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The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam

ARRSE Rating
5.00 star(s)
In years to come, people who want to know what the British Army was like in the first twenty years of the 21st century will start with Simon Akam’s controversial masterpiece “The Changing of the Guard - The British Army since 9/11”. Stunningly well researched it brings together evidence from a huge number of players at all levels to explain the failures in both Iraq and Afghanistan and is a must read for anyone with an interest in the contemporary British Army.

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Structured around 5 sections, it starts with the author’s own experiences of the Army during a 12 month gap year commission with the Scots DG and then follows the Regiment as they deploy on Op TELIC This focus on individuals from key organisations, continues through every chapter and is used to bring to life events that might otherwise be a little dry, or difficult to understand. This has the impact of making the book extremely readable and I finished the entire 700 pages in under 3 days.

Many opinions have been given extremely candidly, and perhaps controversially, as can be clearly seen in the sections covering the 42/45 Cdo tour that resulted in the conviction of Marine A or the situation in 2007/08 Iraq that led to the Charge of the Knights. I’m sure that there will be named people who will be extremely unhappy with the way that their contributions have been portrayed and it is notable that publication has been delayed for years due to legal concerns which resulted in a change of publisher. On the other hand, the book repeatedly shows how very few senior people have been held accountable for operational failures so perhaps this is the only way that will ever happen.

Possibly the most impressive part of the book is the authenticity that it possesses. Although it comes to many deeply critical conclusions, The Changing of the Guard has the feel of a work that was written by an insider with a profound understanding of the Army mindset. Military folk, like me, are a demanding audience so this is no mean feat but there are also very few three letter abbreviations, no wiring diagrams and succinct explanations for most topics which makes it accessible to a much wider audience.

Simon’s book is also really important due to the excellent job he makes of bringing many of the failings of the Army, and wider MOD, into the bright light of day. I’m sure many of us who served during this period shook our heads in despair at the lack of continuity created by 6 monthly Bde handovers or the incoherence of the blank UOR cheque book but I can’t think of anywhere else where they are written down in such a coherent fashion. The Changing of the Guard should be sent to every senior officer and politician not to mention featuring prominently on the reading lists of our training academies.

I consider myself incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to read this ahead of the general publication and am sure the majority of ARRSE users will get as much from it as me. If you haven’t already realised then this is 5/5 stars - you should all go and get a copy to read!



One slight postscript is that ARRSE is included, most notably during the events which contributed to Piers Morgan’s career change at the Mirror. The founding of the site is also covered in some detail and if you really want to know who Good CO and myself are then you can find out.

 
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Glad_its_all_over

ADC
Book Reviewer
Having now finished the book, it's not all bad. While it is extremely critical of the unaccountability of senior officers and politicians for the decisions made and actions taken to produce two lost wars and distinctly sardonic about the further careers of those seniors he holds responsible for much of the failure, he does observe that the Army is distinctly learning from the experience as a generation which commanded platoons and companies, troops and squadrons, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, starts to reach levels of command where they can exert real influence on doctrine. In particular, he notes a U-turn in attitude towards our major ally, with an early-Noughties disdain for the US Armed Forces being replaced with respect and admiration.

This is a major piece of work and the decision to base it on interviews and correspondence, at all levels (from whore to 4-star) has borne fruit in terms of narrative and interest. Akam crafts a neat sentence and has the necessary backround and insight to be able to decode the sometimes outre use of language by the professional British military.

I left the Army before Blair's wars, but was still saddened to see an institution I knew well and loved humiliated by the variety of toxic forces which it faced on both TELIC and HERRICK. In particular, what I found difficult - personally, your own mileage no doubt varies - was the awareness that many of the problems and issues and cockups were of our own making and were due to structural deficiencies in culture, doctrine and equipment, which were left unaddressed for far too long, often by a well-meaning MoD which saw the prevention of embarrassment as the highest priority when dealing with the fallout from politically sensitive and failing operations.

One point which is made in passing is key - Blair's wars were wars of choice and in no way existential. They were fought within very tight financial and operational constraints, constraints which had no tactical or military significance or justification and political interest in the conflicts was limited to making things look good and - eventually - limiting the Wootton Basset factor.
 

Glad_its_all_over

ADC
Book Reviewer
I read Hastings' review and my immediate thought was that it represented, as did Coughlin's article from last week, something of a counterstroke from the Great and the Good. That said, some of his criticisms are valid - and I approve, given they reflect some of mine already presented! - but the great advantage this book has is its status as being presented by an informed outsider. Barry's book, which is very good indeed, of course, comes from the inside, which is simulteously good and bad.
 
Plus Hastings is a) contrary and b) loathes anything to do with Blair and Brown <shrug>
 

Mr_Relaxed

War Hero
I’m enjoying it so far, although I cannot shrug of the feeling that it could have done with an editor in his ear as It’s quite a tome.

Also cannot help but wonder why he went for the anecdotal approach? His “upper class” commentary feels like he has a chip, but perhaps that’s my reading too much into it?

My gripe is the use of footnotes - why can’t authors put them at the bottom of the page? Cowan’ s email reply was useful and added to the book, so could have been in the text.
 

Poppy

LE
The Daily Telegraph Review 13th Feb 2021

This book has received a very poor review from Con Coughlin (The Daily Telegraph Defence Correspondent)

""Taking cheap shots - There is a fascinating book to be written about the British Army travails since 2001. Unfortunately this isn`t it""

"From the start of this long and clumsily written book, it is clear that the author has a jaundiced view of the Army"

"Of the Generals whom were interviewed by the Author quote " but rather that concentrating on their explanations of events , Akam makes snide remarks about their attire and post military careers".

Has Coughlin been briefed against this book by the "Establishment" he need to keep people on his side to continue receiving privileged access to the Military ???

Archie
just noticed the photo with the review "a British Royal Commando"
 

cpunk

LE
Moderator
I enjoyed the book. It's well written and Akam asks the right questions, even if he doesn't always come up with the right answers. There's a big issue in British military culture: we are fanatical about not airing our dirty linen in public, which means that it just doesn't get aired. Instead, we rely on outsiders like Akam to come along and do it for us, and then get snarky with them for factual errors and errors of interpretation, although often we've closed them off from sources of information.

The reality is that senior officers are far more likely to get fired when they're caught with their trousers down, or with their hands in the CEA cookie jar, than they are for needlessly sending soldiers to their deaths. That really needs to change. The fact that the MoD routinely responds to criticism of this sort by briefing wretches like Con Coughlin and Max Hastings, rather than engaging in debate, illustrates just how awful we are at the whole communications piece.
 
And god forbid you should embarrass someone. You have to pre-socialise things just in case someone might be held to a required standard. I've found OF5s particularly narky about this.
 
I left the Army before Blair's wars, but was still saddened to see an institution I knew well and loved humiliated........

One point which is made in passing is key - Blair's wars were wars of choice and in no way existential. They were fought within very tight financial and operational constraints, constraints which had no tactical or military significance or justification and political interest in the conflicts was limited to making things look good and - eventually - limiting the Wootton Basset factor.
This in spades.
 
The reality is that senior officers are far more likely to get fired when they're caught with their trousers down, or with their hands in the CEA cookie jar,

Viewed by society as dishonest and unacceptable.

than they are for needlessly sending soldiers to their deaths.

Viewed by society as heroic, the manner in which soldiers meet their deaths is irrelevant to most of society, it’s enough that they ‘died for their country’.
 
The reality is that senior officers are far more likely to get fired when they're caught with their trousers down, or with their hands in the CEA cookie jar, than they are for needlessly sending soldiers to their deaths. That really needs to change.
<My italics> Military incompetence about Battalion level is incredibly hard to prove. I also don't think any solders were needlessly sent to their deaths in Iraq/Afghanistan. Outside the usual chuntering I don't think many - if any - of us had commanders who were outright lazy, incompetent or reckless. But there was pervasive self-delusion among officers which needlessly caused deaths - mostly Afghan & Iraqi ones, mind - by feeding good news upwards and nodding along to obvious untruths for the sake of a good OJAR.

I don't actually think its a problem we can solve in COIN campaigns, where your enemy can't do you a favour by publicly handing your arse to you on a plate.

All that said, this is such a contrast between accountability across the ranks. We can't forget the Highlander abducted & killed by the Taleban after leaving his patrol base at 2am to look for NVGs he'd dropped on patrol. How terrified must that 20 year old young man on his first tour have been? So fearful of the consequences of losing a grand or two of kit that he took his chances alone in the darkness.

I don't expect any of the hierarchy from 2005-15 to feel a fraction of that. But holding themselves to account would be nice. I haven't seen a single instance - interview, book, talk, free-form dance or whatever - of anyone above the rank of Major saying "Yeah, it went badly wrong and I was part of it. Its too late now, but I feel bad about it nonetheless". It wouldn't change anything... but it would be a welcome gesture, no?

There is probably a better book than Akam's to be written, but it requires some moral courage from those involved to actually write it themselves.
 
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I’ve always felt we could improve operation effectiveness by removing operational honours.

There’s too much game playing and box ticking being done in order to attain the MBE/OBE required to career climb.
 
I don't expect any of the hierarchy from 2005-15 to feel a fraction of that. But holding themselves to account would be nice. I haven't seen a single instance - interview, book, talk, free-form dance or whatever - of anyone above the rank of Major saying "Yeah, it went badly wrong and I was part of it. Its too late now, but I feel bad about it nonetheless". It wouldn't change anything... but it would be a welcome gesture, no?

To be fair, more than one series of Post Tour reports do do that. LWC hold them, but they’re not FOIable (mainly because they’re secret). The problem is that by the time a report is complete, it was nearly two tours later, and it was hard to draw out immediate lessons.

However, I did read them, and took a lot of LIs about more enduring things - Rear Parties in my case - and applied them. I think there was a fair amount of honesty by lots of COs who knew they could have done better for their Rear Parties.
 

Glad_its_all_over

ADC
Book Reviewer
It goes back a lot longer than the early 00s sadly - and was always based on a colossal level of UK mil arrogance and self-delusion. Happily that balloon has now - to an extent at least - deflated.
It's been very clear to me since, as a TA infantry soldier, I had the chance to attend Air Assault School at Fort Campbell. Even in 1977, with the toxic legacy of Vietnam, the appalling state of race relations and the troubled transition to the All Volunteer Force, it was obvious that the US was at least a generation ahead, technologically and was most distinctly on an upward curve.

I served alongside, with and actually in US units throughout the 80s and saw nothing to reduce my respect for their effortless logistic superiority, their ability to send a bullet or a guided weapon where we might send a man and the sheer mass they brought to the party.

We make a virtue of necessity and feel that our relative penury, limited equipment scales and lack of mass confer moral and tactical superiority. I'm not sure they do.
 
In particular, he notes a U-turn in attitude towards our major ally, with an early-Noughties disdain for the US Armed Forces
Why was there a disdain for the US Armed Forces in the early noughties when they had comprehensively demolished Iraqi Forces in a six week air war and a four day ground war in GW1 in 1991 and did the same again in 2003 with a three week two division blitzkrieg from Basra to Baghdad?
 
Why was there a disdain for the US Armed Forces in the early noughties when they had comprehensively demolished Iraqi Forces in a six week air war and a four day ground war in GW1 in 1991 and did the same again in 2003 with a three week two division blitzkrieg from Basra to Baghdad?
Because they did precisely that.
 

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