In January this year, the British Army rolled out a series of new recruitment advertisements. One film showed a group of multiethnic and gender-mixed soldiers running through the woods. A young Black woman – in an institution that remains 90-per-cent male and 87-per-cent white – pulls up short under a heavy rucksack, panting as others rush off ahead. “What’s the first step towards victory?” a female voiceover asks. “Failure.” The lagging soldier collapses on her hands; a close-up shows a trembling bicep. An instructor appears, blurred in the background. “Come on, keep going,” she says. The voiceover returns. “You fail. You learn. So you can win – when it really matters.” The soldier ends the 30-second clip running back with the group.
The notion this campaign presents is that the British Army is now a learning institution, constantly assimilating lessons and using them to improve performance, both individual and collective. But is that really the case? This summer, the last Western troops are pulling out of Afghanistan after 20 years of war, despite a resurgent Taliban. Two decades of conflict there and in Iraq have definitely not gone as planned.
Does the British military really now respond when things go wrong – or is it instead, to quote one serving officer, “indemnified” from any serious accountability or discussion of its mistakes, protected by a mix of structural failings and public sentimentality.
This is a story about one army, in another country on the other side of an ocean. But these issues of military accountability are pertinent in Canada, too. The Canadian military has been embroiled in controversy over allegations of misconduct involving a number of senior leaders.
After chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance retired in 2020, a news report detailed inappropriate behaviour from him toward two female subordinates. He allegedly told his former mistress, Major Kellie Brennan, that he was “untouchable” and “owned” the military police.
Mr. Vance’s successor, Admiral Art McDonald, stepped aside less than two months into his term as he also faced an investigation – allegedly into sexual misconduct as well.
And in May this year, Major-General Dany Fortin was terminated from his position as head of Canada’s vaccine rollout after a sexual-misconduct probe (Maj.-Gen. Fortin has now filed an application for judicial review, alleging he did not get “procedural fairness”).
As Albert O. Hirschman – the German-born economist who worked as a translator at the Nuremberg trials before a career at Yale, Harvard and Columbia Universities – wrote in his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, when things go wrong, individuals in an organization face two choices. They can quit or they can speak up. And the way armies are organized makes the first option much easier than the second.
The following excerpts are adapted from The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11, by Simon Akam, available now from Scribe Publications. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
In this Q&A with Globe and Mail arts editor Judith Pereira, the author explains the legal battles between him and the original publisher, Penguin Random House, which wanted tighter control of the final product and to submit the manuscript to Britain’s Ministry of Defence for “amendments.”
Part 1: Fail
Twenty years ago, the British military was coming off two decades of success. In 1982, soldiers, marines and sailors dislodged the Argentineans from the Falkland Islands. In 1991, British units took part in the First Gulf War that removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. In Bosnia and Kosovo, peacekeeping tours helped patch the Balkans back together. In 1997, former BBC reporter Martin Bell turned politician referred in a Westminster speech to “The best little army in the world.” The run of good form continued in Sierra Leone, where in 2000 a British intervention helped end a civil war. These military successes chimed with – and drove – political aspiration. In April 1999, Tony Blair gave a speech to the Chicago Economic Club proposing a “doctrine of the international community,” criteria for deciding when to go to war to protect a country’s own inhabitants.
Blair’s hubris in Chicago arguably matched anything the army itself would later show in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet, while these wars were launched by politicians, the British military nonetheless pushed extensively for a substantial role in both conflicts. In Iraq in 2003, initial American requests were for special forces and use of bases. The latter decision to deploy a division and 46,000 troops reflected lobbying by the military. In the later pivot to Afghanistan in 2006, by which point Iraq had gone very sour indeed, the British Army overruled its own estimates of the minimum numbers of troops required in order to get the deployment underway. Helmand province was seen as a way of making up for reputational capital lost in Basra and to avoid cutting battalions in an upcoming defence review. “It’s use them or lose them,” Sherard Cowper-Coles, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan, recalls General Sir Richard Dannatt, then head of the army, telling him. (Dannatt denies he said this).
None of this is surprising. Without things to do, standing armies get cut. And conflicts have huge momentum once they are launched, with funding and careers within the military dependant on them. However, when it comes to working out where and why things went wrong, it is therefore important to look at the military with equal scrutiny as to politicians.
Let us go back to the beginning. Here, explicitly, we are now in Canada. In the summer of 2002, on the Alberta prairie, the British Army stopped practising the manoeuvre they called withdrawals, but a general observer might have another term for them: retreats. For the British soldiers who have trained there since 1971, 2,700 square kilometres of shortgrass in southern Alberta is ubiquitously known as BATUS. That acronym unpacks to British Army Training Unit Suffield. The prairie provides space to practise armoured warfare on a scale unavailable in crowded Britain or elsewhere in Europe.
In July 2002, Tony Blair would send his “Note on Iraq” to George Bush’s White House, beginning with the loaded phrase “I will be with you, whatever.” On the prairie, the drumbeat of looming war became apparent in the form of a drought of “track miles.” The track mile is a metric to quantify how much caterpillar-tracked military vehicles can be used given the level of spare parts and maintenance support available. By 2002, the army had moved from large depots of equipment to a just-in-time logistics set up. However, discussion with industry to order required equipment – such as desert air filters – would be forbidden until October 15th 2002. The army that would invade Iraq would be neither fully prepared, nor sustained.
Simon Caraffi, the British colonel commanding BATUS in 2002, recalls the extraordinary sight of fitters stripping spare parts off an obsolete Chieftain tank that was mounted as decoration on a plinth outside the range control building. Though the Chieftain was no longer in service in 2002, combat engineering vehicles used its chassis, and they needed parts. Meanwhile, Chris Parker, then a major and the chief of staff of 7th Armoured Brigade, which would take part in the invasion the following year, found their training in Canada severely curtailed. They called their limited resources “dog track miles,” like dog years, seven times a regular one. Black humour was important. But it still seemed no way to take an army to war.
The following spring, British armoured columns crossed from Kuwait into southern Iraq as part of a much larger US-led force. The shortage of spare parts meant that the maximum reach of the British invasion force was 95km – beyond that the vehicles would have had to go into cannibalization mode. They could reach Basra, just across the border, but not Baghdad. Tank crews had to hand in coveted “Enhanced Combat Body Armour” so the infantry could have it. A later investigation estimated one tank crewman, shot accidentally by a British machine gun, would have survived had he worn ECBA. Even basic desert uniform was at a premium.
Despite these equipment issues, the initial invasion was rapid and seemingly successful. In the Shia south of Iraq that had hated Saddam, there was a brief honeymoon period. Three months later though, six British military police were lynched in al-Majar al-Kabir in Maysan Province. By the following year, a full-throated insurgency was in progress, with the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in Al-Amarah fighting the longest continual defensive stand since the Korean War.
British commanders arrived in Iraq preaching to the Americans their apparent expertise in counter-insurgency, gleaned from Northern Ireland and the end of empire conflicts that had proceeded it. However, the British eventually lost control of Basra. With Iraq politically toxic in the UK, there was no appetite to match the 2007 surge in which the US poured additional forces into the country. Instead, the British forged a secret deal with the Jaysh al-Maadi militia, trading sequential release of prisoners for a cessation of attacks on British bases. When they became aware of this “accommodation,” many in the US chain of command regarded it as capitulation.
The deal collapsed precipitously in March 2008. Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki jumped the gun on a long-planned clearance operation. During Operation Charge of the Knights, Iraq and American troops fought in Basra while British forces, until very late in the day, remained leashed at their cantonment at the airport. US Major General George Flynn entered a British headquarters and said – although his exact wording is disputed – that the Americans had come to arrest British failure. Blunter was the American graffiti found on a portaloo at the time.
Q: How many Brits does it take to clear Basrah? A: NONE. THEY COULDN’T HOLD IT SO THEY SENT THE MARINES. TOP A THA MORNING CHAPS!
Two years later, Paul Harkness, a British officer who was in Basra in 2008 as a lieutenant colonel, suggested to US General David Petraeus, now overall commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan, that it would take “a generation at least” for the US to forget that when they needed them their oldest ally was not there for them.
Petraeus’s response was revealing. He suggested it would, in fact, take “slightly longer.”
While the British Army hoped that Afghanistan would make good the failings experienced in Basra, the campaign in the south of the country also went off the rails. In the summer of 2006, paratroopers – the most bellicose section of the British Army – deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Moving from their initial area of operations to scattered “platoon houses” across the province, troops found themselves isolated and under attack. A purported reconstruction mission became a violent fight.
For much of the army, however, the 2006 Helmand tour, with its “kinetic” or violent actions, rewarded with racks of gallantry medals and recorded in the new format of the YouTube war film, became something to match up to. Only several years later did US commander Stanley McChrystal distribute new directives pushing “courageous restraint,” with the people as the prize. Behaviour changed, and – as in Basra – an influx of American forces helped the overstretched Brits. But when the army pulled out of Helmand after eight years, few of the varied objectives proposed for the mission, from countering the production of opium to raising women’s rights, had been achieved. 455 British troops and civilians died in Afghanistan, beyond the 179 killed in Iraq. Now, in 2021, the Taliban control much of Helmand.
Much then went wrong in these wars. Despite the outcomes many troops undoubtedly fought with great heroism. Likewise, the US and other western powers also failed to extract a “victory” from either Iraq or Afghanistan. Failure was not exclusively British. Given what took place, though, is it appropriate to ask to what extent the British Army post-9/11 was able to learn from its setbacks.
Part 2: Learn
In October 2007, Colonel Richard Westley took charge of the British Army’s Operational Training and Advisory Group. This organisation, based at Shorncliffe in southern England, trained soldiers before deployment on operations. By 2007, OPTAG was putting through 40,000 troops per year for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Westley had first-hand experience of the latter campaign: he had commanded his battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, on Operation Herrick 6, the third British rotation in Helmand. In July 2007, the WMIK vehicle he was travelling in – a Land Rover uprated to carry weaponry but with limited armour protection – reversed over an improvised explosive device. The explosion hurled the gunner – Fijian Derek Derenalagi – 30m through the air, landing on rocks. His left leg was blown off and his right was left hanging by a thread of flesh and bone (Derenalagi lost both legs, but would eventually compete in the 2012 Paralympics with the discus.)
Westley had planned to leave the army after his deployment. However, when the personnel department offered the OPTAG job, with the opportunity to overhaul the way British troops were prepared for operations, he decided to stay. Westley had himself gone through OPTAG in 2005, when his battalion was warned off for Afghanistan at short notice and had eight weeks to convert to new radios and prepare to deploy. He had then found the training under-resourced and poorly focused, though flexible.
On arrival at Shorncliffe two years later, Westley found instructors teaching troops going to Afghanistan who had not served themselves in that theatre; he regarded them as unqualified. Meanwhile, at the personnel centre in Glasgow, OPTAG was not regarded as a prestige posting. The best non-commissioned officers went to the Infantry Battle School at Brecon, or to the officer training academy at Sandhurst.
Westley sought to change this. He secured agreement from Glasgow that OPTAG would be given more weight than Brecon; he accepted that Sandhurst would probably still edge both, but he needed to change the mindset of NCOs. Westley’s next task was to construct representative training areas. When Westley’s battalion went through their pre-Afghanistan package, they practised clearing “compounds” built out of hay bales. Westley estimated the cost of better facilities as around £20 million. He convinced a group of civil servants to provide the funding by literally wheeling out Derenalagi. The result at Thetford in Norfolk was a series of Afghan-style compounds and another facility more akin to Iraq. They recruited expatriate Afghans as staff, reduced safety margins so that troops had experience of rounds “winging over them,” and integrated the latest information from theatre. Westley saw one of his instructors interrupt a lesson on IED search to take a phone call from Afghanistan, before informing his students of new information on what level to calibrate their Vallon metal detectors for best results.
Overall, with its emphasis on creativity, acceptance of ideas from the bottom up, and rapid response to events in the field, OPTAG represented the best of military organizations. It showed how, when people start to die – and in few other circumstances – armies can adapt and change without losing their necessary rigidity.
There are many other examples. The pressures of war could – and regularly did – strip away the sclerosis of peacetime and created a new spirit of collaborative effort that was both exhilarating to those who participated in it and dramatic in its outcomes. The impact on operations of new kit and training was real, and revised doctrine pushing for a less “kinetic” – i.e. violent – approach in Afghanistan was significant too. Yet, while the ability to learn lessons at the lowest “tactical” level became slick, higher up the army had an almost complete inability to acknowledge mistakes. Carrying on a trope which has long dogged the institution, avoiding senior individual embarrassment or sanction ranked higher than an honest appraisal of what had actually taken place.
In early January 2010, twenty-two months after the humiliation of Operation Charge of the Knights, the army convened a conference at Warminster in southwest England. The architect of ”Operations in Iraq – Lessons for Afghanistan and Beyond” was Ben Barry, a brigadier who had commanded an armoured battlegroup in the Balkans. The army had commissioned Barry to write a lessons-learned report into the Iraq campaign.
The weather almost derailed the conference. That morning, there was a major dump of snow, and a third of the hoped-for 200 attendees, were unable to make it to Warminster. Some exchanged staff cars for land rovers to negotiate the drifts. Barry determined there were still enough for a critical mass though, and the event went ahead.
The first day was workshops; the second day involved “syndicate discussions.” Military historian Hew Strachan gave a presentation on “campaign perspective.” Panellists included Bing West, a former US Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam and later in the Reagan administration, and a slew of senior British commanders. Yet not all the attendees were convinced by the conference as a lesson-learning process. Hew Strachan recalls that “each battlegroup commander told his own story, and unsurprisingly they were all wonderful!” Meanwhile, Richard Iron, a British colonel who as mentor to Iraqi commander General Mohan al-Furayji played a pivotal role in the endgame in Basra (and one of those stuck by the snow) recalls that:
“The [January 2010] conference as a whole and Ben’s resultant report were anodyne. Ben’s terms of reference restricted him to the tactical level, to avoid embarrassing anyone senior, and he never really got to the heart of why we failed. And the majority of those attending the conference had invested too much emotionally to accept that we had failed or that our own performance may have contributed to that failure. As a result, few people were asking the really searching questions.”
The report itself only became public years later, after Barry had left the army and was able to extract it under Freedom of Information law. In 2020, Barry published his own book on the campaigns, Blood, Metal and Dust – How Victory Turned Into Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. While in many ways a substantial piece of scholarship, the book nevertheless took a simplistic view of why things went wrong, laying the vast portion of blame with politicians. “In Iraq, [Tony] Blair was directly responsible for the military weaknesses that led to the accommodation,” he wrote. “The ultimate responsibility for the sub-optimal functioning of the British security machinery was his.” Once more, the army was indemnified.
Even more striking was the outcome of another report the army commissioned into higher level strategic issues in the Iraq campaign. This time, the author was Lieutenant General Chris Brown, who served as the last Senior British Military Representative in Iraq from January to July of 2009.
Initially intended as the MoD’s submission to the wider Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, the draft of Brown’s report went out in extremely tight circulation to the chiefs of staff. Brown sensed official dissatisfaction. He was told to rewrite elements; the report went through a second draft, and a third, with endless Ministry of Defence mandarins weighing in. Brown’s “overriding impression” was that “no one wants to end up holding the baby when the blame is being distributed around Whitehall.” Brown left the army in April 2010 and his report was suppressed; it was eventually only published following another epic Freedom of Information Battle, this time an 11-month campaign waged by Michael Bimmler, a Swiss undergraduate at Oxford.
In the forms eventually released under FOI, neither the Brown nor Barry reports are sugar-coated. The former states that assumptions within the MoD that the armed forces should train and equip for high-intensity conflict, and then quickly adapt for “peace support,” were discredited in Iraq. Barry’s report meanwhile acknowledges that “As professional soldiers, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about what went well on operations and what could have been done better.”
When it came to the most pivotal section, analysis of Charge of the Knights, Barry pulled punches though: “Opinion is divided between those who think of the events of 2007/8, particularly the “accommodation” and Op Charge of the Knights, as military failures, and those who regard them as the best that could be achieved in an extremely unfavourable strategic and operating environment. On balance this report favours the latter interpretation.”
There is a convincing argument to be made that all institutions, not just military ones, need to take time to do their own mirror-staring in private, to draw their own hard lessons, before exhibiting the results in public. Yet in the case of the British Army in Iraq, both the Brown and the Barry reports indicate that a collective desire to avoid embarrassment and awkward questions sat higher than a desire for a full and effective post-mortem.
Part 3: Win
No matter how badly things went wrong, senior British military commanders almost invariably got promoted. That truth is best indicated by the afterlives of the participants of the Iraq endgame for Britain. Richard Shirreff, the British major general in Basra in 2006, became a four-star general and deputy supreme allied commander Europe. Jonathan Shaw, his successor who devised the accommodation with the militias, did not promote beyond major general, but still served until 2012. Nick Houghton, who during Charge of the Knights was chief of joint operations, the three-star position at Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood outside London that directs British forces worldwide, became chief of the defence staff, the overall head of the British military. Peter Wall, Houghton’s deputy at PJHQ at the same time, became chief of the general staff, head of the army. Jock Stirrup, chief of the defence staff in 2007, saw his tour extended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in mid-2008 and eventually received a peerage. Patrick Marriott, another key figure at PJHQ in 2008, became a major general and commandant of Sandhurst. Barney White-Spunner – the two-star general who was away from Basra on a skiing holiday at the critical time in March 2008 – promoted to lieutenant general.
In the Afghan campaign, there were likewise striking examples of promotion for failure by the British. The first is the Marine A case. In September 2011, a Royal Marine sergeant called Alexander Blackman shot a wounded Taliban insurgent while, unbeknown to him, another marine had a helmet camera running. “This doesn’t go anywhere fellas,” Blackman said. “I’ve just broken the Geneva convention.” After the video emerged, Blackman was convicted of murder.
In response, the naval authorities (the Royal Marines, though infantry, are part of the navy not the army) determinedly pushed a “lone bad apple line,” despite an internal report that suggested that the incident was in fact profoundly linked to the divergent approaches taken by 42 Commando, Blackman’s unit, and 45 Commando, who were operating adjacent to them. While 45 Commando attempted to operate with minimum violence in accordance with the new doctrine of counterinsurgency, and one of their companies passed its entire tour without firing a shot in anger, 42 took a much more aggressive approach, with widespread use of heavy weapons. The commanding officer of 45, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Lee, had repeatedly warned the brigade commander, Brigadier Ed Davis, about 42′s behaviour. He was ignored. A troop reduction and unit amalgamation shortly before the incident meant that Blackman was now under Lee’s command when Blackman killed the insurgent. After the authorities refused to bring Lee into the judicial proceedings, Lee, the youngest colonel in the Marines since the Second World War, resigned in protest. In Albert Hirschman’s analysis of response to failure, Lee chose firstly to voice, then to exit.
By contrast, Blackman’s company commander and everyone in the higher chain of command was promoted. Ewen Murchison, the thickset rugby player who was the commanding officer of 42 Commando – and an individual described by another senior Royal Marine officer as a “Neanderthal” – promoted no less than three times and by 2021 was – somewhat ironically – working, as a major general, as deputy advisor to Afghanistan’s Ministry Of Interior Affairs. Ed Davis, the brigade commander, promoted twice, became the commandant general of the Royal Marines, the head of that organisation, and subsequently governor of Gibraltar.
This pattern did not end there. In September of 2012, Taliban insurgents broke into Camp Bastion destroying or damaging eight US jets, the largest loss of US airpower since the Vietnam war. An American report found that two US Marine Corps commanders, Charles Gurganus and Gregg Sturdevant, had failed “to adequately ensure an integrated, defence-in-depth was in place to protect US personnel and equipment.” Both were forced to resign.
Britain’s response was different. Brigadier Stuart Skeates, Gurganus’s deputy, and RAF Group Captain Jeff Portlock, the base commander, were both promoted. “There’s really only one group to be held accountable for that attack, and that’s the 15 insurgents who attacked the camp,” Skeates told reporters in 2013. Skeates went on to become commandant of the army’s officer training academy at Sandhurst, an institution whose motto is serve to lead.
This failure to hold military leaders to account is not a uniquely British failing. As American journalist and author Thomas Ricks has written, in the United States the practise of firing commanders who underperformed went from standard practice in George Marshall’s army of World War Two to unheard of three decades later. By the Vietnam war, “becoming a general was now akin to winning a tenured professorship, liable to be removed not for professional failure but only for embarrassing one’s institution with moral lapses.” This holds true for the recent spate of resignations in Canada too: they are connected to sexual misconduct, not the outcomes of operations.
The wars of the past two decades were messy and complicated, and despite their smaller scale it was much harder to determine success than in the conventional battles of the first half of the twentieth century. In the post-9/11 conflicts though, operational deployment became essential for career progression. The rapid rotation of British units every six months in Iraq and Afghanistan, twice as fast as their American counterparts, had the side effect of putting as many senior individuals through career-significant operational deployments as possible. Yet the actual outcome of those operations became decoupled from career progression. It was impossible to be fired when things went wrong, so senior British commanders lacked skin in the game.
The surreal nature of this situation is underlined by recent events in the UK. This year, Britain has not just fired, but imprisoned two senior army commanders, a major general and a lieutenant colonel, for fraudulently claiming an allowance to pay for boarding school fees for their children. Another brigadier is under investigation for the same offence. In 2019, the captain of Britain’s new aircraft carrier was forced out for misusing his official car at weekends. And, in a toe-curling development this month, Glenn Haughton, the first holder of the newly created post of “senior enlisted advisor to the chiefs of staff” – the top non-commissioned officer in the entire armed forces – was revealed to be under investigation for carrying out an affair with the wife of a junior non-commissioned officer who had approached him for help with mental health. Haughton had previously been an outspoken voice in the army’s (undoubtedly laudable) attempts to be more outspoken about psychological distress.
These are the moral lapses Ricks refers to. With the school fees allowance in particular it seems that a fiddle that was both widely carried out and widely tolerated – and an accepted way, as private school fees have rocketed in past decades – to bolster officers’ real-life income, has now been deemed unacceptable. But still the broader situation – whereby everyone who ran two misfiring wars got promoted but if you misuse your official car you are out, continues. Another indication of this situation is the misfiring Ajax armoured vehicle procurement programme; trials of the vehicle were recently halted after crews were injured by excessive noise and vibration. Minister for Defence Procurement Jeremy Quin has told the House of Commons Defence Committee that “we cannot be 100% certain that” the salvation of the programme “can be achieved.” Yet there is no indication that anyone involved in this debacle will face any kind of accountability. As one former army officer, who now works in the defence industry, summarised: “the recent conviction of Major General Nick Welch for fraud (£44K in school fees) when other generals have been promoted after wasting £3.5 billion of tax payers’ money on equipment that don’t work, summarises everything that is wrong with the army today.”
For the time being, the brutal truth is that none of this really matters. The Iraq and Afghan wars were hugely significant for those who lived in the countries involved, and for those western troops who fought there, in particular those who were injured or lost comrades. But military performance in the past twenty years has had no bearing on the survival of western democracies, nor on the maintenance of the lifestyles of their domestic inhabitants. Both conflicts were far away, conducted by professional forces, and did not really matter at home. Let us hope that continues to be the case. But the lesson of history is that these things can turn on a dime, and – as happened in 1939 and in 1914 – military performance can suddenly really matter again, for everyone. It is for that reason that the British Army needs to understand that, sometimes, voice is more important than loyalty, and that Fail, Learn, Win needs to be more than just a slogan.
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