The Globe and Mail spoke with Simon Akam, a British journalist based in London. A contributing writer for the Economist’s 1843 magazine, his work has also been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, GQ, Outside and Bloomberg Businessweek. He spent a year in the army when he was 18 and returned a decade later to see how the institution had changed. He also co-hosts the writing podcast Always Take Notes.
In adapted excerpts from his new book, The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11, he writes in The Globe about how Britain’s military claims it learns from its setbacks – and branded itself as such, under the slogan Fail, Learn, Win – but did not learn some important lessons from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
How did the idea for this book come about?
In 2003, I joined the British Army on a program called a Gap Year Commission, which allowed some young people to do a spell in the military before university. I joined a cavalry regiment that had just returned from Iraq. Afterward, I studied English at Oxford, and journalism at Columbia in New York. I worked at The New York Times, freelanced for Reuters and The Economist in Africa, and worked for Newsweek in London. A decade after I left the army, I went back to investigate the institution I saw as a teenager, to discover what 10 years of war had done to the army, and what that said about Britain. I travelled to Afghanistan in 2014, as British operations in Helmand drew to a close. In 2015, five London publishers bid for the book. After that, however, things got complicated.
Tell me about those complications.
The Changing of the Guard was commissioned in 2015 by Penguin Random House. I spent three years writing, alongside my magazine work. I had a visiting fellowship at an organization at Oxford called the Changing Character of War Centre. The book was due to be published in March, 2019. Shortly before then, the director of the CCW – who has close relations with the British military – wrote to PRH and told them they should expect to be sued. In a series of events unlike anything I had experienced in my previous journalistic career, PRH demanded “copy approval,” sources agreeing in writing to what was said about them and the submission of the manuscript to the British Ministry of Defence for their “amendments.”
When I pushed back, PRH cancelled my contract, demanded I pay back all the money I had received and also that I pay half their legal fees. Eight press-freedom organizations, led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and including Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, wrote to PRH to complain. That did not move their position so I alerted The Guardian, who covered the situation. Subsequently, Scribe, an Australian publisher, wanted to take the book on. However, PRH refused to release the copyright unless I signed a non-disclosure agreement, which I was unwilling to do. I had to buy back the rights to my own book. The entirety of Scribe’s advance money went to PRH. However, when the book was published this February it received wall-to-wall coverage in the U.K. and sparked extensive debate. Likewise no one has sued.
Did you ever think “this is too much” or perhaps that the story was so complex that trying to figure out a narrative to it would be almost impossible?
During the battle to get the book published, when I was being pursued for large sums of money and receiving other threats, the only way out seemed to keep going. Earlier, there were also structural challenges. These wars were not linear; other writers straitjacketed themselves by trying to write full chronology, troop rotation after troop rotation. Instead, I focused on five separate stories, involving discrete numbers, so that I could create a character-driven narrative.
What are some of the lessons you hope readers will take away from this? And in light of the recent multiple exits by military leaders in Canada, what advice if any would there be for those seeking to reform or rethink the army?
The key lesson is that when things go wrong, there needs to be accountability. I explored how the British Army developed a “glut and void” in this area – a blizzard of new probes, some but not all vexatious, into junior malfeasance paired with almost complete lack of accountability for high-level military or political decision-making. In Canada and the U.K., we should work out what to expect of our senior military leadership – including speaking truth to politicians – and then hold them to those standards: fairly, compassionately, if needs be severely.
Take me through your writing process and how you fact check and verify a book like this?
I interviewed 260 people – from junior soldiers to senior generals, but also their families, local Iraqis, coalition allies, politicians, even sex workers who slept with soldiers. I produced a loose first draft. After discussion with my editor, I boiled that down to a fact-checked, tighter narrative. I went back to sources – “is this an accurate account of your recollection of events?” “Source X’s narrative contradicts yours; can you clarify?” I also confirmed more prosaic details – e.g. “how did the inside of your tank turret look” (“a little worn, with red oxide primer starting to show in places”). This was time-consuming and often vexed. However, it gave the book rigour. There are almost 90 pages of endnotes; references and alternative points of view. People respect that.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.