25 October 2019
I haven’t always been a shady, untrustworthy PR man. For more than a decade, I was a shadowy, mildly honourable bureaucrat, working for the House of Commons Service as a clerk. It was a very different job, which required a skill set overlapping only in places with my role now, but it taught me a huge amount, about writing, about absorbing information, and about dealing with demanding, time-poor clients who were often under enormous pressure. It also afforded me the opportunity to go to some extraordinary places.
From 2006 to 2008, I was second clerk (effectively deputy head of the secretariat) of the Commons Defence Committee. We were a small team, eight officials, serving 14 backbench Members of Parliament who were supposed to hold the Ministry of Defence (60,000 civil servants) to account and scrutinise their annual expenditure (£50 billion). We were sometimes a bit stretched. But in those days, the armed forces were also heavily committed to two major theatres of conflict; Operation Herrick, the UK presence in Afghanistan, and Operation Telic, the campaign in Iraq. Tens of thousands of British troops were on the ground, and we tried to visit them in theatre as often as we reasonably could. So it was that, two summers in a row, I packed my bag for a week of sun, sea and sand in the Arabian Gulf.
I sometimes forget, when mentioning it to people, how weird it is that I’ve been to Iraq not just once, but twice. I was apprehensive, I won’t deny it, but much more than that I was excited and fascinated and a little bit honoured, to see, in a very watered-down way, what our guys and girls lived with week in, week out, as their way to earn a living. Whatever you think of the UK presence in Iraq, the troops got little thanks on the ground – and sometimes, not a great deal more at home.
Back in 2006, the British armed forces had adopted a ‘soft posture’ on operations in mainly civilian areas. That meant openness, engagement and approachability, and, in a brilliantly simple move learned on the streets of Northern Ireland, the soldiers took their helmets off and put on berets or whatever soft headgear was prescribed for their unit. One cavalry trooper was quoted at the time: “We do it quite a lot. It looks better to the civilian population. It doesn’t look so aggressive.”
When I first went to Iraq in 2007, the atmosphere was very tense. The security situation had taken a decisive turn for the worse after the beginning of the Coalition “surge”, as military involvement was stepped up in order, perversely, to pave the way for substantial withdrawal. Violence flared up, and a lot of progress was lost, at least for a while. For British troops, this meant a strange detail, but, from a psychological point of view, a telling one: helmets went back on. This change in headgear transformed their perception by the local population, and in turn changed their approach to the same civilians.
It’s simple but inspired. A fully equipped infantry soldier in the 21st century is a daunting figure: heavy boots, thick body armour, prominently carried weapon, ballistic goggles or glasses, and, of course, a helmet and communications equipment attached to it. Imagine being faced by a squad of them. Now imagine it from a child’s perspective. (Iraq is a young country. 60% of the population is under 24, and 40% is under 14.)
Now imagine the change if the helmet comes off. Suddenly, you see a face, not a mask. You see a person. A human being. Different from you, of course, white-skinned, probably, but recognisably a person. It’s no longer a squad of occupying soldiers, but a group of men and women with whom you can interact. They will probably be friendly, because soldiers are pretty cheerful as a breed and they will have been told to be open and welcoming. The relationship is utterly transformed.
This is a particularly British approach to counter-insurgency, of which the armed forces have long experience in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland. The Americans have not traditionally taken the same view, and remain literally and figuratively buttoned-up, safe inside armoured vehicles and under helmets. They have not always grasped the importance of these micro-signals, as one British soldier wittily explained in 2006: “When I would use the term ‘hearts and minds,’ I would lose them. You might as well have come out and said you were gay. I had to think of a different term to use.”
What does this all mean? Simply, and counter-intuitively, do sweat the small stuff. When you’re dealing with interpersonal relationships, as I did in politics, we do in PR, and any number of other industries do, it can be the smallest thing which makes the biggest difference. Eye contact. A visible smile. Putting a face to the ‘enemy’. Contact leads to recognition, and recognition kindles trust. It’s hard to hate someone, even harder to kill him, when he looks like you, acts like you, thinks like you. The British Army understands this and drums it into soldiers. As soon as it’s safe, the order goes out: helmets off, berets on.