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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jrwlynch

LE
Book Reviewer
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.
A cynic might point out - without endorsing any particular view of capability - that compared to many, the British Army has actually been doing a fair bit of stuff, with more opportunity to show success or failure, for some time now...
 
The Conservative Woman review is a copy of a review elsewhere - why is a male writing and putting his name to this on Conservative Woman ?

Archie
 
The Conservative Woman review is a copy of a review elsewhere - why is a male writing and putting his name to this on Conservative Woman ?

Archie
The Conservative Woman is a blog for self appointed experts, not a blog aimed at women. it was founded by an Irish woman.
 

walrusboy

War Hero
Just read the book (a month late, I know) and I found it an entertaining read. Certainly penetrable for people with no experience of the military and, as others have said, it appears to be shaped primarily to prove the case for poor judgement and procrastination of VSOs and Whitehall. There is lots of other supporting stuff including organisational culture and honours which feed his narrative; the author is clearly aggrieved by the reluctance to sanction to some VSOs who he believes are culpable for the failures he discusses. The issue of blame (or reluctance to apportion blame) is an overriding theme of the book and it can feel bitter towards the end. The author's periodic focus on US disappointment at UK performance, notably in Basra, is not something that I have found enduring in the way he described and this is probably overstated. However, there is some interesting stuff in there and I particularly enjoyed the 42/45 Cdo section and the different approaches used by different BGs in adjacent AORs. It looks a daunting tome but it's a 'page turner'.
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
Oh great. The opinion of someone who has even less military experience the Akam. Just what the world needs.
 

Caecilius

LE
Kit Reviewer
Oh great. The opinion of someone who has even less military experience the Akam. Just what the world needs.

In fairness, Shashank Joshi is a pretty balanced and we'll researched commentator. His stuff tends to be worth a read.
 

walrusboy

War Hero
Oh great. The opinion of someone who has even less military experience the Akam. Just what the world needs.
In a way you could say this is the value of the book. He has a small amount of military experience so he understands how the organisation works but he is not invested in the military establishment in the way some retired VSOs might be. Of course he wants to sell his book but he has no 'skin in the game' when it comes to defending reputations. It should be on political reading lists because it suggests that UK COIN expertise might not be all that. Furthermore despite the volume of interviews there does not appear to be objections by interviewees of their contributions being misrepresented. Despite its faults I would rather it be out there than not.
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
In a way you could say this is the value of the book
Possibly, and I take the point. But that would require it to be marked as "a partly informed view" - which of course it it not.
TBH, other than establishing himself as a writer, I really don't know what the aim of this book was. I also suspect anyone reading it thinking the author fully and correctly understood what he was describing would probably end up being more misinformed than they would have been had they not read it.
 

Bad CO

Admin
Book Reviewer
Interestingly
Possibly, and I take the point. But that would require it to be marked as "a partly informed view" - which of course it it not.
I also disagree with you - someone doesn't have to have been in the Army to understand it.

My view is that his extensive research makes him spectacularly well informed. Even though I was serving through almost all of the book, and know many of the people in it quite well, there are quite a few things that I've learned from reading it.

Of course, you may not agree with some of his analysis but I think that's a different point.
 

walrusboy

War Hero
Possibly, and I take the point. But that would require it to be marked as "a partly informed view" - which of course it it not.
TBH, other than establishing himself as a writer, I really don't know what the aim of this book was. I also suspect anyone reading it thinking the author fully and correctly understood what he was describing would probably end up being more misinformed than they would have been had they not read it.
I agree that it isn't perfect but, for me, the value is in the extensive use of witness testimony from a range of sources. It's possible that Akam might have had a pre-determined narrative to present but the more witnesses an author interviews, the less control he has of the narrative. I recognise some of what he describes from my own personal experiences of Telic and Herrick but there are some points which I would not necessarily agree with as I have mentioned in my previous post. However, I'm just one witness and I recognise that people who served alongside me might not share my own views. This should not detract from Akam's methodology in choosing to rely heavily on witness testimony and I think this is a strength of the work. Of course readers like us (I'm assuming you also served on Telic and Herrick) will always find elements of the narrative to disagree on but that doesn't mean the work doesn't have value as part of a wider discourse. As a matter of interest, is there a specific work or works that you would recommend as a valuable analysis of the UK military post-9/11?
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
In fairness, Shashank Joshi is a pretty balanced and we'll researched commentator. His stuff tends to be worth a read.
I've now read his review (my Spectator generally arrives late and I spend too much work time looking at a screen to do so for pleasure too), and agree that he has produced a thoughtful piece on both Akam and Ben Barry's book.

Akam's suffers from an overbearing snideness which I think makes it difficult to consider it a balanced review of the Army. Sure, he's researched comprehensively and shared his sources. It is a sad reflection of the times that this is considered laudable - surely thorough research is a fundamental requirement of non-fiction writing.

someone doesn't have to have been in the Army to understand it
Indeed. But it is also true that having had some military service does not preclude misunderstaning it. Having done an SSLC myself I am very aware how little knowledge one gains, of the scope for misinterpreting what you see, hear and experience and how miserable it can be.

This should not detract from Akam's methodology in choosing to rely heavily on witness testimony and I think this is a strength of the work
The problem Akam fails at is ensuring that he has a wide range of witnesses and that, as author, he is able to give the testimony weight and balance.

The acid test I guess is which book, Changing The Guard or Blood, Metal and Dust gives greater objective understanding or the challenges faced by The British Army then or the failings that got it into its current mess.

I'm assuming you also served on Telic and Herrick
Assume nothing :) Courtesy of Options for Change I was in civvy strasse by the time either kicked off. Of course, many of my contemporaries and friends did go.
 

Bad CO

Admin
Book Reviewer
Akam's suffers from an overbearing snideness .......
I don't read it that way

Indeed. But it is also true that having had some military service does not preclude misunderstaning it. Having done an SSLC myself I am very aware how little knowledge one gains, of the scope for misinterpreting what you see, hear and experience and how miserable it can be.

I served 24 years, deployed on HERRICK, had postings to AHQ/Main Building, completed ACSC and retired as a Lt Col in 2013 so reckon that gave me a pretty good baseline. My assessment is that he's not misunderstood the Army at all!

The problem Akam fails at is ensuring that he has a wide range of witnesses and that, as author, he is able to give the testimony weight and balance.

I'd say he's done rather well to get so many key participants to contribute. Who do you think he missed?

The acid test I guess is which book, Changing The Guard or Blood, Metal and Dust gives greater objective understanding or the challenges faced by The British Army then or the failings that got it into its current mess.
The challenges the Army/MOD faced were largely of its own making which I think is a key observation from the book.

Assume nothing :) Courtesy of Options for Change I was in civvy strasse by the time either kicked off. Of course, many of my contemporaries and friends did go.
I arrived in BAOR in 1991 just in time to witness the end of the cold war army and the implementation of Options for Change. Even when I left in 2013 the Army looked nothing like that one.
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
I don't read it that way
Clearly. If nothing else that proves that this site has a range of viewpoints.

Who do you think he missed?
It rather depends on what book he was trying to write. IMHO what was published fell between multiple stools.

The challenges the Army/MOD faced were largely of its own making which I think is a key observation from the book.
Indeed.
Although much of the failure, as per Ben Barry's book, was craven VSO (and indeed, arguably, 1* and CO) failing to act decisively to prevent under-equipped troops being deployed in insufficient strength to deliver anything like the intended outcome.
 

Bad CO

Admin
Book Reviewer
Although much of the failure, as per Ben Barry's book, was craven VSO (and indeed, arguably, 1* and CO) failing to act decisively to prevent under-equipped troops being deployed in insufficient strength to deliver anything like the intended outcome.

At all levels, everyone I met (including me) was desperate to get on ops so everything else was pretty secondary. Along with decent equipment, this included having a strategy, understanding the nature of the conflict, etc.

Working in Whitehall, I also witnessed first hand the refusal to shift resources from core programmes to the equipment that was needed to fight the current wars. This was partly done to protect very expensive pet projects (FRES, etc) but mainly as a means of extracting additional cash from the government. Of course that is what actually happened but it took a while and in the interim people were dying. Meanwhile we continued to plan and budget for a 'proper' war.

The bottom line is that ops in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated by many as a sideshow which would deliver medals and promotion but one that shouldn't be allowed to distract from the main event.
 

Auld-Yin

ADC
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Reviews Editor
At all levels, everyone I met (including me) was desperate to get on ops so everything else was pretty secondary. Along with decent equipment, this included having a strategy, understanding the nature of the conflict, etc.

Working in Whitehall, I also witnessed first hand the refusal to shift resources from core programmes to the equipment that was needed to fight the current wars. This was partly done to protect very expensive pet projects (FRES, etc) but mainly as a means of extracting additional cash from the government. Of course that is what actually happened but it took a while and in the interim people were dying. Meanwhile we continued to plan and budget for a 'proper' war.

The bottom line is that ops in Iraq and Afghanistan were treated by many as a sideshow which would deliver medals and promotion but one that shouldn't be allowed to distract from the main event.
Wh,at a sad indictment of the officer cadre.
 

Auld-Yin

ADC
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Reviews Editor

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