Blair’s Generals III: The Blairing

OK, still reviewing this book. Can’t really bring myself to Buzzfeedise it. Anyway, we’re moving onto Afghanistan and to “lessons learned”.

Who else stood out? Chris “not that one” Brown writes about the NATO HQ in Afghanistan; I looked that up in the index because I can’t think of a single interesting point from his essay. Similarly, Nick Pounds and Jon Riley talk about the comprehensive approach to counterinsurgency and again about NATO and don’t say much, although they all think things were OK when they rotated out. None of them can put a finger on who, precisely, decided to go to Afghanistan or why.

Paul Newton, who was in charge of an army thinktank dedicated to making the MoD a “learning organisation”, introduced touch-typing as a necessary skill for officer cadets and points out that most of the training syllabus assumes not fighting in cities, while the army seems to do it a lot. He also talks some really incredible bureaucratic guff.

Desmond Bowen is an MoD civil servant, and remarks that Iraq was a disaster and we shouldn’t have gone. He points out that a lot of decisions were conditioned by the desire to find something for big, expensive organisations and formations to do – the British-led NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps HQ was put forward for deployment to a whole variety of places and tasks, because it ought to be doing something for fear it might get cut otherwise. This was intolerable because it was a corps-level HQ and we had to have one. Similarly, the British role in Iraq was conditioned by needing to be more than a token showing, to be nice to the Americans, and enough to be worth deploying 1 Division HQ. Depressing.

Iain McNicholl is an RAF air marshal, which is interesting because apart from two civilians, he’s the only contributor from outside the Army. There are no contributions from the Royal Navy or the Marines at all, although 3 Commando Brigade invaded Iraq and went repeatedly to Afghanistan and took lots of Naval personnel with it each time. Also, the FAA’s Naval Strike Wing went to Afghanistan. Libya is out of scope, but the RN also did a lot of work chasing pirates off Somalia which might be interesting. Did they get censored?

Anyway, McNicoll doesn’t say much of interest.

Simon Wessely, KCL professor of psychiatry, discusses the psychiatric impact of the wars on the people who served. He argues that they came through better than expected although they do drink a lot of beer. More interestingly, he thinks some of this can be ascribed to better care, notably better awareness and peer-support. Out of everyone who contributed, he probably has a maximum of specific and implementable proposals for improvement.

Alexander Alderson was ordered to brief the American V Corps HQ, going out to Iraq, on British counter-insurgency doctrine. He started by reading the handbook, issued as recently as 2001, and was surprised that it was rather good. When he got to brief, after his slides were vetted by a number of colonels, he was barked at by US corps commander David McKiernan for suggesting that there might be insurgents in Iraq. “We’re warfighting, dammit!”

That said, he points out that as early as 2005, the Americans had set up a training course in Iraq, while the British didn’t do anything similar. In fact, the Americans offered the British a number of instructor jobs on it but we didn’t take up the offer. It gets worse. It was decided to rewrite the doctrine from 2001, but this project ended up with the services disagreeing, the MoD turning down the Army’s version, and eventually no doctrine. Rather than a learning organisation, MoD was apparently an unlearning organisation.

Hew Strachan sums up by accepting that it was all a terrible fuckup but not offending anyone specific.

1 Comment on "Blair’s Generals III: The Blairing"

  1. There is a critique of this book, by James de Waal in the November 2013 edition of “Foreign Affairs”. He says – “A more serious problem is with the overall argument running through the book ….. which implies that Britain’s generals have been largely blameless for the military failures of the last few years, as they were merely laying a difficult hand dealt to them by a reckless prime minister. With some honourable exceptions … few of the contributors admit to making any mistakes at all.” He then goes on to criticise this line, noting that “there is much material in this book that undercuts its editorial line”.

    De Waal has also written a Chatham House report saying that the armed forces are not entirely innocent for the Iraq fiasco. I suppose that it is progress of some sort that it is now admitted that the Iraq invasion was not a success, and that the various institutions are squabbling about whose fault it was.


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