A Peacetime Army Goes to War
Simon Akam, The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11 (Scribe, 2021)
The senior British officer was proud to witness one of his non-commissioned officers destroying so many of the enemy’s tanks. “That’s the type of aggression I want from my commanders,” Brig. Graham Binns told the soldier from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, one of the oldest cavalry regiments in the British Army. The tank ace’s audacious attack, carried out with his mind alive to his regiment’s past glories, would have been foolhardy in a real war. Yet, on a training exercise in a phony war, it was applauded by his superiors and quickly assumed its place among his regiment’s tribal myths.
The exercise took place at the British Army Training Unit Suffield, a sprawling base in the south of Alberta in Canada, where tank crews assemble to hone their technical proficiency in armored warfare. The Scots Dragoon Guards were there in May 2002 to wage simulated battles against a peer opponent — a force led and organized in their own image. Less than a year later, the regiment would take part in the invasion of Iraq, a war that ended up looking very different to the one rehearsed on the Canadian prairie. The idea that peacetime corrodes and ossifies armies, making them less combat effective, is a central tenet of Simon Akam’s new book, The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11, though what also comes across loud and clear is the debilitating effects of tribalism on what some have referred to as “the world’s best little army.”
Preparing Soldiers for War
All tribes have myths and legends they guard jealously from outside scrutiny. The retelling of the past by conjuring up previous victories and putting a positive spin on defeats is vital to sustaining the life of tribal systems. The renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed of tribes that they are essentially groups of people who “conjointly exercise a type of culture” and that they “transmit this culture in the same language, according to similar educational principles, and thus they are the unit through which the culture lives and with which a culture dies.”
Armies are tribal systems too and none more so than the British Army. The Irish academic and military historian Ed Burke aptly termed it “an army of tribes.” American scholar Eliot Cohen has written about the “quasi-tribalism” of the British regimental system, in which every regiment has its own histories, customs, and traditions.
The Changing of the Guard offers us some rich ethnographic insights into this world. For those who have little or no contact with the military, many of the customs and traditions Akam describes in his weighty tome might be regarded as exotic. In the opening chapters of the book, he details the curious rituals performed in the barracks and mess halls of the Scots Dragoon Guards. Some of the ritualism entails “endless boozing,” a “crucial lubricant that keeps the system running,” Akam notes, involving “endless rounds of drinking games.” He paints an unflattering picture of a sub-culture where officers drink cold champagne and, presumably, soldiers only drink warm beer. Akam takes a puritanical view of such recreational activities, rejecting them, curiously, as a form of “bullying” in what he argues is a “pretty extreme environment.”
Akam duly provides the reader with “thick description” of the British Army’s tribal laws and of life for its soldiers. The book, he says, sets out to offer a window into “a deeply authoritarian environment,” which was designed to “create social structures” that could cope with the pressures of war. Akam also peels back some of the class-based character of the British Army. In his opening chapter about the base in Canada, he writes that “the tension between regiment and brigade was real,” and it was something “at least in part rooted in class, and at risk of festering.” Even though the British Army has been seen as something of a social leveler, particularly its officer corps, Akam takes a contrary view, pointing out “the fact that in a Scottish regiment none of the direct-entry officers have Scottish accents” and that they spend much of their spare time indulging in the “communion drink” of Pol Roger champagne. He draws a caricature sketch of a regiment, without saying much in particular about the militaristic bonds and sense of belonging that keep the system together. Instead, readers are left with an impression of an institution where “long-term peace has rusted much of what is going on.”
The quirks of tribalism are often reproduced by way of a reinvention of past exploits. “Soldiering is unique,” Akam informs us. “Unlike almost any other career, it is possible to spend a working lifetime as a soldier without ever doing the job for real.” Intriguingly, Akam moves through his opening chapters painting a picture of a peacetime army busily preparing to refight its last war.
An Army at War
In deploying to the new theater of Iraq, the British Army was impeded by friction caused by its own logistical shortcomings and the churn of its rigid training cycle. As the army had not deployed in large formations in some time, this was to be expected, though it inevitably generated leadership and organizational challenges that Akam retells with considerable detail. He spent a brief spell in the Scots Dragoon Guards while on a “gap year commission,” an internship open to young men and women to give them a taste of military life. As a result, Akam is particularly revealing about the tribulations of tank crews and of those vehicle mechanics who had to rescue stranded tanks in a hostile warzone owing to the overconfidence and self-assuredness of their crews.
What is intriguing about all these frequently chaotic episodes is the tendency of some units to embellish stories about their experiences on the Iraqi frontline. Readers learn about tank crews who were unable to communicate within their vehicles, which then became bogged down and threw their tracks without much intervention from the enemy. The incident is later recounted for the benefit of a military artist who paints a battle scene redolent of the heroics of the first Gulf War and much earlier conflicts. In the book, Akam reveals the overconfidence that flows from fighting units “wedded to tradition working out which of these inheritances have value in the modern world and which do not.” For Akam, “mythmaking” was already underway in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, with artists, journalists, and writers helping to convey a more glory-filled account of operations than was actually the case.
Akam is at his best when he recounts British difficulties in Basra between 2006 and 2008. The brigade known as the “Desert Rats,” the same one that had excelled in training in Canada, had taken the city in a major assault less than three weeks after the March 2003 onset of operations in Iraq. But, within three years of this victory in regular war, the British Army was fighting blind, with no plan from above, a lack of cohesion, and a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of the irregular war in which they now found themselves. Meanwhile, the Coalition Provisional Authority had taken the decision to demobilize the Iraqi Army in late May 2003, effectively creating a massive pool of disaffected and experienced military hands from which terrorists and insurgents could draw. The tribal dynamics of Iraqi society, not to mention those sub-national identities that cut across them in sectarian terms, soon rose to the surface, catching the British Army off-guard. Violence against the troops escalated and reached a strategic tipping point in 2007.
When Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw, the Parachute Regiment officer who had previously led the United Kingdom’s special forces, found himself taking over command from Maj. Gen. Richard Shirreff in 2007, he was well attuned to the complexity of the security situation. “Shaw was conscious of the convoluted command arrangements he was to face,” writes Akam, and so he used his personal contacts to secure a meeting with Nigel Sheinwald, Tony Blair’s foreign policy chief at Number 10 Downing Street. Shaw’s purpose was to get a sense of London’s political intent. According to Akam, Shaw left that meeting with the impression that British officials were done with the conflict and that the task in front of him was “to get Britain out of Iraq.” This foreign policy directive would have serious consequences for the British Army’s position in Basra and, perhaps more importantly, for its reputation with its American partners.
By the time Shaw met with his superior officer in Iraq, U.S. Gen. George Casey Jr., it was quite clear that the United Kingdom and the United States were on divergent paths. Along with the British decision to pull out amid a public outcry at home, it also had much to do with their interpretation of the nature and character of the conflict in Iraq and the threats they faced. By 2007, the Americans saw themselves confronting an insurgency. Curiously, the British believed it “was more akin to Palermo than Beirut — organised crime rather than the al-Qaeda inspired violence in Iraq’s central belt,” according to Akam. With “90% of the violence directed towards the British, the UK was the problem, not the solution.”
Akam pulls the curtain back further on the secret deals between British intelligence and the militants in Iraq. He draws on oral testimonies to describe and explain how British representatives secured an orderly withdrawal from the city of Basra and the consequences of their Faustian pact — or “accommodation” — with the Jaish al Mahdi. The willingness to talk to the very people who were murdering British troops unnerved the Americans who believed the militia should be obliterated at all costs. The United States favored a more coercive approach toward its irregular adversaries, rather than strategic bargaining.
British military doctrine subsequently attempted to rebrand retreat from the city of Basra as “overwatch,” but it could not fully obfuscate the damage. Britain’s preference for finding local-based solutions shocked the United States at the time and quickly soured relations — particularly during the ensuing Iraqi-led Operation Charge of the Knights in March 2008, triggered in response to the unintended consequences of bolstering the power of the militias in Basra. The whole episode would remain hidden from public view until two enterprising defense correspondents, Deborah Haynes and Michael Evans, at The Times newspaper revealed extensive details a few months later. With the benefit of hindsight, it would appear that subsequent U.S. administrations were not beyond entering into such pacts, as the 2020 deal between the United States and the Taliban demonstrates. Akam’s detailed analysis goes some way to proving the old adage that regular armies may have the watches, but irregular adversaries have all the time in the world.
In a review of The Changing of the Guard, military historian Sir Max Hastings severely criticized Akam’s analysis for assigning much of the blame to the British military leadership, while allowing the politicians off the hook. “This incoherent book’s crippling weaknesses are an absence of acknowledgement that some generals serve the country pretty well, and apparent obliviousness of the political dimension,” Hastings fumed.
In reality, the blame for the British Army’s failings in Iraq should be laid in equal measure at the doors of both the political and military hierarchies. As I wrote in a study of civil-military relations and strategy-making in Britain’s small wars, published in 2012, the withdrawal from Basra “pointed to the impoverishment of Coalition strategy” and was, in the end, nothing short of a “strategic malaise” that would have significant consequences for the Anglo-American “special relationship” and the United Kingdom’s standing on the world stage.
In his seminal work The Strategy Bridge, the late strategic thinker Colin S. Gray also emphasized that there “can be no escaping the fact that if a strategist is convinced that the extant strategy is failing, or missing from action, his message to his political masters must be that their policy must alter.” An inability to challenge group think plagued the upper echelons of the British Army during the post-9/11 wars, and it would have profound strategic and geopolitical consequences for the United Kingdom.
Learning From Failure
Despite Akam’s portrayal of strategic defeat and inertia, the British Army has become more open and honest about its past failings in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Had Akam persevered beyond the end date of major combat operations in these theaters of war, he might have seen how institutions, even tribal-based ones, can reach a tipping point where self-awareness drives forward positive change, at least in terms of the British Army’s collective mindset. That army’s more frequent use of red-teaming and its commitment to challenging group think were born out of the long and expensive inquiry presided over by the respected former civil servant Sir John Chilcot. The Good Operation guide, a distillation of the lessons learned from the Iraq intervention, has helped to shape a more professional learning institution. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate how radical change can only really come from catastrophic failures as well as glittering successes, a point well made by John Nagl in his pioneering study of British operations in Malaya and American intervention in Vietnam.
The Changing of the Guard has contributed to the ongoing debate over how the British Army might change further as it enters a post-pandemic world where security challenges demand considerable flexibility of mind. Soldiers — and their officers — will not only be required to close with and kill the enemy but also place their deployments and actions in a broader social, political, and cultural context while appreciating the truism that the enemy also gets a vote. Anything that provokes such self-awareness is good for institutions, even tribal ones.
Aaron Edwards is a senior lecturer in defense and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the author of several books, including Strategy in War and Peace, Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire, and Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA. Views expressed in this review are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @DrAaronEdwards.