The General preferred it when times had been simpler. When men had been men and, come to think of it, so had the women. He’d been called to attend some kind of ‘brain storm’ and they were making him sit at the head of a series of tables laid out in a horseshoe shape. Twenty people sat around him, the closer they got, the more important they were. He could see now that three of them were women. Three of them, actually sitting at the main table. He sighed as he waited for a scruffy civilian to wheel out a whiteboard.
‘Good morning General, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Keith, I’m from the analysis section and I’ve been asked to facilitate today’s brainstorm.’
The General looked at the man, he wasn’t even forty. He was wearing a polyster tie and a sports jacket. What was the world coming to? He reached for his mobile phone in his pocket.
‘OK.’ Keith continued. ‘As we only have the General joining us for this first morning session, I thought it might be good for us to quickly go around the table to introduce ourselves.’
The General snapped to attention. ‘I haven’t got time for that! Pick up the pen, or whatever it is you’re paid to do, and listen. We are here to decide what the future threats to Queen and country are. Now, you make sure you get this. The biggest threat to our country is and will be from terrorists. Quite simple.’ He looked around the horseshoe table, all the people in green nodded at his words. Those in dark blue shook their heads and those in light blue looked skywards, but no-one said anything.
‘But what even is a terrorist?’ This was from someone at the end of the table, a young woman Major.
Keith smiled and wrote down ‘What is a terrorist?’ on his white board.
The General made a fist under the table. ‘What kind of nonsense is this? I’ve just come back from the cabinet – a terrorist is the biggest threat the country is facing today? You go to London. You sit with the people who know – did you know that there are 11,000 terrorists operating in England today?’
‘But,’ Keith volunteered ‘That’s today, we’re talking about thirty years from now.’
The General reddened and went into his jacket pocket for his blood pressure pill while everyone looked the other way. As he poured himself a glass of water, his Chief of Staff, a Commodore from the Navy, spoke.
‘I think what the General is saying is that we need to think about how the threats of today will translate into the threats of tomorrow. We need to address the real security issues presented by terrorist groups, whilst being mindful of the longer term threats they could present – such as to the supply chain, the sea and such like.’
Keith wrote ‘Supply chain’ on the board.
At this point, an Air Commodore on the General’s other side said, ‘I think he also meant that to achieve these things tomorrow we’ll also need to maintain a credible technical ability and deter future threats.’
Keith wrote ‘technical ability’ and ‘deterrence’ on his board.
The General gestured for his Military Assistant and whispered something to him. At which point everyone started talking at once and no-one paid the slightest bit of attention to Keith. It wasn’t until the young woman Major at the front slapped the table and said with the loudest voice in the room.
‘Oh come on really, is this how its going to happen again? Are we really just going to fall about arguing about mass, the air-craft carriers and deterrence? This is all we ever do – how are we ever going to move forward if we don’t think about the future honestly and openly?’
The General stared at her. ‘And how would you suggest we did things, young lady.’
The Major didn’t react like the General had wanted to her to. To his annoyance she answered rationally, which women weren’t supposed to do. ‘Well, sir, I’d start by not asking the command chain the questions about the future as they’re the most biased by the views of today. I’d probably go to a younger, more general and ,dare I say it, more diverse group for a wider range of opinions.’
The General took out his phone. ‘OK. Well, Major – lets put that on the pile of all the things we should do and, in the interest of diversity, why don’t you tell us what we should be thinking about the future.’
‘Well, if I was in charge of the Army, I’d be worried about the internet and cyber warfare and what role the Armed forces will have to society in the future.’
The General’s colour went from puce to beetroot. He squeezed his phone in his hand. For a moment, he remembered a meeting, an operational brief back in Iraq – a REMY Captain had something almost as stupid and he’d thrown a radio at him. Oh, he longed for those days again. Back when his power had been real. To his relief the phone the started ringing. He quickly covered the number and got up from his chair. ‘Yes fine, this is all very good.’ I’ve got to get this, it’s the Defence Chief.’
‘Well thank you General for your time,’ Keith said ‘was their anything you wanted to add quickly about what the Major said.’
‘Yes, yes, all very good.’ The General said, waving his hand. ‘Just remember terrorism is the most important thing and if you really need to do something about the internet, get that Brit down here – you know the one the that invented it – what’s his name. “Tim Brook-Taylor” or whatever it is. Now if you’ll please excuse me.’ And he was gone, through the special door that only he was allowed to use.
The void he left lasted for three heartbeats. Everyone looked around the room to see who was nearest to the General’s seat. The Commodore, the Air Commodore and an Army Colonel all looked at each other, then they all started speaking at once.
‘OK!’ Keith repeated, over and over, getting louder and louder until people looked at him, he was after all, the only man standing at the front of the room and he had the pen.
‘Let’s just go back to what the General said before he left. We are all, of course, grateful for his time and his direction.’ Keith said, looking at the clock. The General had arrived at 9.05, and he’d gone by 9.15. He’d given ten minutes of his time to being ‘open minded’ and that, it seemed, had been enough.
He worked through the bullet points written on the board.
‘So, the General was concerned about possible terrorist threats. We’ll put that down as one possible threat for the future.’
At this point the Army Colonel, who had very short hair, cleared his throat.
‘No. The General didn’t say it was one possible threat, he said it was the threat for the future. One that ‘only boots on the ground’ can be used to fix the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people.’
As one, the men in dark blue uniforms sucked in their breath. The Commodore turned to face the colonel.
‘I think you’ll find that he said protection of supply chains was as important!’ His chins jostled under his white beard as he spoke. But then the thin Air Commodore chose this moment to get up from his chair and walk to the white board.
‘No, this is what I think he said. May I?’
Keith had no choice but to hand his pen over as the Air Commodore turned over the white board and started drawing a process diagram about equipment procurement that described how drones would make boots on the ground irrelevant in the next five years. Halfway through his sermon the woman Major put up her hand.
‘I don’t really know what the General meant to say, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t say that!’
The Colonel at the far end of the table looked at her with fury. ‘I think we’ve all had enough of your input for today thanks Julie.’
They then spent the rest of the morning arguing. After coffee, the only people left were the woman Major, a retired Navigation officer, the Army colonel, Keith and his two scribes, young analysts from the graduate scheme. It didn’t take long for them to go through their notes. As they did one of the scribes said.‘I think it was Tim Berners Lee that invented the internet, not…’ before he could finish, the Colonel interrupted.
‘That’s what the General’ said. And they all wrote it down.