The Changing of the Guard
The British Army since 9/11
Brunswick, Vic: Scribe Publications, 2021
Hardcover 704pp RRP $60.00
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, April 2021
There is a very old axiom: ‘The British Army loses all its battles except the last’, and if one reads its history, there is some truth in this. Although it has often required the co-operation of its Allies, or of troops from its far-flung Empire, Britain has almost always managed to win those last battles in the many wars it has fought.
Simon Akman served, as a subaltern with a Short Service (Limited) Commission in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a rather elite armoured unit, then part of the British Army’s contribution to the NATO Forces in Germany. On leaving the Army, he returned to university, and then became a journalist. This book is based around his experiences in both roles, as serving soldier and working journalist.
It is a review of the British Army, as Akman saw it, as soldier and as journalist, in two wars during which it did not win the last and most important battles - Iraq and Afghanistan. He analyses the part the British Army played in both these wars, and tries to explain why, in his opinion, it failed to achieve its intended objectives. or no matter what one may read elsewhere, why, and how it left Iraq and Afghanistan without achieving any positive results or wining any Battle Honours.
Akman’s research for the book is based on some 260 interviews, mostly with officers and other ranks who served in these two campaigns, with the dependents of some soldiers, and of others who had some role in providing inputs of relevance to that main theme. It was a monumental ask and took nearly five years to complete.
It does not tell a ‘pretty’ story - rather, it is a ‘warts and all’ tale of two campaigns that were led by junior and middle-level officers who had had little or no combat experience, acting under orders from senior officers who were still fighting using doctrines and tactics that had been applicable to contending with IRA irregulars, Argentinian conscripts, or ill-trained and unmotivated Iraqis in the earlier Gulf War over Kuwait. The troops involved at the ‘sharp end’ were trained for a variety of situations - a large-scale war in Western Europe, peace-keeping operations in the Balkans or Cyprus, or anti-guerrilla actions in Malaysia and Borneo or Sierra Leone - and none of these were entirely appropriate for the deserts and crowded cities of Iraq or the dry hill country and villages of Afghanistan.
So, the troops going to these two theatres had to be re-trained and were required to operate under doctrines that were new to both officers and men, and which were imposed on them by politicians and civil servants who were concerned that the Laws of War were strictly obeyed. Men were under orders to refrain from firing unless fired upon, to put the safety of civilians before their own safety, and to be careful not to be too rough when interrogating prisoners.
At the same time, the men sent East were ill-equipped, in many respects, by a parsimonious Government intent on avoiding spending any more money than was absolutely essential, providing only vehicles with limited armour protection, uniforms not appropriate for the climate or the country. Communication systems were inadequate, and helicopters - vital for movement and reconnaissance in both countries had to be ‘borrowed’ from the American forces in the area.
Meanwhile the social codes in the various Regiments were maintained, strictly in some of the more prestigious units, almost to the point of absurdity. This was at a time when the British Army was being extensively re-structured by amalgamations of County and similar Regiments into larger units with a single, overall title - for example, almost all Scottish Regiments are amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland, thus wiping the names of Highland Regiments such as The Black Watch, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from the Army List forever. Attempts to reverse these amalgamations were met with a firm political refusal - the bigger ‘single’ regiments are set to stay.
Throughout both campaigns, discipline was strictly maintained - as one American put it: ‘A soldier who loses his weapon is likely to suffer more than an officer who loses a battle’, and two American Brigadier-Generals are forced to resign their commissions after failing in an operation, whereas a British officer who planned and lead an operation that was a complete and near-disastrous failure, is promoted to a more senior rank and posting to a position with much greater responsibility. This failure to implement any level of accountability damages the morale of lower ranked officers and of the other-rank soldiers.
Furthermore, despite the brutal budget restrictions, the Ministry of Defence spent vast amounts of money holding enquiries into claims for compensation lodged by Iraqis and Afghans who claim to have suffered loss or been injured by British soldiers or compensating the dependents of Iraqi or Afghan civilians who may have been killed or incapacitated by British troops’ activities. One such inquiry led to a total expenditure of nearly £13 million, another to £31 million. The latter was over a claim for compensation for the death of the nephew of an Iraqi, while in the custody of British troops. All this at a time when British soldiers were being denied compensation when discharged with post-traumatic stress disorder, or unable to find how to obtain assistance when suffering from debilitating stress or incapacitating wounds - because no such services were available to non-commissioned ranks or their dependents.
There are several stories of similar cases quoted. They lead to a possible conclusion: That the Ministry of Defence is prepared to spend vast sums on ‘lawyers’ picnics’ rather than admit to any accountability for any wrong-doings or breaches of legal orders and instructions. But then, it appears that no one is held accountable for incompetence or any other faults in performance of their duties - either in the Army or in Parliament. It is an indictment of the British political system, and of the Higher Command of the Armed Forces of that country. Strangely, while it is written about the British Army, there is substantial mention of the American Forces and their senior officers in the two campaigns. Barring a passing mention of Estonian troops in Afghanistan, there is no mention of the forces of the many other countries which contributed troops, airmen and naval ships and crews to both areas of operation.
Simon Akman has written a fine book on how and why the British Army has changed, between 2001 and 2020. For those who have seen military service, it will provide a broad picture of the conditions some soldiers have faced in the early 21st Century. For those who have not, it shows clearly the true face of war, as it is fought in this day and age, and may, possibly, be fought in the near future and within current social value sets.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.