General Nick Carter: “Memories of war mercifully have faded, but that brings with it greater risks”

Posted On: 
8th November 2018

General Sir Nick Carter’s military career has included service in the most high-profile conflicts the UK has engaged in over the past 40 years. Now Chief of the Defence Staff, the Sandhurst graduate wants to ensure Britain is prepared for new 21st Century threats. He talks to Sebastian Whale

General Sir Nick Carter pictured outside the Ministry of Defence General Sir Nick Carter pictured outside the Ministry of Defence
Credit: 
Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Not a day passes for General Sir Nick Carter without thinking about those who lost their lives under his command during the Afghan ‘surge’ in 2010. Tens of thousands were sent to the region with a view to breaking Taliban strongholds and training up the nation’s security forces. Then leading Regional Command South, Carter oversaw 55,000 Nato troops in the south of the country. 

Now Chief of the Defence Staff, Carter still reflects on the losses incurred during the offensive and, speaking from experience, relays the challenges soldiers face when reintegrating back into society.

The effectiveness of the Armed Forces derives from the development of “brilliant teams”, he says. They act as the means through which personnel can cope with the extraordinary pressure, demands and stresses of service.

“The moment that that comes to an end and the team gets broken up and you leave service, you’re suddenly an individual. How we manage those individuals and how we provide them with the framework of security and understanding is a national challenge. That’s what we have to pick a path through,” he says.

While multiple organisations exist to help with this endeavour and notwithstanding the “remarkable generosity” of the British people, this readjustment can be pronounced for veterans, Carter argues.

“There’s still that awful moment when you as an individual have to go home and you haven’t got your mates around you and you will remember some of the things that you’ve done. I feel it myself. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of the 375 people who died under my command in southern Afghanistan in 2010. Not a day goes by. But I’m fortunate that I’ve got people I can talk to about it still.”

Did he seek out support upon his return? “You talk about it – it’s not about support – it’s about having the opportunity to talk normally about it. It’s about the team, and when you haven’t got the team around you it becomes more challenging. It’s just sharing that experience and being able to talk about it often in a rather politically incorrect way probably because that’s the way military service works.”

He adds: “We’ve got to be really careful about how we label these things because I don’t think if I looked a psychiatrist in the eye he would tell me I’ve got PTSD. But on the other hand, I’ve got experiences that I manage and that’s the same for all of us who have been at war.”

Carter’s words are likely to give solace to former soldiers as they continue their lives after serving. And it marks one of many areas in which he is aiming his sights as he beds into his relatively new position.

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Any preconceptions one might have about the inside of the MoD building are offset by its disappointingly bland furnishings. A door with ‘CDS’ inscribed above it is all that denotes your arrival at the office of the head of the Armed Forces. In the doorway, I find Carter, who is dressed in a navy suit on a brisk Monday morning.

He first joined the Army in 1977 aged 18. He was commissioned into the Royal Green Jackets after graduating from Sandhurst. His more than 40-year (and highly decorated) service has seen stints in Germany during the Cold War, Cyprus with the UN, Bosnia and Kosovo, before multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carter also served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. How does he feel about soldiers potentially being investigated as part of a probe into killings during the period? “As a military officer who’s done multiple tours in Northern Ireland, I am uncomfortable with the prospect of being investigated. But this is a political issue and is, therefore, something that the politicians have to deal with,” he says.

After four years as head of the Army, Carter was appointed Chief of the Defence Staff in June. Like many of his predecessors, he is impeccably mannered and well spoken; cordial and reflective. His recent comments on young people and the military however garnered media attention. At an annual defence industry dinner in support of Armed Forces charity Ssafa the week before we meet, he raised concerns about young people’s understanding of the notion of service. “One has to be very careful about what I actually said,” he interjects.

“What I said was that the coming generation who are not going to be exposed to military service in the way that perhaps my generation, my father’s generation were exposed to it, aren’t necessarily going to understand the military and aren’t necessarily, therefore, going to be predisposed to the idea of service.

“When they joined the Armed Forces, they absolutely get service because they’ve made that decision to join it. The challenge is because we’re relatively small now, relatively unengaged – there is no war on at the moment, mercifully – it is harder for people to identify with that idea from general society.”

The two conflicts that have dominated much of Millennials’ exposure to the Armed Forces have been Iraq and Afghanistan. Have they affected the way young people consider the military? On the contrary, Carter believes they acted as an “extraordinary recruiting sergeant”.

“It was very attractive for a lot of people because they could see the stimulation that might come with that sort of military activity and combat and all that went with it,” he says. “Having said that, the challenge of course with both those campaigns was how you explain in political terms the reason for them, which is not my task as a military officer, but it is very much the politicians’ task.”

I wonder how it felt to return home to a country so divided over the UK’s involvement in the Middle East.

“When you’re there, you absolutely understand what you’re trying to do and it’s massively stimulating as a task in trying to achieve that,” he replies. “You always know if you’re operating at a relatively senior level that it’s not just about taking the audience in the country with you, it’s about taking the international audience with you and your home audience with you. In terms of the military task, we have probably been reasonably effective at explaining what we did and why we did it. Like all these things, it’s a question of how it’s spun internationally. That’s a problem that all soldiers have to deal with.”

The international community’s response to modern day threats is a key talking point. States such as China and Russia are circumventing international norms, and the institutions that uphold them are lagging. Russian actions in Salisbury earlier this year speak to a flagrant breach of the rules-based order.

What constitutes a weapon no longer needs to go bang, as Carter puts it himself. They can range from energy, cash, cyber-attacks and assassinations through to fake news and propaganda. Therefore, do post-World War Two institutions, including Nato and the UN, need to modernise and adapt to the new set of threats?

“Yes. We are challenged that the character of warfare has moved on and that the distinction between peace and war is blurred. That gives those people who would wish to be your competitors a whole range of new tools and techniques to able to compete with you in this grey zone,” he says.

“Now, the institutions that we created post-1945 have stood us in remarkable stead and they were created for all sorts of very noble reasons. But like everything in this world, you have to evolve as the world around you evolves.

“These institutions have got to become better able to control, regulate and provide the sort of diplomatic context in which these new techniques and tactics are being used.”

He adds: “It’s my point about weapons that don’t need to go bang; there are all manner of ways that you can seek advantage. The answer to this is to compete with them, we can’t avoid that. We’ve got an extraordinarily effective means of doing this and it’s called soft power and what we stand for and our values.”

Such a change requires international cooperation. But this has been made more difficult by the spread of populism and nationalism across the West, further pronounced by growing scepticism of global institutions.

“From my perspective, this is one of those phenomena that occur from time to time. We saw it didn’t we at the beginning and the middle of the last century. It’s just something that we all need to be very careful about because to my mind, the greatest threat these days is a threat of inadvertent escalation which leads to miscalculation. Memories of war mercifully have faded, but of course, that brings with it greater risks. When you end up with quite radical views of whatever spectrum of views they are, then that makes life more dangerous,” Carter says.

The centenary of the armistice is just days away. Does Carter sense that a collective guilt is emerging in the West over past foreign policy choices? “There are people who might wish to cast our behaviour in the last century as not necessarily being as positive as it might be. But actually, when you look back over the last 50 to 60 years, we’ve had a remarkable period of stability which has led to remarkable prosperity. Now it hasn’t been for everybody, but a lot of people have had their lives significantly improved by the behaviour of people in the second half of the last century.”

One of those who holds deep criticism of past British foreign policy choices is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader has also said he would not deploy the UK’s nuclear weapons and suggested there are few if any circumstances in which he would send British troops to war. Is Carter concerned by the prospect of him becoming Prime Minister?

“At the end of the day, it is a decision of the British people as to who they want to have as their Prime Minister. My job as the Chief of Defence Staff is to provide military advice to whoever the Prime Minister is. Clearly, as a military officer, I would explain the risks and then ask the political leadership to take a view on whether they want to tolerate those risks. That’s my task,” he considerately replies.

The economic side of the UK’s defence policy has also come in for scrutiny. Critics question the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia considering the kingdom’s actions in Yemen and the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Do our economic choices on defence undermine trust in the Armed Forces?

“The military instrument always brings questions of morality with it. Those questions of morality very quickly become political questions. Therefore, in a sense it’s not really for me to answer,” he replies.

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We meet on the day the cap on the number of Commonwealth citizens who can apply to join the UK military is lifted. Carter notes the significant numbers of servicemen and servicewomen who have served from the group of nations during Britain’s military history. But due to challenges in recruiting (the National Audit Office found an 8,200 personnel shortfall in the forces earlier this year), the news has captured attention, he argues.

“But it’s an extremely good thing for us to do, particularly when we look beyond Brexit into whatever you might define as Global Britain, that sense of us being connected to those countries who share our values and therefore share our understanding of service and the legal framework in which it happens, is to my mind a very positive thing for us to do,” he adds.

Isn’t it just a sticking plaster to the underlying recruitment problems? “These things are always cyclical. The British economy is jolly good at the moment, we’re struggling to get our message out. We’ll fix this in the next year or so – it’s a bit like turning a supertanker around – we’ll fix this. We will return to a better manning.

“But we’ve got to put it in context. The Navy and the Air Force are manned at 96%. The Army is manned at 94%. They aren’t bad numbers – they’re below obviously the target. But nobody has yet failed to deliver their operational output. You have to remember that.”

Carter notes the “enduring challenge” of telling the story of the Armed Forces in a way that retains popularity and respect for the military but also motivates people to sign up. “There’s always a risk that people try to portray things in negative ways. You’re ever having to overcome that I think,” he says. He also recognises the need for new skills, such as those acquired by people in the tech sector, as the military moves more towards specialisms.

“That means that we have to have a much more open mind to how we develop expertise and specialisms than perhaps we might have had in the past. It’s going to be challenging for us, because of course, they have an expectation of being remunerated in a different way. And therefore, we have to have quite an open mind as to how we are going to do that in relation to what you find in the private sector,” he says.

Where once the defence industry led, the private sector is pioneering when it comes to technology and change, Carter argues. The MoD must work in partnership with the private sector as that is where “so much of the skill base and good ideas are going to come from”, he continues.

“You need to think of these things on an enterprise basis. We are a national team. If you imagine that the pace of change at the moment is probably similar to the pace of change that you find in times of war – World War Two being a good example. And we managed to stay ahead of the game in World War Two because we ran it as a national enterprise. If we want to stay ahead of change and we want our nation to continue to be prosperous, the more we can do this as an enterprise the more likely we are to succeed,” he says.

Philip Hammond announced at the Budget a £1bn funding boost for defence – a welcome injection of cash but one that falls short of the multi-billion-pound black hole in the MoD’s budget identified by the NAO, I suggest.

“The point is that this is a huge statement of intent by the government and we are really pleased,” Carter says. “It puts us on a good foundation to look to the future. We’ve now got choice… We are all greedy as military people, we want the maximum we can possibly get. The answer is that we are now in a decent platform, we don’t have to cut anything, we’re looking forward and we have the opportunity now to make choices.”

In a speech at the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme Graduation dinner, Carter said the UK must “markedly improve our readiness” for conflict, because in doing so “there is a sporting chance that we will deter it from happening”. He also cited the renowned military historian, Sir Michael Howard, who observed: “The trick is not to perfectly predict the future, but to be not too far wrong when war breaks out so that one is well prepared to adapt at speed.”

How unprepared are we, and why?

“What we find in the modern world is that with technology and with the pace of change, all of us, it doesn’t matter us whether you’re the Armed Forces or whether you’re a private company, you have got to be adaptive and agile and responsive because that’s the way in which change is occurring now,” he says.

“I don’t think we’re behind; I just think you have to stay ahead.”