Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan by Frank Ledwidge, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011

It’s not often that a well-written, extensively researched, authoritative and devastatingly honest non-fiction work appears, even less so when it proves to be so deeply upsetting, painful, depressing and hard to finish. I had to push myself to read on. It’s a brilliant, devastating expose of the strategic and operational failures of what passes for British political and military strategy (for that, read non-existent strategy) that led to the abject and shameful military defeats in Basra in Iraq and Helmand in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the courage and battle skills of the infantrymen involved at the tactical level.

The author has ample experience of active service, and is someone who has thought deeply about his calling as an intelligence officer. He’s no armchair warrior, but a loyal and diligent servant of the Crown who’s been there himself. He displays a rare intellectual capacity for original thought, something that British Army officers, mostly themselves graduates and not lacking in intelligence, sorely lack for fear of being labelled, all too often, as ‘defeatist’ or ‘radical’.

Ledwidge has plenty of sensible and necessary suggestions for reform, particularly for an Army labouring under the twin burdens of self-imposed myth and British exceptionalism, which combine to form a degree of self-delusion that’s mind blowing in its generals’ inability to grasp reality.

It doesn’t help that the British armed forces are so bloated with senior commanders. There are plenty of people to point the finger at when things go awry, but no-one to actually take responsibility. In better days, a commander was removed or dismissed not because whatever went wrong was his or her fault, but because he had command responsibility. When this book was written, generals escaped blame but managed to find a subordinate to hang out to dry, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, while those responsible were decorated and promoted.

The numbers are mind-blowing. Ledwidge points out that the British Amy, with a great deal of preparation and forewarning, might be able ‘with a following wind’ to deploy two divisions on operations. A division is commanded by a major-general. There are 43 major-generals in the British Army. It has a single Army corps, but sufficient generals to command 17 of them. There are 500 general officers – brigadiers and above – across all three services. To put things into perspective, there are far more generals in the British Army than there are helicopters or operational tanks. There are considerably more admirals in the Royal Navy than there are ships and about three times as many RAF officers of one star or above than there are flying squadrons.

By comparison, the US Marine Corps has far greater combat power than the British Army and Royal Air Force combined. At around 210,000 personnel, it is larger than all three UK services. It gets along with 84 general officers. The US Army, five times the size of its UK equivalent and with far greater firepower, has 302 generals compared to the UK’s 255.

Has this issue been addressed since 2011 when this book was published? Given 13 years of misrule by the Conservative Party, one cannot help but doubt it. And if not, it’s surely time for a swingeing cull of senior officers across all services, from the rank of colonel or the equivalent and above.

Of course much of the UK’s defence policy is aimed at demonstrating what loyal vassals we are to Washington, but not always to great effect.

Ledwidge quotes a retired military intelligence officer as follows on Britain’s assistance to its primary ally:

‘It’s like we offered the Americans an aircraft carrier, something they have plenty of themselves, to do a particular task they have better and bigger resources to do themselves. As times go on they find that not only are people constantly falling off it and need to be rescued, there aren’t enough aircraft, it runs out of fuel and bumps into things. In the end it needs to be replaced entirely at great cost to the Americans. What must they think? Every time the British offer help now, they are going to put their head in their hands. “Oh no, the British are here!”’

I don’t know if the author’s recommendations have been wholly or partly taken on board. They should be, urgently, and until they are, the British Army and the other services are clearly in no fit state to carry out operations abroad, nor should they be permitted to do so. As for the Army, it’s simply not capable even in its much reduced current state, something Britain’s U.S allies know only too well.

An essential if agonising read.

Progress, sort of:

I sent off a draft of my first stab at a historical novel to an editor and Beta reader who duly replied after a few weeks, but it was what she didn’t say that seemed far more important than the observations she did make. I don’t think she liked it. She didn’t say so, but it was the deafening silence on some issues, the absence of comment. Can’t say I blame her for being so reticent. She made two hapless suggestions, both of which were impractical. So I’ve made a few changes and improvements, but overall I have to admit I don’t think it’s a commercial proposition, really. In the meantime, I’ve had another idea, and have started making notes as I read up the background.

This is familiar territory of topical intelligence and small wars, and it’s very much a ‘British’ novel this time. (I put ‘British’ in quotes because I’ve never been quite sure what ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ mean any more to those of us who no longer regard ourselves as Unionists nostalgic for empire and ‘British’ exceptionalism). But I digress: the notes have now rearranged themselves into three chapters at around 14,000 words. I’m at the stage when the prospect of sitting down to write for a couple of hours is actually thrilling, and the writing itself a pleasurable process, which is why I do it in the first place, and not because I think I’m much good at it. No doubt the enthusiasm will wear off as the word count increases and it becomes a form of hard labour, albeit spadework of the sedentary sort.

As Frelimo used to say in Portuguese, ‘A luta continua…’

John Fullerton, September 2023

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