The Brits, Blair, and War

September 16, 2013

Jonathan Bailey, Richard Iron, and Hew Strachan (eds) British Generals in Blair’s Wars (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013)


If you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, you’ll recall the depiction of the waning days of Rivendell, the civilization where nobody dies and the home of Arwyn (Liv Tyler), the love interest of major character Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen).  Director Peter Jackson created an ambience of a civilization in slow, constant, decline by showing autumn leaves always blowing through the outdoor colonnades and walkways of the palace.

This describes my thoughts upon finishing British Generals in Blair’s Wars – a remarkable edited volume with accounts by 26 (mostly) retired British military officers, most of them generals.   There’s a chapter on Northern Ireland, one on Kosovo, and one on Sierra Leone, but justifiably most of the book deals with Iraq and Afghanistan.  Inadequate money, numbers of men, and equipment, and a deep sourness in civil-military relations, are the four dark threads running through every chapter, creating a grim account of contemporary British military history.  It was inevitable that Britain would assume the role of a second-tier power after World War II, but I was struck by the challenges Her Majesty’s Armed Forces have in managing even the tactical level of war, having already been forced by drastic reductions in size to all but abandon the operational level. For example, Brigadier Justin Maciejewski, who was a division operations officer in the invasion of Iraq and led an infantry battalion in Basra in 2006-2007, notes that when the US was considering, and eventually beginning, its Iraq Surge of five brigades, the British Army was able to send only one battalion plus part of another to Iraq – about 1,000 soldiers to reinforce the overmatched  British brigade in southern Iraq. The book also reveals that reasons the British decided not to embed Military Training Teams (MiTTs) with Iraqi forces in its area of operations. Author Colonel Richard Irons, who was the chief British advisor to the Iraqi commander in Basra from December 2007 to November 2008, writes that the reason was that “we were so short of troops we could not provide them dedicated support at the same time as running our operations.” (p. 190) Its officers are clearly competent and experienced, but there is only so much one can do without the necessary resources.  As such, this former second-tier power struggled to simultaneously deploy and support one brigade in Iraq and another in Afghanistan.  If the British Army was, in proportion to its population and economy, the same size as the U.S. Army, it could have easily met much larger commitments in both theaters, but the U.K. government, and the people who elect it, clearly have opted for other national budgetary priorities.

The pages of this book spit acid at Tony Blair personally for his leadership style, personal integrity, and personality, far beyond the worst amounts of invective that retired general officers, or for that matter senior civilians, have directed against George W. Bush and other American presidents. Major General Jonathan Bailey’s introductory chapter provides several examples along these lines.  For instance, he states:

Not all attributed Mr Blair’s failings in this respect to malign calculation, for the more sincere and intense his expression, the more likely that he is to be saying something that is not the case.  And what makes it worse is that, as the former Lib-Dem leader Paddy Ashdown reflected (from bitter experience…): “he always means it at the time.” 

General Bailey goes on to quote former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen to the effect that “Actor-politicians [Blair] tend to be especially narcissistic—which makes the hero role almost irresistible,” and also that in “his view of himself he thinks he is always good.  Someone who believes he cannot act badly will also believe they cannot lie, so shading the truth can become a habit.”

There’s another issue here which it took me a long time to figure out, until I recalled something that the late Richard Holmes said.  Holmes’s distinguished career as a military historian was sadly cut short by a very premature death in his early 60s a couple of years ago.  He was also a practitioner, combining his studies and writing with a reserve career leading up to the grade of brigadier.  In the latter capacity he spent time in Iraq.  He wrote about this in Dusty Warriors and took a hard look at the British way of war:

The British army goes on operations and its units serve in Iraq for six months.  But the US army is at war, and this conviction helps shape much of what it does, not the least its preparedness to inflict and sustain casualties.

The routine nature of the word “operations” makes one think.  The British Army has been preoccupied with small and usually irregular wars, at the same time its strength has dropped to a level not seen since the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Has this eroded the hard-driving ruthlessness and will to win out of its operational concepts?  Consider the advice that General Nicholas Houghton, then commander of the Permanent Joint Headquarters in the UK (and now General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff, the equivalent of the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), gave to the British commander in Iraq, MG Richard Shirreff,  in 2006: “…he warned him bluntly that he did not wish to see ‘unnecessary displays of military testosterone’ on the streets of Basra.  He did not want General Shirreff to write cheques that the British Army would be unable to cash.” (quoted in British Generals in Blair’s Wars, p, 163).  Maybe if the account had more in it, the checks could have been written.

Ultimately, though, this book isn’t about British generals and the British military.  It’s about how the U.K. government and people treat national defense and view the men and women in uniform.  The reader comes away thinking that the British public, which seems to think very little about its military, is getting infinitely better officers and soldiers than it deserves.  This is a common refrain in democracies.  What is really surprising to this American reader is the apparent apathy and disdain with which the senior civilian management of the Ministry of Defence and the British political elite treated what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and the needs of the troops serving there, whom they had sent. There will always be some “disconnects” between home and theaters of operation, but in recent British history, the disconnect became a chasm.  Maybe the British people need fewer poppies in their lapels on November 11, which after all centers around a conflict which took place a century ago, and some more Support Our Troops stickers and magnets on their cars to draw attention to their soldiers who are in harm’s way right now.  The latter, who have continued to do justice to a proud fighting tradition of endurance and bravery, sure deserve it.


Robert L. Goldich retired from a 33-year career in the Congressional Research Service in 2005. He was the senior CRS military manpower analyst when he left. Bob is currently writing a book on conscription in history, from the first human civilizations to the present.


Photo Credit: Pfc. Rhonda Roth-Cameron