One of the great challenges for future historians studying our age will undoubtedly be to try to understand how the economically and military untouchable West came to mire itself so completely and hopelessly, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Anyone interested in finding answers to that question will find Harsh Lessons, by Brigadier (Retired) Ben Barry, a useful addition to their reading list.
- Ben Barry
Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the IISS, Barry has produced a very succinct review of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, largely from the US and UK standpoints, together with a summary of what he believes the key learning points from the various aspects of the conflicts to be. Given that the book is a mere 152 pages long, it is a testament to his economy of style and his ability to remain focused that the content is appropriately detailed while the whole remains easy to read and accessible to those without a military background. Jargon is kept on a firm leash and, where its use is unavoidable, it is clearly explained and the publishers have made good use of call out boxes to help the process along. For example, anyone uncertain as to how NATO defines levels of war will find the subject efficiently summarised at the start of the book.
The book has five chapters and a conclusion and deals in turn with the changing nature of the conflicts, direction of operations, military capability, effective adaption and the utility of force. Each chapter is divided into subsections with a review of the key learning points for each (Pointers to Future Conflict). These range from managing the military/political interface to co-ordinating reconstruction efforts and intergrating special operations forces into the main effort. Anyone who was anywhere near one or both of the referenced conflicts will inevitably have strong views on what went wrong, what went right and what should or shouldn’t have happened but the identified lessons are unlikely to cause much in the way of surprise or controversy. That said, if Harsh Lessons has a weakness, it is that it stays on safe ground.
No doubt space was a factor but, rather than talk about the need for better political co-ordination and leave it at that, this reviewer would have liked to hear the author’s views on the options available if that co-ordination is not forthcoming and, more fundamentally, if the British Army’s traditional position of policy neutrality in public is sustainable if that neutrality is being manipulated to manage party political issues and government in-fighting at the cost of lives and operational success. Also, if future operations are likely to involve a political component that is multi-dimensional, critical and complex; domestically, internationally and in the operational area, what are the implications for a British Army that provides no real public affairs experience or training worth the name until relatively late in an officer’s career? Hopefully there will be a second volume.
Despite the above grumble, this is a worthwhile read and, if at times it seems overly polite about, for example, the shortcomings of some NATO partners in the risk-taking department, I suspect that has more to do with the IISS branding and corporate style than the author’s retiscence. At 152 pages, this cannot be a definitive work on such a massive subject (and certainly not while page 91 informs us that Camp Bastion was in Iraq), but it covers the bases and, if future commanders of COIN ops want an initial checklist to build from, they could do far worse than list Ben Barry’s ‘Pointers to Future Conflict’ and test their capabilities and arrangements against them.
I read this book. It wasn’t a chore. I learned things and it made me think. Job done. Four mushrooms.