaining what is known as the arms post has also become increasingly onerous. This is the time-honoured practice of moving infantry battalions to a new post every three or four years, to support variety and experience for the troops. When the army was nearly 200,000 strong, it could live with the fact that a big proportion of it was unavailable, but these days that is too inefficient.

'We couldn't go on with it. Effectively, we don't have 40 battalions available; we have more like 32. That's because on any given day, eight battalions are either on the move, training or re-roling.

'Once you stop moving battalions around, what do you do? You still have to be able to move the people around to give them variety and career development. But do that in a single battalion regiment (such as the Cheshires or the Black Watch) and you can end up with a battalion whose people wear a dozen different cap badges. The answer is to make the family, the persona, bigger. So you can move from battalion to battalion, but keep the same identity.'

If his theory is correct, the effective army strength even after losing four battalions will be greater than it is now, because of the ready availability of the remaining 36.

Jackson, a soldier's soldier and highly popular in the ranks, has clearly given much hard thought to the Future Army Structure and he delivers his rationale with the confidence of one used to making the right decision and sticking to it. He may be unhappy with the way it has been received in some quarters - indeed, as we went to press, he was summoned to see Tony Blair once again - but he's not a man to let verbal shrapnel deflect him from his chosen path. 'It's difficult and emotive, and I wish we could achieve what we need within the current structure, but I don't think that's on. It's unfortunate for the current single-battalion regiments, but they simply don't have critical mass.'

And what of the rumours that when it comes to his political masters, he has found Tony Blair far more sympathetic to the issues faced by the armed forces than Gordon Brown? One general has been reported as saying: 'The prime minister likes what we do, but he doesn't understand who we are. The Chancellor doesn't understand what we do and he doesn't like who we are.'

The rivalry between Brown and Blair is also said to increase the Chancellor's antipathy towards the army. Jackson, who - along with the others heads of the armed forces - had supped with Brown the night before, merely comments: 'You would need to ask both of those gentlemen that question.'

After school in Stamford, Lincolnshire, the teenaged Jackson didn't think twice about following the family tradition. 'My father had been a soldier and, aged 16 or 17, I decided that I'd quite like to be one too.' He went to Sandhurst and hasn't looked back. In 1963 he was commissioned into the intelligence corps - a natural home for an ambitious and clever young officer wanting to push the right buttons to further his career. The Cold War was in full spate, and to add to his reputation as a military intellect he graduated from an in-service degree in Russian Studies in 1967. But Jackson is a man who likes action as well as thought, and in 1970 he transferred out of intelligence and into the Parachute Regiment, which became his home for long spells in the next three decades, including service in Northern Ireland and culminating in the command of 1 Para from 1984 to '86.

He was in Londonderry for the events of Bloody Sunday and gave evidence last year to the Saville Inquiry, during which he said he was adamant that he had been fired on. 'As I sprinted across the waste ground, I had an absolutely firm impression that I was being shot at... What I thought was: some bugger is firing at me.'

Jackson's rise through the military hierarchy was well planned, active service postings alternating with staff jobs at home and abroad to make sure that he was never too far from the thoughts of the army's top brass in Whitehall.

The legendary moments of his career thus far have been in the Balkans; in the late '90s his red-bereted, combats-clad figure became an almost nightly presence on our TV screens, often with billowing smoke and the rattle of small-arms fire in the background. (Jackson was awarded the DSO by the Queen for his leadership in Kosovo.) As head of K-force there in 1999, he had a run-in with US General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (Saceur), which cemented Jackson's reputation as a man who doesn't crack under pressure.

Clark, a Clinton crony who has been described as 'prickly and pompous' and 'by many leagues the worst Saceur ever', tried to order Jackson to retake Pristina airport, which had just been captured by the Russians.

Jackson refused: 'I'm not going to be the man who started the third world war.'

Four years later and the differences between the British and the American ways of soldiering are under discussion again. Many observers in Iraq have noted a lack of engagement between the American forces and the Iraqi population. Those most critical say that US troops favour an arms-length, shoot first and ask questions later modus operandi. By contrast, the British approach is more of a helmet- and sunglasses-free, hearts and minds affair; where possible, troops walk the streets rather than driving them, and tension is defused by encouragement and explanation rather than coercion.

Jackson accepts that there are differences. 'Armies are institutions drawn from their own nations. The national army of whatever country will be culturally different from another. Americans aren't Brits. Brits aren't Germans. The armies that emerge will be different, not necessarily in terms of structure or equipment but in ethos. It's not good or bad, it's just a fact.'

A fact that modern military leaders have to live with, given the increasing propensity for multinational coalition efforts - or at least for more joint ops between us and the Americans. 'Where it gets interesting is in coalition operations, because in a multinational force you must allow for these differences. It does bring friction, in the sense that Clausewitz uses the term (the 19th-century Prussian general and military theorist Karl von Clausewitz stated that military friction was the result of the unpredictability of war). Where the huge political advantage of countries showing common purpose is not outweighed by the friction, that's good.'

It's clear that 30 years of counterinsurgency experience on the streets of Northern Ireland have made British troops some of the best in the world at this kind of operation - experience that the US army, for all its size and technological superiority, signally lacks.

'These are operations among people,' says Jackson. 'We have that advantage.

The vast majority of our soldiers have not been in the army for 35 years, but it imbues the collective memory somehow. I wouldn't say that we are better or worse, but we have a very good understanding of an approach that works for us.' It's also true that the burden of the really heavy fighting in Iraq has fallen on the far more numerous American forces.

One serious problem that Jackson faces is that he is leading his troops in what is becoming an increasingly unpopular war at home. We are taking part in one of the most disliked military actions since the second world war; the truth about our motives for becoming involved in the first place have been harshly questioned, and this is compounded by a perceived lack of success in the field. Is he concerned about waning support back in Britain and the potentially damaging effects that this might have on the morale of his people on the ground in Iraq?

'I'm not concerned that it will permeate through,' he says. 'Of course, any soldier would wish to feel that he has the support of the home base.

As soldiers, I believe they do. We are only too aware that a proportion of the British public - which varies according to the polls - did not or do not now approve of that military action. But they do distinguish between that political position, which they are perfectly entitled to hold, and the knowledge that soldiers, sailors and airmen are under a legal duty to follow the direction of the duly elected government.'

The point is this: he runs an odd business in a way, one in which the ultimate strategic direction is not in his hands but those of his political masters. He has to do what he is told, even if he has reservations. He adds: 'I think the public can quite easily distinguish between their own approval or disapproval of the political action and a sense of supporting British troops in a dangerous position. I think they do that. I don't think the disapproval is visited upon the British army.'

So Iraq doesn't threaten to become our Vietnam? 'No, I cannot see it becoming our Vietnam,' he insists.

So, what are the parallels between business and the military? Certainly, leadership has been the hottest word in the business lexicon since even before 9/11. And military heroes are a favourite source of leadership fables. Everyone from Bill Gates to the manager of the local coffee shop wants to emulate Henry V, leading his troops 'once more unto the breach'. Does Jackson - whose own personal hero is Lord Wellington - have any top tips to pass on to the nation's chief executives?

He believes that connections can be made, but cautiously. 'You are first introduced to leadership - as an academic subject - at Sandhurst. Without leadership, the army would get nowhere, literally as well as figuratively. Business can learn from it, but the context must be clear.'

The truth is that at his level of seniority the parallels can be the other way around. 'A lot of what I do as the professional head of the British army is of a structural management nature, very easily mirrored by the chief executive of another large organisation,' he says.

But when the bullets start flying, you need more than an MBA to take the next trench. 'Leadership in the field is probably unique to the army, from very small groups of four to eight guys up to a general with 30,000 soldiers under his command. That's very much more hands-on. "Follow me!" This is very different.'

Some aspects of military life have a bearing on commerce, but business is not war. Even the most ardent management trainee is never asked to lay down his life for the company. Indeed, Jackson believes there are plenty of misconceptions among the civilian population about what serving in the army is really like.

'There's a perception among non-military personnel that soldiering is about yelling at people and locking them in the guardhouse if they do not do what they are told. Frankly, this couldn't be further from the truth. The team basis of the army is fundamental. What keeps a soldier going when life is getting rough and his instincts are saying that this is not a clever thing to do is the feeling that the last thing he wants to do is let down his mates.'

Good officers are trained to display the kind of selflessness sometimes absent among their managerial counterparts in civvy street. 'When we still had horses in the cavalry, it was always "first the horses, then the soldiers; lastly, when all else is done - yourself". That says a lot. It's imbued in you from the word go, that approach. If you demand this of soldiers, you must demand more of yourself and be seen to. The Sandhurst motto puts it very well: Serve To Lead.'

Being seen by his people is highly important. He admits that he misses action. 'I would rather be out there than behind a desk, even though I'm getting a bit creaky in the pins for the existence in the field. I try to be out 40% of the time and I try to get around all our operational theatres at least once a year, more if I can.'

Jackson is army through and through. He never thought of doing anything else. He has three children, two grown up and a 14-year-old boy. His elder son was an officer for nine years, but then had a serious accident parachuting on holiday. 'He's lucky to be alive. He had to leave the army - sad, but there you are. The 14-year-old is playing it very long, but I'd be happy if he joined the army, happy whatever he did if he's made a free and fair choice and isn't going down a blind alley.'

The one-way street that the general has negotiated has never left room for a diversion or meanderings. 'No daydreams.

Never tested the alternative. What I have done is absolutely absorbing and satisfying. It's fantastic that someone made a mistake and put me in charge.'

FOUR TOUGH CHALLENGES FACING JACKSON

1 For how long is the presence of the British army in Iraq likely to be required?

2 How long before our military alliance with the Americans comes under severe operational strain?

3 Will the reduction in the total headcount of the army affect operational efficiency and/or morale?

4 With the large number of peace-keeping roles expected to be filled by the army worldwide, are British forces vulnerable to excessive stretch?

JACKSON IN A MINUTE

1944 Born in Sheffield. Educated at Stamford School and the Royal

Military Academy, Sandhurst

1963 Commissioned into the Intelligence Corps

1967 Graduates from in-service degree in Russian Studies at Birmingham

University

1970 Transfers to Parachute Regiment, serves in Northern Ireland

1976 Chief of Staff, Berlin Infantry Brigade

1981 Directing staff, staff college Camberley. Seconded to MOD during

Falklands War

1984 Commander, 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment

1989 Commander, 39 Infantry Brigade, Northern Ireland

1994 Commander, 3(UK) Division

1995 Commander, UN Protection Force, Bosnia.

1997 Commander, Kosovo Force, Macedonia and Pristina

2000 Commander-in-Chief, Land Command

2003 Appointed Chief of the General Staff.

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