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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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Bubbles_Barker

LE
Book Reviewer
At the same time they thought our efforts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands were awesome.

I suspect that those 5-10 years senior to me, who served alongside a US Army that was a drug ridden, racially divided shambles may not have noticed the absolute transformation of that decade, and perhaps attributed it to a vast equipment programme. It is also highly probably that off the cuff jokes but Brits don't work as expected in US (something I learned the hard way in my post military life).

It may also be the case that neither the US nor Brits had worked out the battlefield impact of the Options for Change cuts and redundancies.
My bold. Been there, done that...
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
LSS struck fundamental problems which needed much more thought.
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
In my view/experience, the absolute watershed for the British Army. I'd even go as far as saying it broke the back of the Army, with numerous negative outcomes ranging from collapsed recruiting to the politicisation of VSOs.
Which, at the risk of avoiding the customary thread drift, is IMO one of the weaknesses of the book. There is no reason to start at 9/11.

Akam dismissed the pre-options army as a collection of drunks, rather glossing over their three hot war wins (Falklands, Gulf 1 and NI "Troubles"). Plus the Bosnia / Former Yugo thing. I remember the latter being grabbed by the Army as something to keep us engaged and therefore kick the post Cold War restructuring debate down the road.
 

I found this review by Dr Barry Clayton particularly interesting, not least because he has an 'interesting' profile:


Far too many mediocre army officers in all army's rise to high rank by luck, favouritism and by avoiding difficult postings. However, they are not all as bad as those castigated in this book.

It is true that blunders were manifest in Iraq and Afghanistan but the major fault is to be found in Whitehall. A succession of poor Defence Secretaries and a reluctance to give the armed services the equipment and weapons needed were the key reasons for our performance.

Akam has written a polemic that lacks a deep knowledge of the military and their political masters.
 
Agile best left to gymnasts!
Agile, as a software development framework is very good but....it depends on well trained and motivated teams who all know what they need to do. Govt fecks that off straight away.
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
Agile, as a software development framework is very good but....it depends on well trained and motivated teams who all know what they need to do. Govt fecks that off straight away.
Yeah yeah, get that. But it works due to high levels of delegated authority and responsibility - none of which seems prevalent in MOD (or indeed government). To some extent, Agile programme management is merely a formalisation of what good project managers always did (cf Mission Command). Of course, PM of software is always hard as it's intangible.

"Agile" remains one of those alarming words in any UK military strategy concept - usually meaning "lighter" which has been achieved through a combination of fewer troops, less protection, lighter logistics and remote firepower giving, on a good day, the same battlefield effect (tricky to measure) for fewer pounds Sterling (all too measurable outside of Enron, of the magic money tree currently being cultivated in Downing Street).
 

QRK2

LE
Which, at the risk of avoiding the customary thread drift, is IMO one of the weaknesses of the book. There is no reason to start at 9/11.

Akam dismissed the pre-options army as a collection of drunks, rather glossing over their three hot war wins (Falklands, Gulf 1 and NI "Troubles"). Plus the Bosnia / Former Yugo thing. I remember the latter being grabbed by the Army as something to keep us engaged and therefore kick the post Cold War restructuring debate down the road.

Possibly because the first two were predominantly (and commanded by) RN/RM and the the US respectively and the latter wasn't a war.
 

jrwlynch

LE
Book Reviewer
"Agile" remains one of those alarming words in any UK military strategy concept - usually meaning "lighter" which has been achieved through a combination of fewer troops, less protection, lighter logistics and remote firepower giving, on a good day, the same battlefield effect (tricky to measure) for fewer pounds Sterling (all too measurable outside of Enron, of the magic money tree currently being cultivated in Downing Street).

From current professional experience, "agile" can be anything from good thing (a team of professionals who have a good idea of what the goal is, are exploring a variety of ways to get there, and are managing cost and time to ensure that they do actually deliver something); to a warning sign of "we've got no idea what we're trying to do and can't come up with a plan, so we'll call it "agile" and hope a miracle occurs"...

Unfortunately, the second is more prevalent than the first...
 

jrwlynch

LE
Book Reviewer
How does that differ from Afghanistan and Iraq?

For Iraq, I wouldn't blame the UK for events in Kurdistan, or around Baghdad or in the Sunni Triangle.

On the other hand, for Basrah, Maysan, Dhi Qar and al-Muthannah, that was us in charge of MND(SE)...
 

Mufulira42

Old-Salt

Guardian Review by a former Basra based journalist

"This is a long book. There are chapters of useful and rigorous investigation of alleged abuses committed by British troops in both theatres, and these may have explained the ire of some interviewees. That Akam has taken the trouble to interview sex workers about the scared British soldiers who come to them to talk as often as to have sex on the eve of the Iraq war is impressive. The detail often makes for gripping individual episodes, but sometimes clouds the overall argument and narrative.

It would be unfair to expect more analysis or reporting of the broader context of British intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan in a work that took five years to write. But without it, the most important factor in success or failure – local and regional politics – is underplayed. In both wars, the self-appointed “best little army in the world” was only a minor actor, and one that had a limited impact. This is another bitter truth that many senior soldiers have trouble accepting. In this at least, the army is a representative of the country it fights for."
Having a tough time reading anything with Grauniad logo or approval
 

Caecilius

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
For Iraq, I wouldn't blame the UK for events in Kurdistan, or around Baghdad or in the Sunni Triangle.

On the other hand, for Basrah, Maysan, Dhi Qar and al-Muthannah, that was us in charge of MND(SE)...

Absolutely. But then you have to do the same for the successes of GW1. You can't just hand waive away successes because they were done under overall US command, while ignoring overall US command when you want to analyse our failures. You've got to pick one.

The British Army has made a ton of mistakes, but some people on this site like to argue that it's uniquely and/or entirely bad. That's obviously not true.
 
Yeah yeah, get that. But it works due to high levels of delegated authority and responsibility - none of which seems prevalent in MOD (or indeed government). To some extent, Agile programme management is merely a formalisation of what good project managers always did (cf Mission Command). Of course, PM of software is always hard as it's intangible.

"Agile" remains one of those alarming words in any UK military strategy concept - usually meaning "lighter" which has been achieved through a combination of fewer troops, less protection, lighter logistics and remote firepower giving, on a good day, the same battlefield effect (tricky to measure) for fewer pounds Sterling (all too measurable outside of Enron, of the magic money tree currently being cultivated in Downing Street).
Aye, it has been much abused, as has "Lean."
 

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