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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Yarra

War Hero
Mind you the choice of picture might give an idea of who in the UK does have some 'soft influence' (not power) with the US.
I think it is interesting to reflect on the fact that the UK does retain real soft power. However, this soft power has often been undermined by poor political leadership.

The GWOT was a case in point; in the run up, because of CORPORATE, BANNER, GRANBY, PALLISER, ALLIED FORCE, DESERT FOX etc, we had created an acceptance that we were a very effective military. This was hubris, but based on real operational outcomes - I don't recall much questioning of the prevailing orthodoxy. The troops moncked about crap kit (A1, Klansman, etc), but we got the important stuff right and SDR promised jam tomorrow. The moment they flew the planes into the Towers, we knew we were at war - we were the indispensable ally. The playing of the US Nat Anthem at Buck P just underlined the fact.

But that's when it started to go wrong: GW1. limited objectives, clear casus belli, unequivocal leadership on both sides of Atlantic. Twin Towers. casus belli, but with who? open-ended objectives driven by political ideologues (Neo-Cons).

Then enter stage left, Blair. A PM unable to grip his Chancellor, unable to distinguish clear UK geo-political objectives and riding the tail of the Neo-Con dragon. We lacked influence at the crucial point (arguing for an effective PhIV), because Blair was too weak to smack down Brown. We lacked influence at the crucial point because we were not ruthlessly clear what OUR vital national interest was; the indispensable ally, but at what cost? The British Army's reputation was just collateral damage in Blair's catastrophically arrogant mis-judgement. No wonder we don't get mentioned in Gates's tome, he was brought in to fix an avoidable mess, that we abdicated ourselves from, before that mess was ever a fully staffed 'plan'.

BREXIT and our response to COVID are similar forks in the road (to perdition or the sunlit uplands?) -what price to our precious soft power? If we act ruthlessly in OUR interests, at least we have a fighting change of shaping our future. To rely on other more powerful actors is asking for trouble - analogous to going on a road trip into the outback, without a map, or secure water supplies and with our driver on mind altering drugs.
 

Yarra

War Hero
Hmmm...not sure about Gap Yah books like these.

After all, The Junior Officers Reading Club (by the young Oxford-educated barrister looking to pep up his CV) was overall a decent read with some accurate Iraq/Herrick dits, but it suffered from its incredibly pompous tone, huge amount of chippiness and overly-dismissive manner to the glorious RAF (!)

Might wait until its in the £1 bin.
I have to agree about the general tone of JORC.

It was clichéd, facile and a little too cock sure of itself. But, the dits were great for those who could directly relate to them and a useful read when taken in the context of the other narratives available at the time (and subsequently).

You can have my copy for 75p
 
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The totality of Gates’ view of our contribution to the Iraq War...
 
Having finished the chapter on ambulance chasing lawyers, two thoughts struck me
Is Shiner still a Cnut
There’s a lot of Cnuts in the MOD
 
Finally finished it, to be honest I was avoiding it for days on end into weeks. It’s a good book that covers everything(nearly), the author did okay.
 
I’ve finally finished this yesterday (had several books on the go at the same time, so dragged my heels) and I find it a very strange book.
Yes, it points lots of fingers at senior officers, but very little is covered about central govt decisions regarding deployments and strategy.
Little is mentioned, apart from in passing, about the logistics mess that caused issues during the initial phases of Telic, which was primarily a UK Govt mess due to several years of Labour defence cuts and not wanting to appear to have already made its mind up.

It’s all well and good asking for senior officers to be held to account and ‘punished’ for failure but does not address just how to replace those found wanting, after all, it’s not the cold war and we don’t have a large pool of experienced and qualified officers to simply drag and drop into positions like that.

I also found the author to be rather class bound and he doesn’t seem to be aware of this. He notes on more than one occasion about going for meetings in an array of clubs and officers messes whilst referring to enlisted troops as being ‘lowly’ (he used that term to describe a corporal), which, given the size ands scope of the army, can be kind of true, yet does not show his understanding of how long it took that soldier to get to that level (often, in some trades, over a decade when I left). Or his comments about officers going to Prague for the weekend before deploying whilst the other ranks went to the Pink House in Fally.
Given that all ranks would be fully aware that they would not be allowed to roam far from camp two days before a deployment I think he should have been made aware of this.
If there are any journos reading this, the use of brothels in Germany (legal) is not a regular army past-time, but before and after tour it isn’t surprising if they can’t get away for fun elsewhere.

The book does seem to point a lot of fingers but offers few solutions apart from replacing those who ‘failed’ and given that much of this ‘failure’ was caused by whole chains of events and circumstances, I feel it does not reach high enough. I don’t even recall one comment about Labour appointing a part time Secretary of State for Defence (Des Brown, also Secretary of State for Scotland at the same time) whilst fighting on two fronts.
Perhaps more could have been mentioned about the lack of knowledge/experience of our politicians in such matters?

There is a lot of information within the pages of Changing of The Guard, but very little in the way of solutions and, if anything, it will become an essential reference tomb for many, but as a book that is to provide solutions to the issues raised, I find it very lacking.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Just finished it, so done yet another review:


As an aside (because I think it's a primarily Army problem) although @Speedy is correct that it offers little in the way of solutions, that is a very Army way to think about analysis. In the wider world, there is no particular reason that the person who is best placed to analyse the problems is also best placed to offer solutions. I think he's been quite sensible - given his extremely limited professional experience with the Army - to avoid suggesting how to fix these things. He's bang on, however, at identifying what needs to be fixed.
 
Talking sense: I wonder if any will listen?

'A proper evaluation of the Afghanistan campaign needs three prerequisites. First, an acknowledgment that what has taken place is a defeat. There is no room for parsing semantics now; any lesser admission would allow the matter to be dodged. Second, failure in Afghanistan needs to be seen as an issue for British defence as a whole, including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), rather than just the army. There is a parallel “forever war” in Whitehall between the navy, the army and the air force for resources, and though it was the army that was most engaged in Helmand, a single-service focus would derail a wash-up. Finally, there needs to be an institutional preparedness to be truthful, and a willingness to prioritise genuine investigation over short-term reputation management. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen.'

 

walrusboy

War Hero
Talking sense: I wonder if any will listen?

'A proper evaluation of the Afghanistan campaign needs three prerequisites. First, an acknowledgment that what has taken place is a defeat. There is no room for parsing semantics now; any lesser admission would allow the matter to be dodged. Second, failure in Afghanistan needs to be seen as an issue for British defence as a whole, including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), rather than just the army. There is a parallel “forever war” in Whitehall between the navy, the army and the air force for resources, and though it was the army that was most engaged in Helmand, a single-service focus would derail a wash-up. Finally, there needs to be an institutional preparedness to be truthful, and a willingness to prioritise genuine investigation over short-term reputation management. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen.'

I suspect that given US political will and how it has manifested itself in recent days and weeks, a more pressing matter will be an urgent review of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It might need a few amendments.
 

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