Interview: General Sir Mike Jackson

PUBLISHED: 12:53 30 September 2013 | UPDATED: 14:33 11 October 2013

General Sir Mike Jackson

General Sir Mike Jackson


From Belfast to the Balkans, General Sir Mike Jackson rose from the rank of adjutant in the Parachute Regiment to the Head of the British Army. Katie Jarvis spoke to him about his career and his morality ahead of an appearance at Lords of the Manor.

The Hollywood moment in General Sir Mike Jackson’s autobiography, Soldier, (and, by logical extension, in his life) comes in the middle of the Kosovo War. As commander of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, he was directly answerable to the gung-ho American General Wesley Clark (whose pronouncements throughout this period make even the most atheist of readers thank god he didn’t have access to any Big Red Button). When Russian troops, in a tense confrontation with NATO, took control of Pristina airfield – in a standoff that threatened the whole peacekeeping mission - Clark ordered Jackson to block the runway and isolate them.

“Sir, I’m not going to start World War Three for you,” Jackson tells him.

In the film version, thousands of amassed British troops would throw their berets high amidst continuous cheering as the General utters these words. In real life, the encounter took place in the privacy of Jackson’s office, leaving a thousand readers breathing sighs of relief instead.

There’s an even better finale. Over a swig or two of vodka, Jackson goes on to establish a sound relationship with the Russian General Zavarzin, based on pure psychology. When Zavarzin and his men find themselves in need of extra security, Jackson offers a squad of British soldiers – moreover, he tells him, in a split-second’s inspiration, it will be commanded by his own son, Mark. It was a move that contravened army principles, but it worked a treat. “Zavarzin beamed, and advanced to give me a bear hug. The Russians are a very sentimental people.”

If these anecdotes tell you anything (and they could be said to tell you everything), the message I take from them is this: General Sir Mike Jackson will not be my easiest interview. He’s intelligent, no-nonsense, unafraid to speak his mind, and one army league ahead of wherever you are, probably halfway up the assault-course wall.

My fears are unwarranted. The only one of my questions he refuses to answer is when I ask him to imagine being in government for five minutes, with a mandate to grant the Army anything he likes.

“Oh, no, no no,” he barks. “I’m not a politician.”

(But, when I think about it, this is the correct answer.)

What his autobiography also brings home is the radically different sort of life he’s led from the Average Joe. No wonder his book is called Soldier; because few other professions – again, thank god – would have seen the things he’s seen. His description of the Warrenpoint ambush, in which IRA bombs resulted in the British Army’s biggest loss of life in a single incident during the Troubles, is sickening but inevitable. “I remember one of the divers from the Royal Engineers asking me quietly to come and look at something he’d found in the water. It was a human face that had been blown clear of the man’s skull.” Not only was this a good friend, but General Sir Mike sensitively escorts his widow to the site where her husband died.” In another incident, he describes eating beans and a burger with the ‘despicable’ Ratko Mladic. “But, as I was to experience time and again in the Balkans, it was essential to appear unemotional and to remain – at least outwardly – entirely objective.”

What particularly bothers me, I tell him, as we speak on the phone, is: how on earth can he stare humanity in the face after all this?

“Whether we like it or we don’t, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden: we are fallen,” he says, with a wry laugh (which, to some extent, answers whether or not he’s being metaphorical).

“Sadly, the human race has amongst its numbers some pretty cruel people, and you do come up against them from time to time. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the use of violence by some to get their way is in any way going to be overtaken by a Brave New World. There is a wonderfully good side as well, which one sees in all sorts of ways; but there are those two sides.”

That other side is also in evidence, as when General Sir Mike goes to the Palace to be invested as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (“the Very Deep End of the Bath”). At the same investiture, Private Johnson Beharry is presented with the Victoria Cross for twice rescuing comrades during an ambush in Iraq, though wounded himself. “He led, and I followed,” Jackson says, fully approvingly, of the ceremony. “The private soldier first, and the Head of the British Army second.”

When I ask him if bravery can be taught, or even predicted, he concedes not. “But the philosophy of the British soldier starts and ends with, ‘I’m with my mates; I’m part of the team’. Their worst fear is not what the enemy may do but that they may let down their mates. That bond is incredibly strong and that’s why – and you’ve seen it time and time again over the last two decades – young soldiers risk all for their mates. It’s always very humbling.”

For General Sir Mike, that sense of comradeship, of being part of a team, must surely have started as a small boy of eight, when he was sent off to boarding school. One might be tempted to think the army ‘luxury’ by comparison: “We slept in big dormitories with the windows left wide open, even in winter. I can remember waking in the morning to find snow on the bed.” But he doesn’t remember being homesick: he was “generally” happy at school.

The son of an Army major, his story takes us through Sandhurst, the Intelligence Corps and the Paras, followed by an almost dizzying rise through the ranks. He undertook three tours of duty in Northern Ireland – he was present and writes about Bloody Sunday – as well as the Kosovo War. And he took over as head of the British Army seven weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

He makes clear that the narrative is about his professional life; his personal circumstances make but shy appearances. We learn that, when his first marriage broke down, he stayed close to his children, Mark and Amanda. And that he met his second wife, Sarah – the daughter of a career soldier and mother of his son, Tom - at a dinner party in 1984. These rare insights provide humour – such as Sarah wanting to talk car insurance quotes during a phone call at a particularly tense period in the Balkans – and pathos as he goes off on a mission: “Sarah had followed me out, and I gave her one last hug standing by the car. Then I climbed in and we drove away.”

(He also makes me laugh on the phone, when talking about the British economy being predicted to overtake that of France. “Ha ha”, he adds.)

So what prompted him to write his autobiography?

“I was reluctant, initially, but family and friends said: ‘Come on! You’ve had an interesting life.’ But, also, I would hope to give an insight to the lay-reader, if I can put it in that way, to what one man’s 45 years of soldiering added up to. And if it inspired the odd youngster to think, ‘I’ll have a go at that’, that’s good, too.”

Particularly interesting is the lead-up to the Iraq war. He details his thought-process about the legality of taking action. As well as doing his own unasked-for homework, studying the critical Security Council Resolutions, he takes into account his experiences in Kosovo, which posited that “…the emerging doctrine in international law that intervention on humanitarian grounds to prevent genocide of ‘ethnic cleansing’ may be adequate legal justification in itself”.

But didn’t Iraq throw into the spotlight the biggest paradox of serving with the military, I ask him. Didn’t it raise in the minds of the British public the question: what does it mean to be a principled soldier? Does it mean obeying orders you don’t necessarily agree with? Or does it mean obeying orders?

“Interesting,” he says. He talks about Clausewitz, the German writer who states that ‘war is nothing but the continuation of politics with the admixture of other means’. “You don’t set out on an operation just for the hell of it; you set out because you have been given objectives, which are fundamentally political objectives. In the Second World War, politics really were second place to the military defeat of Nazi Germany. But that’s very rare. The only other example in my mind, in recent times, is the Falklands where, at the end of the day, the outcome was decided on the battlefield and nowhere else. Just about any other conflict, it’s intertwined all the time with politics.”

His fundamental message is that we’re lucky (though we often forget how lucky) to live in a mature democracy. “It’s very clear that the military, properly and constitutionally, are subject to the direction of the duly-elected government of the day. And that’s bedrock. I often reflect that, 350 years or so ago, we cut the head off our monarch and put a general in charge. Twelve years later, we decided that was a very bad idea.” In short, he says, the soldier should put up or shut up; obey or visit the local Jobcentre.

We talk about drone warfare – the unease the public feel about it; and the fact that killing – psychologically – is horrific in hand-to-hand but a relative walk-in-the-park when you press a button. It’s at this point in the interview that differences in a soldier’s-versus-other’s outlook become apparent.

“I’ll give you a cold, some might even say callous, analysis. You are using force in the pursuit of whatever political objective. That does mean, if need be, you have to kill the enemy. How you kill him is second order.”

And we talk of the lessons learned in Iraq, during which he speaks with warm praise about the American General David Petraeus, who almost single-handedly rewrote US counter-insurgency doctrine on Iraq.

“In my mind, I’d love to say I did the same thing; well, I didn’t. Because I wasn’t in a position to do it. I can’t think of such a dramatic British example of rethinking but it does go on, both at minor tactical level and what we call the operational level.”

For all his achievements – and they are remarkable; the work of a single-minded, devoted tactician – he risks being remembered for the amalgamation of some of this country’s most noted regiments, leading to the loss of historic names – including the ‘Glorious Glosters’. He’s already spoken about the comradeship that binds troops to each other; what about the historic glue?

“Absolutely,” he says. But he points out that the structure of the infantry has never been static: there was an outcry when Cardwell, in the 19th century, changed numbered regiments to county names. His own reforms – backed by the Army Board – have not only made the army more fit for purpose in today’s world, but improved life for families, who aren’t moved from pillar to post in the same way they once were.

“It was a difficult decision; there are many people who no doubt still stick pins in my effigy; but it has stood the test of time. There’s nothing I can do to ease the pain of the loss of great names, but any army that doesn’t keep looking at itself will get left behind.”

So, after a stimulating interview, I risk asking a frivolous question.

“A what?” he barks.

Frivolous, I say. If he had a time machine to take him back to any conflict, where would he go?

“I think it would be Wellington’s army, probably in the Peninsular. He is the British general whose place in history is a very towering one. But closely followed by Bill Slim with the 14th Army in Burma. It would have been very stimulating to have been alongside them when they conducted their campaigns.”

And that’s the difference between a soldier the rest of us mortals: he’d love to be there; we’d run a mile.


General Sir Mike Jackson will be talking about his career, at Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter, GL54 2JD on Friday, October 25.

The four-course dinner includes a champagne reception and wines.

For more information call: 01451 820243

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