Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

The retired military intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge has written a thoughtful book tackling the reasons for Britain’s recent military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Covering politics, strategy, history, operations, institutional culture and academia, Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars is ambitious in scope. Moreover, the book is predicated on a noble ambition: to remind readers of the injustice of Britain’s recent military adventures. Ledwidge hopes to make British senior officers and politicians see sense and promote belated reforms.

Ledwidge’s central argument is now common knowledge: Britain’s forces have struggled in both Iraq and Afghanistan because soldiers and officers alike simply failed to understand why they were actually in these countries. Ignorant of the political purpose, fearful of admitting this, and unwilling to challenge the Blair government’s mistaken policy, the military leadership was guilty of acquiescence. As Ledwidge writes, “What really happened was that generals…failed in their role as speakers of truth to power.”

Yet the Clausewitzian ‘logic’ for war was lost not only on these officers, but also for most of a Labour government who followed the United States into two wars whose rationale was never clear or fixed, but shifted according to expediency. Perhaps unsurprisingly the generals did not question their politicians given their perception that the military exists to serve the polity, not debate politics.

But Ledwidge is uncompromising. He asserts that beneath the military’s overarching failure to contest the political purpose of both wars lies a catalogue of institutional inadequacy: “A failure to adapt, antediluvian structures and intelligence systems, deployment schedules that ensured a lack of continuity, a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to an excessive readiness to use extreme violence…Inadequate equipment and a dearth of [combat] personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure…”.

Unfortunately the writing is sloppy at times. Ledwidge calls Mazar-e Sharif a province (it is the capital city of Balkh province). He introduces the International Crisis Group twice, in almost the exact same way within forty pages. His prose can slip into silly exaggerations: “The police are widely regarded to be at best a disparate group of drug-addled rogues”. He repeats the same arguments throughout the 270 pages, many of which are drawn from the same dozen British journalists or generals. Very few Iraqi or Afghan sources are used, which is ironic given his arguments for greater cultural engagement as a means to improve the understanding of the armed forces.

But Losing Small Wars is nevertheless a brave and important book; essential reading for anyone wanting insights into the dysfunction within the British military today, and the deplorable consequences this has when thrust upon the lives of innocent civilians caught up in war. 

Times Literary Supplement

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