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Taking Command

General Sir David Richards
It seems an odd comment on an autobiography that it would be greatly improved if it were less concerned with the author. Yet that is the case with Taking Command, the autobiography of General Sir (now Baron) David Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff.

Richards is one of the more interesting senior officers of previous years. He demonstrated a track record of both the moral courage to make difficult choices (or give unwelcome advice) and the ability to achieve operational success. As a mere Brigadier, commanding the rapid deployment headquarters within PJHQ, he unilaterally changed British foreign policy to intervene in Sierra Leone at a crucial time, arguably preventing the country's slide into anarchy, by deliberately using media briefings to cajole London into following his lead. As Richards writes, he was “well ahead of his orders“, not a phrase most senior officers would countenance. But Sierra Leone remains the most successful UK intervention of the past two decades. For a man who took such liberties with government policy to subsequently promote is unheard of, let alone become the 3-star NATO commander in Afghanistan, CinC LAND, CGS and finally CDS.

Unfortunately, surprisingly little behind-the-scenes explanation of this story is in Taking Command. The first thing to note about the book is that Richards is not a great writer. His expressions have a curiously anachronistic 1950's jolly hockey sticks tone, which, while fitting his early accounts of Cold War Germany, quickly wears. Descriptions of individuals invariably follow the three-adjective descriptive format of an SJAR: one officer is “tall, angular and rather languid“, and so on. This is perhaps to be expected: senior military officers are not selected for their prose writing. Less forgivable is that it has clearly been rushed to publication, and is very poorly and inconsistently edited. One large section consists of verbatim notes from his Afghanistan war diary, as Commander ISAF in 2006. While this may be of historical interest, it is hard to escape the impression that this section has more to do with meeting a tight publication date than necessity to the book itself.

While Richards faithfully recounts his version of events, the story of how he bucked the system to produce results and survived is largely ignored. Although he acknowledges he was a “controversial“ senior officer, the details are always glossed over or muted. Everyone, eventually, is “a good friend“, no matter how transparently he has disagreed or fought with them. The poor editing of the book even throws up some overt contradictions here: individuals such as his NATO superiors Jim Jones or Gerhard Back, who he has resoundingly savaged on previous pages get a warm and uncritical epitaph in the same section. In some passages, an individual will be referred to only by their position or rank (“one of the Chiefs of Staff“ or “the UK Colonel in Helmand“), usually while relating some argument or criticism. Yet later, the exact individual is made clear. Whatever the cause of this incoherence, it is, at best, a disingenuous approach. Many of Richards' compliments are clearly not genuine, which ironically brings into question the moral courage he is equally keen to convey. It also fatally undermines his intent. Throughout the book, Richards sells himself as an outspoken officer who disagreed with much of the MOD status quo. Yet, with several hundred pages of the reader's attention, he refuses to really pin down many of these disagreements and present a critical argument for or against them. Whatever his reasons (and it is clear from the muddled writing that, at times, he has taken advice to tone down his criticism of individuals) it makes for a frustrating and patently incomplete account. He appears to be trying to mend bridges long after they have burned down.

The other main impression of the book is what appears to be Richards' overwhelming egotism. From the cringeworthy cover photo to the relentless focus on the personal pronoun, this is very much a story about him. Perhaps, for an autobiography, this is unfair criticism. But in a senior Army officer, it reads uncomfortably. At various points Richards professes that any success he has had was due to those around him, before quickly returning to talking about himself. While many are mentioned and praised by name, they are obviously being given a bow from the wings. He also has a curiously self-regarding habit of attributing flattering opinions about himself to others, and then softening them in an attempt at self-deprecation. It ends up seeming like he is trying hard to convey humility, while actually putting personal praise into the mouths of others. This is in stark contrast to another autobiography by a US peer, My Share of the Task by US General Stanley McChrystal, which almost obsessively avoids talking about the author, instead focusing on the - frankly more interesting - account of the military and historical events in which he was a key player.

In Richards account, the events are second fiddle to the man. Even assuming this is simply the mark of an uncertain first-time author and absent editor, it makes for uncomfortable reading. Worse, Richards falls into the trap of accusing others for behaviours he clearly shares. In Sierra Leone, he is highly critical of the “unprofessional“ decision by a Royal Irish Major to deviate from his mission plan while on task, which led to the capture of him and his men, and subsequently Op BARRAS. But only pages before, Richards relays how he completely freelanced his mission on Op PALLISER, and in one particular account, ordered a high-risk operation to bring ashore (directly against orders) a 105mm gun using Chinooks, which almost resulted in the loss of the airframes: a critical, mission-failure risk. Richards doesn't seem to acknowledge the very real part played by luck in these successes. If he succeeds when taking risk or disobeying orders, it's good judgement. If another fails when doing the same, it's unprofessional. At the start of the book, I was interested and impressed in the man and his achievements. By the end, I found myself disliking him. Clearly this is not the full story: many of his subordinates (both in the book and elsewhere) report that he was an excellent and liked commander. But, despite his constant attempts to claim it in Taking Command, I finished the book unable to believe that humility was a trait that Richards really possesses. This may be an unfair judgement of the man, but it is unfortunately the one he has written for himself.

There are many worthwhile aspects to Taking Command. It offers personal accounts of important events in recent military history, even where the edges have been smoothed. In the last pages, his account of his time as CDS, he offers some relevant insight into the practice of current structures within government and Defence, such as the operation of the National Security Council and strategic planning within Cameron's cabinet. The three stars given to this book entirely come from the undoubted achievements of Richards himself and these important personal account of the events in which he was a key and influential player. Few modern British generals have been, frankly, as good at their job as he has. His operational success speaks to that. Accordingly, this book contains important insights for students of the past two decades of Western military action.

Yet, sadly, Richards valuable service is done a disservice by his own hand. Taking Command's unconvincing latter-day conversion to magnanimity, and an unflattering sheen of egotism, makes for a poor epilogue to an admirable career.
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