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The Changing of The Guard

One of the more interesting questions about the British Army is how it transformed from the formidable entity that triumphed in The First Gulf War (where it was a peer of the US) and defeated the IRA (in the world’s longest and most successful counter insurgency campaign) into a less than reliable ally that failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Certainly, the Iraq debacle was guaranteed by the (political) failure to plan for the post Saddam stabilisation and handover. The victors of the Troubles should have made it clear to the Prime Minister that the deployed forces were a fraction of what was required. (In Northern Ireland there were never fewer than 10,000 soldiers, plus the 10,000 of the Ulster Defence Regiment, plus a reliable constabulary and a smattering of special forces. The Irish speak English, have a similar culture, and the combined strength of the terrorists was under 2,000 with relatively limited weaponry). The same argument could have been made about Afghanistan.

Of course, it is for politicians to instruct the Armed Forces and, having received an instruction to go to war no general can say “No Prime Minister.” But the generals should, and perhaps did, point out the limitations of what Tommy Atkins can achieve in some foreign field.

The hyping of this book led me to hope that at last someone had addressed this. And that someone was potentially credible; like the BBC’s Mark Urban (and me for that matter – although I went on to become a regular officer) the author completed a gap year commission in an armoured regiment, so he had some chance of understanding the culture and ethos of the Army and its soldiers.

Sadly it misses this mark. By miles. Which would be acceptable if it had another useful aim and achieved that. But it doesn’t.

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What we have is a wide range of snippets and anecdotes (to be fair, extensively referenced). But there is no sense of purpose. It opens with a rambling account of one tank commander’s remarkable performance on an exercise in Canada, then shifts to episodes from the invasion of Iraq, subsequent operations there and then Afghanistan. There are occasional glimpsed of the book that it could have been (or the one that needs writing), for example when he considers the impact of the restructuring of infantry regiments on the morale of soldiers in theatre or in his investigation of the sudden transfer of airborne troops into an armoured division immediately prior to the Iraq invasion. But the glimpse is superficial.

He identifies the challenge that leaked documents, combat memoirs and camera footage can create for both the Army and the historian. But this descends into regurgitation of the discussion of the Bravo Two Zero controversy (yawn) and then becomes a dissertation on the concept of “ally” (a soldiers’ expression – sometimes ironic – of whether soldiers or kit look tough and hard). He identifies the massive shortfalls in the equipment procurement programmes – including the emergency “UOR” purchases – but gives no consideration as to why they exist).

I don’t think Simon Akam enjoyed his time as an officer; perhaps this book may be some sort of revenge therapy for him. Certainly his own tale is one of the threads meandering through the pages and he is waspish about some individuals and regiments. Here I must declare an interest; many of those he targets are contemporaries, acquaintances or friends and I was in one of the regiments that he disdains although not in the time-frame. He is surprised that senior officers know each other and have served together multiple times. Why? Its inevitable in a small army. He does not like the style of some regiments – but who is he to judge. He asserts that marines found the appearance of some cavalry officers hilarious, but chooses not to share that those who fought with them were so impressed that they invited them to wear marine insignia.

Its confused narrative reaches no conclusion. Akam makes no suggestions as to how matters might be improved or even what could have been done differently, he just oozes bile and spite. He mocks the polished shoes of Army officers coming to talk to him (no doubt over a drink at their expense) in the Army and Navy Club, where he takes pleasure in “stretching the jacket and tie dress code to the limit.” He recounts asking the brilliant history teacher who first interested him in the Army how he felt about influencing so many of his pupils to join, and thus go to war.

This is that rare thing, a book that would have been better not written which would have given Akam something better to do for five years. Selling the Big Issue perhaps.

 
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Bad CO

Admin
Thanks for your review and there is no doubt that TCOTG has polarised opinions both on here and in the printed media. My view is very different to yours but then I suspect we were expecting different things. I'd say this is a book about how the Army changed in the first ~15-20 years of the 21st century so it is more of a commentary than something which will lead to a conclusion.

I served at Maj/Lt-Col level throughout most of the time covered in the book, was on ACSC with three people whose experiences are covered in significant depth, have also worked with, or experience of, a number of the very senior officers mentioned and also still employed by the MOD. All of this I think gives me a good perspective. The bottom line is that I recognise the vast majority of the issues that are covered but think it needed an outsider with a close interest in the Army to bring them out into the open. For my money, the book does that really well.

As you quite rightly identify, he shows how the traditions and standards in the more up market sections of the Army compare against norms in both the other services and wider society. To me this is simple observation rather then mockery. As it happens these differences are vanishing at an incredible rate, comparing any modern Mess to how they were 20 or 30 years ago will make that abundantly clear.

I think you're suggesting that military commanders weren't really responsible for the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan? Undoubtedly politicians do bear considerable responsibility, particularly for the lack of a joined up approach or a clear strategy, but then I also witnessed first hand the shocking waste of treasure, and to a certain extent blood, caused by our military leadership. Sadly it seems to me that the conflicts were primarily used to (a) further careers, and (b) justify resource levels with other factors, such as outcomes, being secondary considerations. I think these are both captured in the book which is what makes it important and unique although I accept that the style doesn't work for everyone!
 

Cynical

LE
Book Reviewer
I sort of take your point. However, if the book was intended as a commentary on the changes in the Army (good and bad) over the period covered it would surely have had a different structure.

I have never thought it useful, or even sensible or well-mannered, to differentiate the army into "up-market" and "down market", although of course any inclusion of class is a fascination. Better I think to consider what works and what doesn't - and the variation of capability of regiments correlates very loosely with their social ranking - then and now.

I bow to none in my despair at the piss-poor performance of commanders, starting at the top. A fundamental skill of command is only to offer battle when the conditions make a "win" likely. That was never the case in Iraq or Afghanistan. Similarly, going to war with inadequate equipment and ill considered RoE and tactics is almost unforgivable. Attempting the "ink-spot" approach at Pl level was almost guaranteed to lead to the daily Rorke's Drift recreations.

I suspect that rotating complete brigades through was a serious contributor to many of the problems, including ill-considered brigade operations and the lack of continuity. The approach take in Northern Ireland (permanent Brigade HQs, rotating individual regiments/bns through would perhaps have been a better idea. I suspect the 6 month tour length and the R&R roller coaster did little to help either.

I do not disagree that much of the motivation for many of the decisions may well have been to resist defence cuts and for sure there are always ambitious officers. I agree that the book illustrates these, but it does not analyse them. Akam has an unfortunate tendency to play the man, not the ball.

I fervently hope that CDS and his Integrated review will find a way out of the mess that the Army has fallen into. Class and regimental structures are far from the largest problems - as countless other threads here describe. Were I writing a similar book I would be inclined to look at the ludicrous proportion of the army that is dismounted infantry and indeed the problems that existed in the cold war arising from the arms plot (which Akam alludes to but, again, fails to develop). Having spent a fair amount of time in OA (operational analysis) I would also look at the challenges of money - I believe that this process is a fundamental contributor to the fiasco that is defence procurement. I would also consider the career structure of officers post Lt Col command and the absurdity of some of the current non-deploying brigades.

The real question is whether the damage done by two ill considered and poorly executed wars can be resolved. The Americans did manage to recover from their post Vietnam nadir, but it took much time, a clear enemy/threat and several fistsfull of dollars. I fear that CDS and Wallace are the last chance the Army has to get itself back on track, but this book does not help that process and, arguably, by encouraging the media to do another lap of the class war debate, it actually impedes it.
 

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