Chilcot and a Very British History of Dubious Military Decisions

July 8, 2016

The publication of the long-awaited report by Sir John Chilcot and his committee on Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq proved more surprising and damning than expected. Many of the report’s conclusions confirmed what was widely understood to be the case. But the authoritative, exhaustive, and rigorous nature of the report has made those assumptions irrefutable. The Iraq invasion was of dubious legality, based on faulty intelligence, the result of poor strategic maneuvering by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and exposed yet another failure of the political and military interface. If Britain’s military history is any guide, this will not be the last such failure.

In the days leading up to the publication, media reports repeatedly emphasized that it was beyond the remit of the inquiry to comment on the legality of the war. The report came as close to declaring the war to be illegal as was possible, without actually doing so. “The UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted,” the inquiry chair, Sir John Chilcot, said in his public statement. “Military action at that time was not a last resort.”

Although shocking to read in a public statement, there is nothing surprising for those of us who have taught the history of ethics and morality in war. The principle of Last Resort is one of the explicit principles of the Just War criteria. A war cannot be just if peaceful diplomatic alternatives exist as an alternative. Legal scholars and ethicists can debate the true meaning of this: Is it just to resort to war if diplomatic alternatives exist, but they are certain to fail? Blair, in 2002 and 2003, clearly believed this was the case, and continues to do so now.

But this forthright comment was not the only damning statement to emerge from the report. Again, much of this was no surprise. Intelligence failings were apparent, ranging from collection to analysis. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the British government was suffering from group-think at best, cognitive dissonance at worst. Chilcot highlights that the Joint Intelligence Committee failed to make clear that the intelligence on which the Blair government was basing its decisions was short of reliable. For its part, the Blair government failed to ask the necessary questions of the intelligence, choosing instead to believe wholeheartedly what was presented, and ignore the considerable caveats that any serious analysis would have revealed. “The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction –  WMD –  were presented with a certainty that was not justified,” Chilcot concluded.

While President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld carry the responsibility for post-war planning failures, Blair is seen as little more than the poodle he was caricatured as at the time. The strategic justification often trotted out for British support of American policy in Iraq is the influence such support bought with our allies.

The fallacy of this justification is laid bare by Chilcot. Blair is seen seeking to constrain Bush and Rumsfeld, and succeeding only in having his own objectives watered down. Far from buying Britain influence, Blair’s support of the invasion merely confirmed British strategic weakness. Blair might have had a seat at the table, but he was still ignored. The result was that “the planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.” Blair argued that any plan would have failed because the severity of the situation post-invasion could not have been anticipated. Here, as well, Chilcot is equally excoriating. “We do not agree that hindsight is required,” Chilcot said.  “The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

Perhaps the most damning of the verdicts, though, is on the failure of the political-military interface. Britain’s military contribution was not settled until January 2003, leaving little time to prepare the three brigades or understand the risks associated with the invasion. As a result, these risks, and therefore the potential issues facing the British Army post-invasion were never fully exposed to, or debated by, ministers. “Despite promises that the Cabinet would discuss the military contribution,” Chilcot concluded, “it did not discuss the military options or their implications.”

Shocking this might be; new it is not. British military history is replete with examples of the British government either ignoring or overruling the concerns of its military professionals. “All military difficulties are completely over-ruled,” declared William Pitt the Younger immediately prior to deploying the British Army to the Dutch coast and to disaster in 1799. Then, Pitt’s military advisors complained about the absence of reliable intelligence of the terrain and the people who lived there. Convinced that his forces would be successful merely by turning up, Pitt sent the expedition anyway. The result was a botched landing and a series of pitched battles that resulted in a humiliating withdrawal.

If military concerns were ignored in 1799, they were at least raised. In 1839, the British Army was actively complicit in the decision of the British government to launch an ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, based in part on its own “dodgy dossier.” There, inaccurate intelligence reports suggested an imminent influx of Russian agents designed to spread discord throughout South Asia. At the same time, generals in both London and Calcutta painted Russia as the new bogey-man of Europe, or portrayed Afghanistan itself as posing an existential threat to Britain’s position in India. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, British personnel, seeking personal aggrandizement or military glory, constructed an argument for war, which British politicians, eager to constrain a seemingly expansionist Russia, willingly lapped up. The result was a three-year occupation which ended in murder and acrimony, and a retreat which cost the lives or freedom of all but one of a 16,000 strong military force.

Before war broke out with Russia in 1854, the British Army, still convinced of its omnipotence following victory over Napoleon in 1815, and despite the catastrophic defeat suffered in Afghanistan, proved unable to offer any rational counterargument as to why the British should not deploy its field army to fight an attritional campaign on the Crimean Peninsula. There, complacency on the part of senior military personnel, desirous of any military intervention to illustrate their own effectiveness for operational command, trumped reliable and considered analysis of the situation.

Similarly, historians still debate today about whether the British Army should ever have been deployed to the Western Front in World War I. The British Army was seen by many strategists as a “projectile to be fired by the Navy”: a maritime asset to be used as part of a maritime strategy by a maritime power. In many respects this was a true reflection of the way Britain had used its military power for the last three centuries. Yet in 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was deployed to fight in Flanders fields, in a capacity which it had never yet been asked to comply. Many historians argue this was a necessary and essential transition, which the British Army would inevitably have to make. Others see it as the folly of an over-enthusiastic, but stunningly misinformed high command.

In all these circumstances, the failure of the political level to understand military constraints and limitations, combined with the failure in some cases of the military to articulate them, led to shattering losses for the British Army. It seems a stable feature of British military history that the political-military interface is bereft of mutual understanding. In most cases it took years of war and losses to correct these initial failings. In the wake of successes in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, it is possible senior British military personnel over-estimated their own abilities, and underestimated the resources required to invade and secure Iraq. The absence of reliable intelligence, which so infuriated Pitt’s military advisors, and aided the proponents of the invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, was no obstacle to decision-making in 2003.

What does this mean, then, for the future of British military interventions? If the military historical examples I have cited are anything to go by, then there is little chance that we will learn the lessons of the Iraq War in the long-term. Each of the mistakes committed in the lead up to the invasion in 2003 was committed in one form or another previously. Sir John Chilcot hopes that a decision to go to war will not again be made without careful and considered analysis. It seems likely that this odd statement of the obvious will prevail in the short-term. But Britain’s history of political-military relations suggests that this simple objective is far from obvious, and even less likely to be adhered to. Politicians will do what politicians want to do. The Chilcot report merely confirms yet another example of a failure of the political and military interface. I suspect it will not be the last.


Huw J. Davies is a senior lecturer in Defence Studies, King’s College London at the Joint Services Command and Staff College. He researches British military history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is currently working on a book titled A Wandering Army: The Rise of British Military Power, 1750-1850 for Yale University Press. He regularly writes for Defence-in-Depth.

Image: National Army Museum