The “Best Little Army in the World” (Scott Nelson/Getty Images)

November 2, 2021   8 mins

The Armed Forces, and the Army in particular, are surely the only arms of the British state that still retain a popular reputation for institutional competence. Consider the recent book The Habit of Excellence, a sort of retread for civilian CEOs of the motivational anthologies handed out at Sandhurst. Or the Government’s drafting in of the former Vice-Chief of Defence Staff (though a Royal Marine rather than a soldier) to institute wide-ranging reforms to the NHS — a clear nod to the military’s residual reputation for no-nonsense, hard-nosed efficiency.

It is difficult to square this perception with the Army’s shambolic and wasteful recent record in procurement. And yet a sense lingers, whether true or not, that the armed forces remain a refuge area for a type of stoic effectiveness lost to the rest of the country, an ability to get the job done, without complaint, against intimidating odds.

This may say as much about Britain as a whole as it does of the armed forces itself. Consider the wave of affectionate sentimentality about the Army, perhaps a working-class analogue of middle-class sentimentality about the NHS, which swept the country in the late 2000s. The popular mood at the time, manifest in the Help for Heroes campaign (est. 2007) and the Sun’s Military Awards (est. 2008), was immediately inflamed by the sense that troops in the field were being put in harm’s way by the Government’s budget cuts, and by dissatisfaction with heckling and burning of poppies  by jihadist sympathisers as troops paraded home from Afghanistan. Then the Army was a potent symbol of a pure, betrayed institution around which the British people could explore its wider anxieties, a metaphor for growing unease with the direction of the British state itself.

Yet even the Army’s most devoted supporter would be forced to admit that the past two decades have not enhanced its reputation. Both the Labour government’s two wars of choice were painful strategic and tactical failures, entered into with little popular enthusiasm and abandoned with little fanfare. In both wars, units and individual soldiers fought bravely on a tactical level, in pursuit of misguided and ultimately fruitless strategic aims. 

It is within this context that two recent books aim to dissect the Army’s failings in Iraq and Afghanistan to make sense of this lacklustre performance. In The Changing of the Guard, Simon Akam, a former gap-year officer, chronicles the Army like a disappointed lover, twisting the knife into the institution’s sorest wounds. In Blood, Metal and Dust, Brigadier Ben Barry, a former director of the British Army Staff, chooses a higher target. Yes, the successes of the small interventions of the Nineties had led military chiefs to rest on their laurels, so that “operational success had become the mother of complacency.” But for Barry, whose book draws from his still-classified official postmortem of the post-9/11 wars, the ultimate cause of failure can be placed at the hands of the Labour politicians managing the war. 

Both retell the bare, painful facts of the Army’s two most recent defeats. In Iraq, the initial capture and occupation of Basra, entered into with soft hats and the self-congratulatory confidence of an Army that believed it led the world in peacekeeping and counterinsurgency, ended in a humiliating negotiated withdrawal of British forces to the edge of the city, where, pinned down by constant bombardment by the Shia militias who now ran the city, they lost all capacity to exert their influence. 

The Americans, distinctly unimpressed at the failure of the British officers, were forced to help Iraqi forces retake the city in 2008’s Charge of the Knights operation, a humiliation for Britain. “This damaged the reputation of British forces with the US and the Iraqis and inflicted major dents in British military self-confidence,” Barry notes. Akam is less stoic, describing it as ”an acute and lasting humiliation to the British Army”, which “will linger and follow the troops halfway around the world to Afghanistan”.

Indeed, to exorcise this ghost Britain’s political and military leaders recklessly volunteered for a campaign in a Helmand landscape of walled farms and thick vegetation which the Soviets had struggled to pacify, even while the Army struggled with Iraq. In Afghanistan, they believed, the Army would regain its reputation, leaving the difficulties of Iraq behind.

They were wrong. Thinly spread out in isolated rural compounds, or “platoon houses”, British troops were besieged by waves of Taliban fighters, and only avoided being overrun through devastating use of air power, which in turn alienated the civilians whose homes it destroyed. Along with a desperate need to avoid casualties, the reliance on short-ranged patrols, magnets for Taliban ambushes and bogged down by IEDs, meant that the Army could never retain tactical dominance in the countryside, let alone gain the strategic initiative.

As in Basra, force protection became the dominant goal and so initiative passed to the local enemy. Attempts to upend the balance of power, through bold but misconceived operations like Operation Panther’s Claw or through grandiose hearts-and-minds schemes like the transporting of a gigantic turbine through Taliban territory to the dam where it would remain unused for years, all failed. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the rich tribute of blood and treasure Britain poured into the dust was entirely in vain.

Where does the blame lie? Barry lambasts Labour politicians such as Clare Short, whose intransigent refusal to provide the British troops who found themselves suddenly governing Basra, a city of 1.5 million people, with even basic DFID support due to her opposition to the war, did much to incite local anger in the first vital weeks and months of occupation. He takes aim at Gordon Brown, who as Chancellor forced through defence cuts that reduced the Army’s helicopter fleet, and then lied about it as Prime Minister when soldiers died in Helmand as a direct result. 

But he reserves his greatest ire for the architect of Britain’s entry into these needless wars: Tony Blair. Yet as Barry makes clear, military chiefs also failed to impress upon politicians the need to reassess their strategy in light of their failing mission. The plain-speaking and sober appreciation of hard facts for which the Army is renowned were here tragically absent.

For Akam, much of the blame can be laid at the Army itself. He draws an ethnographic portrait of an institution struggling to make sense of a changing world, whose cherished regimental ethos, the wellspring of individual pride and striving for excellence, also reduces it to “an awkwardly organised collection of warring tribes, inadequately co-ordinated and often fighting each other”. Fearful of future cuts, Generals volunteer the Army for the underestimated Helmand mission even as Iraq is failing: “It’s use them or lose them,” Akam quotes General Sir Richard Dannett on the ill-fated decision. Generals tell politicians what they want to hear, instead of the difficult truths that would blight promotion: “the British Army’s determination to ‘crack on’ got the army into a terrible mess.” 

For Akam, the absence of accountability for such failure is corrosive to the Army’s capability. Junior ranks are hauled before the courts for individual war crimes — rightly, he feels — while generals are rewarded for strategic failure with titles and sinecures. Unlike in Israel, where the failure of the 2006 Lebanon War led to a purge of failed senior officers, “no British general was fired or resigned over Iraq and Afghanistan”. The result, for Akam, is institutional rot: “that hypocrisy had trickled down into the institution below them and was souring it.” 

Moreover, Akam asserts, defence think tanks such as RUSI “can seem more like comfy clubs funded partly by arms manufacturers — friendly forces, in the forces’ jargon — than rigorous external overseers”, inhibiting them from guiding the Army through painful reform. 

The American presence looms large over both books like a Victorian father, whose approval is yearned for, yet who emanates instead only cold disappointment. The tragic irony, as both Akam and Barry note, was that both the Basra and Helmand campaigns were entered into entirely to win Blair cachet in American eyes, yet the result of the Army’s disappointing performance was only American disdain. As Akam notes of his soldier informants on the eve of the Iraq invasion, “many appreciate that the real reason they are here is to maintain British military standing in American eyes”. 

Yet even during the invasion itself, before the humiliating retreat, the winnowing capacity of the British state had already lowered the Army’s reputation in American eyes. Basra, just over the border from Kuwait, was chosen as Britain’s target, in Akam’s telling, because the Army’s recent adoption of just-in-time logistics had left it with insufficient spare parts to travel any further. Lack of armoured vehicles, of body armour, helicopters, even ammunition left the Army scrounging what it could from unimpressed Americans and almost entirely equipping itself through emergency Treasury funds. 

Citing long-ago Malaya and more-recent Northern Ireland (as if that were an unqualified military success) in its favour, the Army deflected its sense of insecurity at its vastly reduced capacity compared to the US with an arrogant and ultimately mistaken belief that population-centric counterinsurgency was its unequalled métier. American officers quoted by Barry rolled their eyes at “‘more British tripe’” as events proved otherwise.

But even the Americans, whose resources were limitless in comparison, ultimately lost both wars. As Barry observes: “The US government’s decision to invade Iraq must stand as the worst military decision of the 21st century. It was a military strategic folly on a level equal to that of Napoleon’s 1812 attack on Russia and Hitler’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union.” The failure, then, was ultimately a political one, of British politicians blindly following their American patrons into unwinnable wars: the Army’s essential sin was only one of trying to do the best of a bad job, a not ignoble character flaw. 

It is difficult to avoid the painful conclusion that the British Army functions for the Americans as the Gurkhas do for the British Army: a highly motivated, loyal auxiliary force, incapable of prosecuting a campaign on its own, whose colourful traditions still carry the romance of an earlier, more glorious era. 

Today, however, even this limited role is now in doubt: with the Government’s new focus on naval capacity and the much-vaunted Pacific Tilt forming the basis of Britain’s defence vision, the incoming Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radikin, is allegedly poised to oversee a dramatic cut in the Army’s already-dangerously pared-down numbers, cutting infantry ranks by more than one third of its current numbers. 

The “Best Little Army in the World” may be getting littler, but it is not for the better. As the defence analyst Francis Tusa warns, the result of its decades-long and self-inflicted procurement woes is that it is now more or less “combat incapable against high-end threats”. Two decades of fighting poorly-equipped insurgents has distracted the Army from its primary mission of defending the country against a competent and well-equipped adversary like Russia or China.

Perhaps this is less a disaster than it may at first seem. The danger is not so much the Army’s incapacity as our politicians’ inability to match their ambitions to its resources, or the moral courage of its generals to gently dissuade them. For all that we mock Germany its military weakness, it is not abundantly clear that Britain has gained much for the decade or so of warfare that the Germans managed to avoid. After Blair’s promiscuous use of the Army to assuage his lust for glory, perhaps a period of enforced abstinence might do the institution some good, if it is to re-equip itself for the graver, and unchosen challenges of the coming century. 

The Army’s focus on the new Ranger battalions, tasked with training and directing local partner forces, in place of line infantry hints at a world of conflict where the business of fighting is increasingly left to expendable proxies. Yet a shrunken, more tightly-focussed Army also presents a challenge for a denuded British state, which has increasingly come to rely on soldiers to make up for its own lost capacity.

Its willingness to take on tasks outside its core role may fend off cutbacks, for a time, but is not necessarily in its own or the state’s best interests; it distracts from its urgent task of modernisation and reorganisation, and gives British governments cover to further winnow away state capacity, confident that soldiers will always be there to pick up the slack

As the Chilcot Report on Iraq observed, “a ‘can do’ attitude is laudably ingrained in the UK armed forces, a determination to get on with the job, however difficult the circumstances — but this can prevent ground truth from reaching senior ears.” Perhaps the Army’s capacity to win the next war, like the British state’s to weather the next crisis, would be better served by generals finding the courage, when necessary, to tell politicians that some things simply can’t, or shouldn’t be done.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.