Writing about the British Army
I have read a range of books about the British Army recently, and they have all been very different, despite covering much the same ground. Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard (Scribe, 2021) accused the army – in effect – of failing to comprehend the nature of the fighting with which it was tasked, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This was in part because, he argued, of a mixture of hide-bound traditionalism and, to put it bluntly, the careerism of its commanders. In Akam’s view the army wasn’t professional enough to adapt itself to the challenges it faced in both these places. While I liked the book – there is much in it that as an ex-soldier I recognised – I was still troubled by it. Did it really represent the British Army I knew, and had known intimately for 40-years? It was only when I read Ben Barry’s magisterial Blood, Metal and Dust (Osprey, 2021) that I understood what Akam had missed. Barry doesn’t pull any punches explaining how and why the British and the Americans got things wrong in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference between Akam and Barry is that the latter’s analysis is about the system of the army and its approach to warfighting, whereas Akam’s (and I exaggerate a little here) is based on anecdote and the culture of soldiering.
A failure, perhaps of both books is that neither is clear about the separation of the operations undertaken by the British Army (and its preparation for war) from politics and the Whitehall machine that put them in harm’s way in the first place. By seeing the Army in isolation, they fail to put much of the blame for failure where it belongs, with politicians, civil servants, and senior officers, for whom the political game is central and the end product, perhaps, somewhat peripheral. Barry's book is better than Akam’s because it touches on this, but the best book – which I haven’t yet read on the subject – would make it front and centre as an issue. Akam fails almost completely to recognise where the blame for the direction of the army should rightly lie – namely, at the feet of politicians who determine the country’s grand strategy, and who send troops into battle with unsuitable equipment or preparation and – egregiously – without any achievable (in the case of Afghanistan) political purpose. I don’t dispute that Akam’s book is a great read, but to me it is that of a journalist who starts with a proposition – that the British Army just wasn’t good enough in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it never seriously engaged with the root causes of this failure – and sets out to gather all the evidence to prove his case. It’s a classic case of marshalling his evidence to defend a proposition, rather than starting with the evidence, and allowing it to form an argument. Akam should have known better, as this is the way of the polemicist, not the historian. (As an aside, it is exactly the approach taken by the journalist Sathnam Sanghera in the bestselling but unconvincing Empireland (Penguin, 2021). In his book Sanghera takes two deeply contested propositions about the British Empire – that it was a bad thing, and that Britons continue to pine after it – and builds his evidence to suit his purpose. I’m afraid that as an historian I found the argument (though not the evidence he gathered in its support) wholly unconvincing, although well-written. I would refer readers to the considerably more impressive work on this subject by Professor John Darwin (After Tamerlain (Allen Lane 2007) and Unfinished Empire (Allen Lane 2013). But I digress: Sanghera’s book needs to be the subject of another review).
Unlike Akam, Barry’s approach, while not without its biases is much more clear-eyed and analytical. Akam takes a bottom-up approach, looking at the culture of soldiering and extrapolating from this a series of conclusions about the army’s failures, while ignoring the elephant in the room: weak or ineffectual (and even misguided) political direction. Barry instead looks at the problems of both Iraq and Afghanistan from a top-down, decision-making perspective and is, consequently, more interested in the military politics of his subject although, as I have already mentioned, the politics at a grand strategic level are skirted over. As a result, Barry’s account is considerably more convincing, although still not complete. I can imagine him saying in response to this (mild) criticism that he would need an additional 490 pages to those he’s already written to deal with this subject comprehensively. And perhaps he’s right. In addition to the volumes of the Official History of the Second World War were added six additional volumes in the 1960s describing the war’s grand strategy. Someone needs to write this for Iraq and Afghanistan, to place operational decision-making in an overall political context. We need a book that describes the near despair in the Ministry of Defence about the overcommitment of a tiny army simultaneously in Afghanistan before the intervention in Iraq is concluded, a subject that General Lord Dannatt touched on in Leading from the Front (Transworld, 2010). One book I’ve recently enjoyed is the biography of Field Marshal Lord Guthrie Peace, War and Whitehall (Osprey, 2021) in which he records, as Chief of the Defence Staff, being incensed by the Chancellor’s ‘continuing refusal to fund our equipment needs in Afghanistan adequately.’ On one memorable occasion he told Brown to his face “Chancellor, you know fuck all about defence.” Guthrie’s memoir is illuminating and brilliantly told.
But back to Barry. The issue that he deals with far better than Akam is the reality that small armies (and the British Army is now relatively and historically very small indeed) cannot pretend to be all things to all men. Unfortunately, in the period of dramatic change between the 1990s and 2000s, it tried to do so, at the behest of political leaders in New Labour enamoured briefly with an imperialising mission termed an ‘ethical foreign policy’. But for an army to pivot from one type of warfighting to another, quickly and without proper analysis, equipment, preparation or training (or realistic political end state), is asking for trouble. Until the early 1990s the British Army had two foci, although a third intervened periodically. The first was that of countering an overwhelming Warsaw Pact conventional attack in Western Europe. This required the army to be physically based in West Germany and constructed around armoured, defensive stratagems. The culture of the army – locked in an endless round of muddy exercises across the North German Plain – was, understandably perhaps, stolid and unadventurous for much of this period, at least until General Bagnall swept his new broom through it in the 1980s. The second was to provide Military Aid to the Civil Power in Northern Ireland. During my time in the Army I was acutely aware of claims that the British Army wasn’t able to do both well. I think, in the circumstances, that it did a pretty reasonable job of both. The problem was that over time an attitude developed based on the assumption that as the kernel of soldiering was about flexibility it believed that it could adapt itself to meet any political contingency with the minimum of fuss and a good dollop of ‘can do’. Iraq and Afghanistan were, among other things, emphatic demonstrations that armies are not good at changing quickly, or indeed of answering every task placed on them by excited politicians eager to solve all the challenges brought to their door. This was the third foci, that of being a fire-brigade to race to every foreign blaze that threatened British national interest, or that of our allies. The Falklands Campaign was the first of those during my time in the army; many more followed through the 1990s and 2000s.
Andrew Richards After The Wall came Down takes a different approach to the story of the changing face of the British Army in the 1990s and 2000s. Unlike Akam’s propositional-based approach or Barry’s analytical one, Richards takes the reader through the timeline of change after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact by means of the memories and reminiscences of the men – most of them ordinary soldiers, some of those who served alongside him in a 20-year career – who experienced the Army change dramatically over this period. It’s a refreshing approach, bereft of the faux-outrage of Akam (who uses, to be fair, interviews with 260-soldiers and ex-soldiers to build his case), but intelligent and confident nevertheless. As society changed during this period, so too did the Army, and on the whole it made a pretty good fist of it. Armies are complex, human beasts, for which tradition and stability should be virtues. But as Richards makes clear, the underlying reality of this period was that the peace-dividend so loudly touted in the early 1990s as a result of the ending of the Cold War actually heaped huge problems on an Army that on the one hand was expected to reduce in size (and cost) while at the same time faced massively increased – and complex – operational challenges. It is by means of carefully stepping through of these issues that Richards succeeds in demonstrating the enormous challenges faced by the army during this period. It would have been enough for the British Army to have been confronted with Iraq and Afghanistan during a period of stability (such as the long Cold War, for instance); dealing with these changes while dramatically downsizing and having to make do and mend placed the Army on the backfoot. It’s an approach that enables the reader to see the British Army through a more objective and nonetheless sympathetic lens than Akam (in the view of this reviewer) is able to portray.
Richards’ book has the advantage of being relatively brief, coming in at 191 pages of text compared to Akam’s 570, although Barry’s is also a doorstopper at 490. If you have time, read all three. If not, most readers will be perfectly satisfied with the picture of the British Army that Richards is able to paint, and the detail of the political and military hubris described by Barry. As for the grand strategy – if there ever was one – of the wars of the ‘noughties’ we have yet to await an author.
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