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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Losing Small Wars

British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan,  Frank Ledwidge, Yale, 2012 (PB)

An unusual career. Started as a criminal barrister in Liverpool, Ledwidge joined the RNR and was lucky enough to be selected for joint services intelligence work. This took him to Bosnia and the hunt for war criminals. There followed two years in Kosovo pursuing the same sort of undesirables. In 2003 he went to Iraq, heading one of the teams looking for WMD. He has also done a tour in Helmand as part of a PRT. So Ledwidge has an ideal background with which to observe, and comment on Britain’s recent military adventures, and more particularly the friction between our armed forces and the communities in which they have been deployed.  


He is extremely widely read, and clearly has enjoyed some very highly placed sources. His contacts appear to reach up to as high as the CDS. The plethora of sources is reflected in one of the few annoying aspects of the book: he will quote a “senior army officer” as making a fascinating observation. One has to refer to the footnotes to find out whom – it is invariably along the lines of “interview with senior army officer, Autumn 2010”. As RSI sets in, a reader may conclude that there is perhaps an over-reliance on footnotes, some of which are superfluous.


Whilst the book’s over-riding objective is to examine critically our nation’s recent military and political strategy, it also puts the armed forces’ culture under the microscope. In Ledwidge’s view this culture explains many of the failings recently in evidence. So, although neither an anthropologist nor sociologist, Ledwidge has plenty of incisive comments about the behaviour of the military herd. He often sweepingly tars all the four arms with the same brush, but inevitably most of his observations and evidence derive from the Army, for it is that which he has witnessed in action, and that which has been at the forefront of recent campaigns. No doubt those in dark and light blue will want to distance themselves from many of Ledwidge’s conclusions.

Much of the book makes very uncomfortable reading. The mismanagement of the Iraqi police force in 2005, for example. He justly prods the British Government for the lack of “phase 4” (i.e. post conflict reconstruction) planning in Iraq, yet fails to deliver the same blow to the Americans.


Like other observers of the big picture in these two conflicts, Ledwidge despairs of the regime of six month tours, at least as far as senior officers are concerned. He laments that each incoming brigade commander plans for a defining major combat to mark his six month Helmand experience. Junior officers are under pressure not to avoid contacts. Infantry battalions become restless without a good skirmish on a regular basis. The army’s culture gives it an impetus towards combat – which may not always be in the best interest of creating long-term harmony on the ground. Rupert Smith (author of the excellent The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, Penguin, 2006)  receives plaudits for being one of the few generals who grasps the concept of “do no harm”.


The lack of continuity has impeded the Army’s picking up of the nuances of tribal situations and the position of narco-power in local hierarchies. He laments too the lack of human intelligence unbalanced by an over-reliance on aerial surveillance.

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