Departure of a mediagenic general
Dutch Defence Chief Dick Berlijn retires. By Defence and Security specialist Hans de Vreij*
The highest-ranking officer in the Dutch army, Chief of Defence, Dick Berlijn, is leaving. The air force general is handing over command to his successor general Peter van Uhm and then he retires. Normally, such an event would only have made a couple of lines in the papers and a brief news item on TV. But times have changed in the Netherlands, not least as a result of its huge contribution to ISAF, the NATO stabilisation mission in Afghanistan.
The Dutch general Dick Berlijn has hardly been out of the spotlight since the beginning of 2006. Where has all this attention come from, is the question. The answer is twofold.
Part one: Afghanistan. The Netherlands has never taken part in such a dangerous mission since the Korean War in the early 1950s. And the country has never seen as many troops killed since the short war ten years later against Indonesia in Irian Jaya - formally Dutch New Guinea. For decades, the Dutch forces only prepared for a war that would never come: against the former Soviet Union. After that the army mainly took part in relatively safe UN peace missions. As a result: Dutch public opinion was completely unprepared for an army that actually fired shots or launched complete offensives, like the ones in Afghanistan.
General Dick Berlijn, the retiring 'mediagenic' Dutch Chief of Defence
And the Dutch haven't got used to it yet. The Netherlands is one of the few countries out of the 40 involved in the NATO mission in Afghanistan which is still debating what it is it is doing there: fighting against the Taliban or building schools. A combat mission or a reconstruction mission. General Dick Berlijn has had to explain this over and over again from the beginning of the NATO mission in Afghanistan in August 2006 right up until his last day at work. He told Radio Netherlands Worldwide this week, that he regretted the discussion, the government decision to join the mission was after all clear: the main objective was to create security so that reconstruction could begin.
The second part of the answer to the question on the publicity surrounding the top Dutch officer is down to his nature and presentation. Dick Berlijn must be a dream come true for the army's media advisers. Not to be fazed, very mediagenic, always has the right answer at the ready, and the same pair of piercing eyes he had as a fighter pilot many years ago. And he is popular with 'his' troops.
When he visited units that had been involved in very heavy fighting in Uruzgan, he was urged to introduce a 'combat badge', an honour similar to the US Combat Infantry Badge, which does not exist in the Netherlands. General Berlijn said,
"We don't give any recognition to troops who have come under enemy fire and have had to carry out their duties under severely dangerous circumstances. That is what I heard when I listened to the troops and I think they are absolutely right. So that is why we are introducing the combat badge now."
17 April 2008
[Copyright Expatica 2008]