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High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Christopher L. Elliott
Christopher L. Elliott begins High Command, an analytical review of the performance of the Ministry of Defence and senior officers in the UK Armed forces during the Iraq and Afghan wars, with this paragraph:

“The British High Command made a number of judgments with poor outcomes in the decade from 2000 to 2010...not least, that there were never enough troops...UK armed forces were deployed with very slim chances of being successful...the outcome in some eyes has been humiliation, accusation of defeat...and significant loss of life for our servicemen and women.“

It is fighting talk. Elliott, himself a former Major General until 2004, does not share the public myopia of many senior UK officers of his peer group, who for so long refused to admit failure or fault in Iraq and Afghanistan. He acknowledges that, in the eyes of many, the British contributions to both campaigns were strategic, and in Basra perhaps tactical, failures. This leads to a rare thing in British accounts of the campaigns, a genuinely balanced critical appraisal from a man with the experience to give him real credibility. It has also allowed him unparalleled access to the military commanders of that period, and the wealth of personal accounts from these figures alone is worth the price. This is an important book for students of our recent military history, and is strongly recommended for the considerable research and stock of interviews Elliott has collected.

It does not, however, quite reach its full potential. Reading High Command is often like being a mute observer watching a man diligently working to pick the lock on the door to his prison cell, unable to tell him there are bolts on the other side. There are two main limitations to Elliott's account (one of which, to be fair, he acknowledges). The first concerns his accounts of military officers in general, and the individuals concerned specifically. While Elliott is highly perceptive about the Ministry of Defence as an organisation, he is, rather oddly, much less perceptive about military officers as a breed. He paints a somewhat rosy picture of the character of officers as a selfless group possessed of considerable moral courage (while acknowledging that this does not necessarily produce success) which many serving personnel may not entirely recognise, and shows remarkable confidence in the wider military career system, which has been roundly criticised by other authors and service personnel as a key contributor to the failures he recounts. He is also clearly loathe to criticise named individuals. The effect is that while he, and those he quotes, often directly criticise decisions and results, the individuals responsible largely escape unscathed. Perhaps this is simply the price of the access he gained, but it blunts one of his early points, which is that the ruthless nature of the commercial world could usefully be replicated in an organisation that deals in life and death, but more often is not. It is difficult for an author to argue that the genial and “well-intentioned and public-spirited“ nature of military commanders should be replaced by a more hard-nosed approach, when he himself is busy writing in that same genial tone. To be fair, Elliott does acknowledge this weakness early on, that he is writing as what he is: a former Army officer and General, and so is liable to be forgiving of his breed.

The second limitation is that, although throughout the book Elliott consistently identifies that the Whitehall system itself defeats effective decision making, asking “how it was that the system was allowed to run the individuals, rather than the other way around“, he nonetheless focuses the main argument of the book on the suitability of the individuals at the top of the chain. The final chapters are largely concerned with the selection, abilities, powers and so on of the Chief of the Defence Staff, and those who occupied the post. Yet for the first half of the book, Elliott has made a convincing argument that nobody would have succeeded as CDS, because the Whitehall system - and to a large extent Tony Blair's “sofa government“ style - simply did not recognise or respond to orders. It is an oddly backward analysis that looks slightly like the last chapters have been written first.

While these two points undermine Elliott's final analysis, the journey he takes to get there is invaluable. To those who have not served (or served in the MOD) he gives excellent descriptions and anecdotes of how Main Building and the Services, including the Civil Service, operate. His personal insight is brought to bear here, and Elliott shows a sparkling sense of humility by using his own mistakes operating in the MOD system as a bellweather to demonstrate how easy it is for even an intelligent, perceptive and well-intentioned individual to get it wrong. He dissects several of the key decisions - or, more often, lack of - of the decade, such as the withdrawal from Basra and the deployment to Helmand, and offers invaluable background and collated accounts to both. A discussion of the strategic and doctrinal background to the post-9/11 era is knowledgeable and an excellent primer on the subject, showing the influence of his Oxford mentor, Professor Sir Hew Strachan. There is too much in the book to cite it all, but while remaining an eminently readable piece, Elliott has doggedly pursued and lined many avenues that have, until now, been avoided by those discussing the campaigns.

High Command is an important book to anyone who wants to understand why the British military and Ministry of Defence failed in recent campaigns. Although it falls short of providing the answer to that particular essay question, it is one of the best attempts to do so yet published, and is an invaluable research collection. Elliott deserves enormous credit for following the source material wherever it leads, and giving us a thoroughly honest account of how we are taken to war. Highly recommended.
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