“Just the Facts” on Afghanistan Doesn’t Tell the Story
Leigh Neville, The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14 (Osprey Publishing, 2015)
The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14 is the latest in the “Elite” series of books from Osprey, a specialist publisher of military history. The “Elite” series is focused on “a single army or elite unit,” and a quick glance at the back catalogue puts the British Army in some pretty impressive company — other titles, for example, include the French Foreign Legion, the Israeli Defense Force and even the Vikings. According to the website blurb, the main aim is “to provide a valuable resource for history enthusiasts, model makers, re-enactors, and wargamers,” which implies a heavily factual structure, and so this is the context by which it is only fair to judge the book.
Running at just 60 pages long, the book offers a quick, yet very complete, snapshot of the British Army during the evolution of Op HERRICK, Britain’s military operation in Afghanistan. The book follows a natural rhythm of looking at each six-month brigade deployment, from HERRICK 4 in the summer of 2006 to HERRICK 20 in the summer of 2014. It goes to great lengths to detail each brigade’s formation, the key areas of operations, the main objectives for that brigade and a short factual guide through the events of that tour. As you might imagine from an Osprey publication, there is a lot of focus on things like the type of kit, equipment, vehicle capabilities, etc., most of which is presented through heavily annotated paintings and/or photographs. The attention to detail is impressive and, as a veteran of two HERRICK tours in 2007 and 2010, I was particularly pleased to see the author, Leigh Neville, acknowledge that a great deal of servicemen’s personal kit in the early HERRICK tours was privately purchased (e.g. Oakley gloves, Lowa/Altberg Boots, even knee-pads). Moreover, the soldiers’ enduring need to look “cool” while at war by subtly modifying their kit is also illustrated with various references to things like the lavish application of sniper tape to helmets, wearing t-shirts under body armor (the pre-cursor to the UBACS), and the fairly undesirable penchant for unit in-house designed patches (one of which makes it on to the front cover photograph — tut tut tut).
And so, if you are looking for a concise yet thorough reference on the title-subject, this book fits the bill. There are no surprises and no allusions to a deeper understanding; just the cold hard facts. As such, I think most people on War on the Rocks will find the greatest use of this book as a reference document — unless of course they are also model makers, re-enactors and/or war-gamers, in which case they may find many more uses for it.
And that really should be that — books like The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14 aren’t meant to excite or provoke. As Neville himself acknowledges: “the series’ format acts as a limitation to keep things focussed on the ‘kinetic’ and to avoid political comment.” But the truth is I found this book rather antagonizing. The reason is this: now that we finally have closure on Op HERRICK and operational chronologies like this book are beginning to hit the shelves, I suspect, and I fear, that the narrative of the Afghan War which this book offers is likely to reflect the narrative that will make it into the textbooks of the future. Why does that irritate me? Because there is a lack of balance in our story-telling and the only HERRICK tours that ever seem to get any exposure anymore are HERRICK 4 (summer 2006) and HERRICK 8 (summer 2008).
This book, for example, devotes 12 pages (20% of the entire book!) to HERRICK 4 — the composition of the 3 Para Battle Group and their “Break-In Battle.” While I acknowledge that HERRICK 4 was a landmark tour in the sense that it was the Army’s first foray into Helmand and the fighting was incredibly intense, the opportunity cost of devoting so much time to one six-month period is that the remaining eight plus years of the operation get much less attention. I believe this will be to the detriment of the general public’s understanding of the campaign.
However, the obsession with HERRICK 4 is not just limited to The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14. An abundance of books were written off the back of it (Desert of Death, Blood Clot, Danger Close, A Million Bullets, An Ordinary Soldier, Callsign Hades — to name half a dozen …). Indeed the first major Afghan book, and the one that most people would recognize, was Patrick Bishop’s best-selling 3 Para. And it is easy to see why HERRICK 4 gets so much attention: the now legendary platoon houses and roof-top battles are the sort of testosterone-soaked war imagery that would captivate any WOTR reader. It even inspired a movie. But the success of HERRICK 4 “merchandising” arguably led to a media fixation on the Parachute Regiment and 16 Air Assault Brigade. When the Paras returned to Helmand in 2008 on HERRICK 8, Patrick Bishop was already embedded with them (commissioned for a follow-up book: Ground Truth) and Ross Kemp — the journalist whose TV series probably did the most for bringing the war to Joe Public — even brought along his production crew. Another avalanche of HERRICK 8 memoirs has since followed (such as Code Black, Company Commander, Fighting Season, Desperate Glory, Bad Company) and, in the end, a tour that was essentially defined by a convoy of heavy equipment going to the Kajaki dam (Op Oqaba Tsuka) seems to have grabbed far more than its fair share of the limelight.
My argument is not meant to devalue the actions of those servicemen involved in either HERRICK 4 or HERRICK 8, nor is it meant as an attack on the proliferation of memoirs published about Afghanistan — in fact I would like to see more (as you can see, I’ve read more than a few). But the Welsh Guards’ devastating tour on HERRICK 10, as chronicled so expertly by Toby Harnden in Dead Men Risen and Ross Kemp’s first Afghan series on the Royal Anglians in HERRICK 6, illustrate that there was so much more to Afghanistan than just maroon berets and jump wings. As I look up towards my bookshelf, all I can see are big holes yearning for the seminal tomes on the 3 Rifles’ Sangin tour (HERRICK 11), on 2 Yorks’ views on the success of Op Moshtarak (HERRICK 11) and of the Duke of Lancaster’s exploits on Op Tor Shezada (HERRICK 12). We can all argue about which events have had the biggest impact on the conflict and which deserve the most time dedicated to them (I offer some of my thoughts above) but, regardless of whether they chime with your own, I wonder if you share my disappointment that The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14 dedicated only three paragraphs to Op Moshtarak, and only one to Op Tor Shezada. Despite suffering the worst casualty record of the campaign, the 3 Rifles Battalion is but a footnote.
Don’t get me wrong, The British Army in Afghanistan 2006-14 successfully fulfills its publisher’s brief as outlined in my first paragraph and serves as a useful reference. My criticisms are not so much levelled at the book as they are at the ever-increasing tendency, across all media formats, just to focus on the exploits of one brigade at the expense of all others. HERRICK 4 undoubtedly gave us war pornography at its most extreme but it was the fetishization of this “kinetic effect” that, among other things, doomed the Afghan campaign to failure. It certainly enabled a Battle Group to be proud of firing one million rounds of ammunition on a counterinsurgency tour! I sincerely feel we owe it to the future understanding of this campaign to shift our focus away from HERRICK 4 and HERRICK 8, and include the experiences from a wider range of deployed units. Or maybe I’m just a bitter “craphat” that only toured on HERRICKs 6 and 12.
George Vlachonikolis is an economics tutor at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford. A retired British Army officer, Vlachonikolis served two front-line operational tours in Afghanistan during a six-year career from 2005 through 2011.
Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence