I have to admit a little apprehension coming into this interview. Coming from a military family, I was well aware of General Lamb’s reputation for brusqueness, straight talking, and his intense dislike of the media. My trepidation was not quelled by a quite literally bone crunching handshake (I spent the first five minutes of our chat trying to massage some feeling back into my digits) and some loudly tartan trousers.
I needn’t have worried. Sir Graeme was an engaging and fascinating interviewee: passionate about his country, its military and its record in overseas conduct. Most importantly of all (for an OxStu reporter), he articulated his thoughts in perfectly formed sentences; his erudition was broken only by a frequent, toothy grin.
He seemed excited for the imminent debate, where he would be arguing in favour of the Iraq War. Lamb is clearly impassioned on the subject: “I think that if you look at Iraq in 2003 as a snapshot in time there are all sorts of reasons why we shouldn’t have invaded – but what you have to do is look at Iraq over the arc of time; see these issues spread over not only years but decades or even centuries.” Quoting Kipling, he argues that we need to, ‘Meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’ – a stoicism that he clearly believes the West has lost, especially in the case of the 2003 invasion: “It’s only through the long lens of history that one can truly see whether the conflict was for the better or the worse.”
The General, who served as Director of UK Special Forces during Tony Blair’s premiership, is similarly – and unusually – upbeat about the former Prime Minister’s record. “He brought the Labour Party into the 21st Century, he put the Tories on the back foot, he was articulate, he could carry people with him.” On the Prime Minister’s decision to enter Iraq, he is even more effusive, describing Blair as “Churchillian” with “big political balls”, and damning those who would have him indicted as a war criminal.
He is also fully in line with his former political master’s interventionist stance on the Islamic State. “If you think the butcher’s knife is the weapon of choice of ISIS then you’re misunderstanding them – their weapon of choice is propaganda. They represent a clear and present danger to our way of life.” He is fierce on this point, reiterating: “These are people who want to kill us, kill our prosperity and change our way of life. Well I say ‘Bugger them’.” As Lamb jabs his finger and his eyes gleam, I can suddenly see the young second lieutenant who won a distinguished service order for conspicuous bravery in the twisting streets of Northern Ireland.
Nonetheless, he is uncompromising on his own record in Iraq (where he was recalled at the special behest of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus): “I remember having a conversation about reconciling with the Iraqi tribes, and an American general turned round to me and Stanley McChrystal and said ‘How can you negotiate with these people, they’ve got blood on their hands’ and so on. I turned round to him and said ‘rain-check here – we’re drenched in it’.”
This is a general who is painfully honest about life in uniform and its graphic corollaries. Talking about the clips of drone strikes released on the news, he paints a vivid picture: “If you’re on the ground when a 500lb bomb drops it will blow you clean off your feet. It will kill anyone, it will destroy a compound. It is very, very violent, body parts spread everywhere, bits of people burning. This is Hobbes’ world.” The grin disappears entirely when he speaks of what makes a soldier. “We are unreasonable men. I will finish my tea on the cooling body of my enemy in a heartbeat.” Again, he reaches into his bank of quotes: “But we are absolutely necessary. It’s like Orwell said – ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf’.”
Despite this, his vituperation is greater when directed at private sector careers, damning those who chase money. The condemnation is cutting: “A number of people here at Oxford will make the fatal error of going and chasing money. They’ll end up working for shits. They’ll own houses that are too big, Ferraris that they won’t be able to drive because they’re too busy. They’ll be doing crack cocaine on the side to maintain their workload, or drinking like fish. They will have an ugly life, and the majority of it will be in that space. You think that’s a worthy life?”
In tandem to this, his pitch for a military life is compelling. “Two simple reasons why I stayed in the army for 38 years: number one is the people. In the military everyone is converging to the same problem. That is very unusual in the civilian world – in fact, it is probably impossible. Number two, what you do has a sense of purpose. It’s about being a force for good in a demonstrable and practical way. Now, the truth is, that is truly a worthy life.”
Witty, ferociously clever, and committed above and beyond the call of duty, General Lamb represents the very best of the British military. More than anything else, Sir Graeme exhibits a reflective dignity and self-deprecation that is both charming and old fashioned. Sitting back and reflecting on his own life, his comment is simple: “Soldiering is a serious business – but it must never be taken seriously.”
PHOTO/Jennifer L. Brown