Comments on Changing the Guard by Simon Akam.

Changing the Guard is an ambitious book with the controversial theme that the British Army lost in Helmand and Basra, has failed to acknowledge that fact and consequently failed to address the reasons why. In particular, it points out that many commanders on whose watch things went badly wrong have been promoted. It notes that today a private faces more dire consequences for losing a rifle, than a general does for similar errors of command. There are lots of examples! This culture of senior survival is not replicated in the US Army where accountability is swift and brutal. Simon Akam offers a unifying analysis which suggests the culture of the British Army explains this unwillingness to learn which in turn is impeding the Army’s further development. He argues the ability to cover up the petty loss of valuable items by favoured people (usually officers) in barracks lubricates a system that allows malfeasance and then cover up on a wider scale. The book starts with a detailed description of military life in Germany in the 90s which is well written and in my view accurately captures the very odd social and professional dynamic that existed. I do not read lots of these books, but have started to do so given two documentaries I am involved with. and I suspect Ben Barry’s Blood, Metal and Dust which I have not read, is a partner volume to Akam’s and indeed Akam refers to Ben Barry’s report on the Gulf War.

Akam’s prose is zippy, vivid and based around individuals which personalises the narrative. You want to know what happens next. On certain, well reported issues, for example the court martial of Marine A, there is a great deal of convincing detail. The hiatus around Basra in 2007/8 when British forces were confined to the airport whilst the Americans were deployed in Basra itself with Iraqi units they were mentoring, has been carefully covered. The critic is measured and from my limited knowledge, fair. I suppose some would want such a critical work to suggest solutions which the book does not but this is a history book and not a policy paper. The really big legacy which Changing the Guard spells out with commendable clarity is the disappointment of Americans. We talk about the special relationship in cosy terms and trivialise it into whether Boris gets his Biden call in before other leaders, but actually it is about shared military risk. In Iraq especially British units did not, and could not, do what the Americans expected. On the initial invasion in 2003 the British went to Basra because their vehicles would not have made it to Baghdad and once at Basra were criticised by American commanders for a timid approach. Fair to note that the more muscular American approach in the north delivered no better results, except perhaps in Mosul. British Commanders responded with trademark effortless condescension about wearing soft hats, Northern Ireland and an irrelevant assertion of historical expertise in counter insurgency; perhaps glossing over the British defeat in 1916 just up the road at Kut Al Amara. Akam points out that key British officers seemed to be on leave, often skiing, at crucial moments but the American reaction to this is not reported.

Perhaps the book is a proper history and not a lessons learned review of Iraq and Afghanistan which is now nearly a decade old. In any case, the new challenge of Defence reform is about technology which is changing what war actually is and not just how it is conducted. Furthermore, it is unclear that western democracies have the the appetite to apply the violence their weapons systems provide. Indeed, they are perhaps no longer capable of waging war to the point of decisive victory largely because war is messy, costly, unpleasant and once the casualties occur, unpopular. Covid response is evidence of governments’ unwillingness to absorb risk in particular when it involves countable, visible deaths. How could such a risk averse government wage any war that lasts more than a few days? If it is not then is there any deterrent or actual value for Britains present military capability? If not what is it actually for? More useful than all the chat about infantry numbers, aircraft carriers, Russian resurgence etc would be an effort to persuade the British people that professionally applied violence remains a necessary policy option despite its consequences.

Political Risk, defined as unexpected change, for military commanders is always behind them not in front. Iran was commendably clear on what it wanted in Basra, it was the UK government which changed its mind. Successive local commanders arrived with no clear direction and lacked the permissions or resources to do anything decisive or effective. But this situation largely came about because MOD decided to enter Helmand in 2006 before it left Iraq, hoping to revive its reputation in the eyes of the Americans. The Helmand deployment was a clear violation of UKs own Defence Planning Assumptions which did not allow for logistic support in two theatres at once.

Changing the Guard spends much time talking about culture and observes militaries are of necessity a hierarchy. I fully agree and wrote this whilst thinking about the Revolution in Military Affairs which is happening now and I contend was also happening a century earlier in 1879 at Isandlwana.

Military institutions are slow to change. Their need for rapid, executive action necessarily concentrates authority in a hierarchy whose operational experience pre-dates the latest technology. There can be no free market in military thought in which an energetic junior might overturn institutional preference. Furthermore, armies have a large legacy of existing weapons and trained manpower which they are slow to admit might be irrelevant, even while they selectively adopt new technology. All war is risky but much more can go wrong if a war occurs in the middle of a transition to untested new methods, organisation and technology. A longer version is here

Hierarchies are are two edged sword. The hierarchy the military clearly needs on the battlefield, reinforced in peace with ranks, saluting and much else, gets in the way of flexible, experimental thought needed to build relevant military capability in a rapidly changing technology environment. The Army cannot embrace Agile development styles or Complexity Science in order to experiment its way to the right answer.

Akam is so right that the Army in Germany in the late 90s was stultified. Commanders were very certain about doctrine and tactics which were wholly unproven. Training for war with the Soviets was a parody of the probable reality. My own task was to lay minefields and blow up bridges. We buried tens of thousands of boxes of sand in mock minefields and strung actual washing line and plasticine on bridges in lieu of blowing them up. We were judged on what we buried, but not where, so we dug Anti Tank ditches so we could bury the sand box mines we had not had time to lay. BATUS was better but still training was far from reality. I was once told ‘to deny’ the main road into the range. It was assumed I would do the usual ‘pretending’ with plasticine but in fact, in a colossal faux pax, actually blew nine real beautiful craters across the only road onto the range. Mayhem; too much reality.

That might be at the heart of what Changing the Guard is all about. The British Army had forty years of peace during which it convinced itself it was very good at something it never had to do; fight the Soviets. Fact and reality grew apart but the suddenly Afghanistan and Iraq changed that. The front line juniors learned very fast but seniors did not. The institution is sort of stuck, unable to think its way forward.

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