Writer working on book proposal on changes in British Army over last decade

Hello all,

My name is Simon Akam, and I am a British journalist. I spent the last few years working in West Africa for Reuters and the Economist.

I am posting on here because I am currently working on a proposal for a non-fiction book about changes in the British Army over the last decade. The aim is not so much to write about what the Army did in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has already been reasonably well reported, but rather to examine the impact of those conflicts on the institution that prosecuted them. That is a rather less familiar theme, at least outside the military.

I am currently canvassing a range of opinion both inside and outside the Army, and would be very interested to hear the thoughts of contributors here on areas that would be worth looking at. As a newcomer to this forum I am not au fait with its conventions, and if you feel my post would be better placed in a different sub-category please let me know.

My current thinking focuses on two areas. The first is narrative, where I broadly see a three phase evolution in the British Army over the last decade. The starting point is the late post-Cold War Army, still with a large footprint in Germany and with operational experience predominantly confined to Northern Ireland and the Balkans. With the advent of Afghanistan and in particular Iraq in 2003 the institution becomes busier and more focused on operations. At the same time units take casualties and a generational divide emerges between young officers and soldiers with considerable frontline experience and senior commanders with cold war command experience and hot war staff experience. Now, with Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down next year, we are in a third phase, as the army tries to work out its future shape and direction.

Beyond that narrative element I am also interested in a more conceptual examination of what causes armies - which are often, and for good reasons, relatively doctrinaire, small c-conserative institutions, to reform. Here I am interested in historical parallels - e.g. the British abolition of the purchase system for commissions post-Crimea, the Haldane reforms post-Boer War, the emergence and disappearance of counter-insurgency doctrine in the US military during and after Vietnam.

I would be very interested to hear contributions from users here on any of these areas - whether you feel there are elements I am missing, need to finesse, have wrong etc, or if there are entirely other thematic areas that you feel need examination.

At this stage in my research I am happy to treat all contributions entirely on background - i.e. not for quotation or attribution. If you'd prefer not to post in a public forum feel free to send me an email at simon.akam@gmail.com.


Hi Simon,
Thanks for taking the time to introduce yourself and I think your proposal is quite an interesting one. In terms of conventions we'd normally expect a post like this to be run past us (site admin) by email but don't worry about that. I've also moved it into this forum as I think it better suits the subject.

My first posting was to Germany in the immediate aftermath of GW1 and I'm currently in the process of leaving so I've basically served through the entire period you are interested in. What strikes me though is that you've neglected the impact of the long period of deployment in the Balkans which I'd argue is the second of four phases.

In my opinion it is particularly important as it institutionalised the idea of 6 month rotational Brigades as the solution to long operational deployments. Indeed the "double spinning cheese" was the structure on which the Army element of the 1997 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) was built.

In my view this also created a system where promotion to higher echelons was also built upon successful operational tours at Bde/BG level. If you didn't get one then you were stuffed so when Iraq and then Afghanistan kicked off it was expected that everyone would get their "turn". This then drove a significant element of the operational commitments plot (OCP). In essence we were creating operational orbats to get senior officers promoted rather than to defeat the enemy/achieve conflict resolution!

By the way I'm not sure I'd share your thesis about a generational divide between senior officers and young officers/soldiers. The reality is that people like Gen Sir David Richards have probably spent as much/more time commanding on operations as anyone else in the Army.

Hope that is helpful
Funnily enough, I was going to suggest that you can't look at the last decade in isolation (OK, I would say that wouldn't I - having resigned 3 days before Robin Cook, and thus been an outsider to all but the public face of it. 10 yrs a civvy, come October, after 30 yrs commissioned service)

I was, however, at Staff College when the Berlin Wall fell (watching instructors faces fall as they realised the world they were so comfy with had just vanished overnight), then spent 4 yrs serving in Britain's last Corps HQ, as it went multi-national/morphed into NATO's first deployable 3-Star HQ and then went to B-H. That was an interesting introduction to the business of change.

I've frequently argued (in the Army as well as on Arrse) that most of the Army's supposed self-imposed transformations since 1989 have been smoke and mirrors to conceal substantial failures [you want me to explain that? More than happy to], and my take is that if there was ever any window of opportunity for the Army to launch itself on the path of self-reform, driven by the hard-leanred lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, the grownups have shown no willingness to seize it, perhaps because to do so would be to countenance the possibility of facing open criticism.

I couldn't agree more with BadCO about the way in which career opportunities have been allowed to skew operational behaviour: that tendency was already in place long before GW1, when NI was the only game in town. The enduring nature of the Iraq/AFG operatons, and the limited number of command slots, however, rendered the problem chronic.

You may find some of the stuff on my Scribd page is relevant to your research, and I doubt you'll find it elsewhere.

The_Stonker's Documents | Scribd

If you think I may be able to help you more, please let me know.


Book Reviewer
Even if the Mods approved your foray into arrse (which I doubt) I wouldn't feel I could trust you to remain honest & objective as from what you've already posted it appears you have already formed an opinion and are looking for others to reinforce it.

As for the reporting of what the British Army did in Iraq & Afghanistan, what makes you think it has only been "reasonably well reported"?

so mate ,wrong on both counts egh?

If you want to know about the British army give arrse a pull, that's the ticket . It can only do our ( army) reputation good if more Writers felt that they could get the pucka gen here . ( see what I did there? )
It struck me today, that it was flat wrong to write off ops in NI in the way that I did - as "The Only Game In Town"

The fact is that for much of that campaign, the number of soldiers, and therefore of Battalions and their commanders, committed to ops in NI massively outnumbered anything we've ever put into the sandboxes.

Something to do with the direct threat presented by PIRA, to the UK population and the fabric of the nation.

When the sh1t was hitting the fan, it was critically important for the Nation that soldiers should not f#ck it up.

In Afg/Iraq - despite the scale of the threat to our troops being arguably greater - the scale of the deployments were substantially smaller: hence fewer career opportunities to 'shine', and - in any case - these were ops in Johnny Foreigner lands. Failure (o, if only we knew what 'success' meant) would not directly impact in UK.

So - let's just get the right ticks in the OJAR boxes, show how soldierly one can be, and carry on up the greasy pole. . . .
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