Book review: Losing Small Wars: British military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan By Frank Ledwidge

Losing Small Wars: British military failure in Iraq and AfghanistanBy Frank LedwidgeYale University Press, 320pp, £20

In many ways this is the sort of book I'd like to have written. Controversial, iconoclastic even, written by an insider, it casts a knowledgeable and critical eye over recent British military operations and doesn't shy away from exposing incompetency and naming the guilty. A book right up my street, you might say.

The book jacket tells us that the author, Frank Ledwidge, is a former military intelligence officer who served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. What it doesn't tell you, though, is that he is also an Oxford graduate and barrister as well, so he's modest to boot.

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Be that all as it may, he has, in my opinion, produced a pretty good critique of recent British military adventurism, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have no doubts his various comments and arguments will resonate with those of us who walked on the wild side of the military establishment in our time. They may also quite possibly irritate those still serving who are of a more conventional and subservient outlook, which can only be a good thing.

Ledwidge's basic hypothesis is relatively straightforward. He argues that Britain's armed forces in general, and our army in particular, have performed badly in recent operations, and seeks to explain why. His argument is, I believe, pretty convincing, for many of the aspects of military doctrine, training and operations he laments have been criticised before.

But Ledwidge has done it in a much more comprehensive way, arguably, than it has been done hitherto.

Part One of his book looks at the basic historical narrative of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and examines where and when the wheels fell off the British military efforts there. Part Two seeks to explain why this should have happened, and Part Three looks to the future and what might need to happen in British military circles to prevent such debacles being repeated. It's a logical approach which works well.

It is not my purpose here to reiterate the chronological narrative of the Iraq and Afghanistan military adventures. However, it is worth noting two things; both were essentially American-led operations, with Britain playing the part of faithful ally for reasons which are yet to be properly explained, either to Parliament or the general public.And, for a time at least between 2006 and 2009, they were concurrent as opposed to consecutive operations.

We British entered both with the self bestowed accolade of being world experts at such operations - small wars against irregular opponents which our long history of colonial policing had endowed us with experience and expertise not found elsewhere. As Ledwidge points out, the military rested its reputation on the laurels supposedly gained in counterinsurgency operations successfully concluded in Malaya and Northern Ireland.

Such self-delusion was quickly shattered by the subsequent disasters which ensued. Through a combination of cultural arrogance, failure to apply lessons of previous wars in context, and an inexplicable inability or unwillingness to resource both operations anywhere near properly, British troops in both Basra and Helmand found themselves unable to do much more than defend themselves, let alone protect the indigenous populations they purportedly were there to protect. In the parlance of the day, they became "self-licking lollipops" a particularly apposite description.

The author is in no doubt where the blame for such fiascos lies; fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the "high command of the armed forces", whom he accuses of dereliction of duty. Strong words indeed. He further bemoans the fact that, despite their obvious failures, "no senior officer has been held to account; none has been dismissed; none has resigned; none has been removed from his position".

Is this fair comment? Probably, yes. Sadly, our armed forces leadership is a hierarchical gerontocracy, not a meritocracy. The road to high rank is one of keeping one's head down, biting one's tongue, not rocking the boat and staying the course. British military history is replete with military mavericks who upset the establishment and were disposed of or forced out when their utility was over or, sometimes, when their fame eclipsed that of their superiors. Think TE Lawrence, Wingate, Mitchell, and Collins. It is an unfortunate truth that most of the truly capable leave early, frustrated by the inertia of a hidebound and ponderous culture and the endemic anti-intellectualism which plagues Britain's military.

Ledwidge then explores what causes this fundamental failure of leadership. These include a failure to even identify the lessons of Malaya and Northern Ireland properly, let alone apply them, under-resourcing, a "crack on" or "can do" philosophy within the army which sometimes overwhelms serious study or common sense, an inability of unwillingness to stand up to politicians when they are ignorant and wrong, and so on. It is a sobering list.

A couple of criticisms. The book is in danger of being viewed as a polemic such are the strengths of the author's point of view, to the extent that I almost wished for the alternative arguments to be incorporated.There is also a fair bit of repetition along the way; if I read "culture is the stories we tell about ourselves" once I must have read it six times - but mine was a review copy, and possibly these, and the odd typo, have been ironed out.

Overall, though, I stand by my opening gambit. This was a book waiting to be written, and Frank Ledwidge has seized the opportunity with both hands. It is an uncomfortable critique of our two most recent military operations, one of which failed and the other is on its way to join it.

I hope it is read widely within the MoD (the Defence Secretary might find it illuminating) and goes on the compulsory reading list at the British Defence Academy, where it will provide a welcome alternative view to the party line.

l Stuart Crawford is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment who served in the First Gulf War.