on 1 August 2011
Frank Ledwidge's timely new book excavates the intellectual hinterland of Britain's campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to devastating effect. Ledwidge writes from a unique perspective; as a military intelligence officer he deployed operationally to Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq and served in Afghanistan in a civilian capacity. He has seen both the military and civil reconstruction efforts in these conflicts first-hand, and is well-placed to offer a critical judgement on the failures of counterinsurgency as implemented by the British in theatre. It is a book about the perils of self-delusion; about the intellectual culture of the British Armed Forces, and about the place of military intervention in the British national psyche. Most damning is Ledwidge's criticism of senior officers and the 'crack on' attitude within senior levels of the military - few senior officers were prepared to speak truth to power in the planning stages of these conflicts, despite whatever reservations they may have held about the potential success of new military ventures with unceratin objectives. Ledwidge's book is, to some degree, a plea for the common soldier whose bravery is never in doubt. Losing Small Wars is a book about a failure of leadership, on the part of both senior officers and politicians, which was pregnant with consequences both for military personnel and civilians in theatre. It is powerful, tightly-argued, and is essential reading for policymakers and public alike.
on 30 August 2011
It might be appear, at first glance, that this is a book for military historians, academics and armchair generals. It is, however, essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in current and recent world affairs. It is an incisive and compelling account of the arrogance and complacency at the heart of the military establishment, resulting in ramshackle decision-making and ill-conceived orders, at enormous and unnecessary cost in blood and revenue.
Ledwidge clearly knows his subject - having served as a military intelligence officer in Iraq in the fruitless search for WMDs and as Justice Advisor in Helmand. This book is a brilliantly written, often shocking, exposé of British involvement in those countries, reflecting his own experiences in theatre and in the context of other British military interventions (and, as such, is extremely well-researched). Ledwidge's style is fluid and highly readable, opening up the arcane world of the military, even for someone without a knowledge of army acronyms and practices.
The narrative at often humorous - one is reminded, at times, of M*A*S*H or Catch 22 - as it details the absurdity of many decisions and events. It is also reflective of the sang froid of the troops on the ground - whose bravery Ledwidge salutes throughout. An important book - we can only hope that it is read and reflected upon by those in the position to act upon it.
on 14 September 2011
I read this book and think that this is a statement of Generals lack of concern for the modern soldier under their command. It suggests that in essence that the Generals are primarily only interested in their own careers and that each mission is their "ticket" to further promotion by way of enacting or conducting a signature event. This book will question where modern militaries are marching to in the next phase of military development.
It certainly begs many questions of politicians and on what were they thinking when they dispatched their military into the theatres mentioned, by not having any credible policy thus denying the Military the posibility of making a strategy to conduct the effort. Generals will have to question their masters more and simply can not rely on "crack on " as a strategy.
For any serious military commander, this is essential reading in order to ensure that the same dreadfull mistakes are not repeated and that there should be serious lessons learnt from the actions of the "crack on" brigade. As the finincial situation places ever more strains of the budgets of militaries, concepts etc will have to reflect this new reality, however in context Generals will also have to reconsider their methods and the new capacities/capabilities they command. Perhaps the "comprehensive approach" will in fact have to be just that, a comprehensive approach to the new threats that will present themselves as we head towards what might losely be termed 5th generation warfare.
on 2 August 2012
This is a very good book, but ... Ledwidge makes a very strong and well argued case that the British experience in Iraq and Afghanistan was characterised by strategic failure and that attempting to lay the blame for this at the feet of politicians is lazy and dishonest. Much of the responsibility, writes Ledwidge, goes to senior officers of all 3 armed services.
He paints numerous vivid pictures to illustrate this failure and none make for comfortable reading. Among the most compelling of them is the assertion that senior Army officers were determined to deploy to Afghanistan in order to ensure the continued life of, what they viewed, as crucial military capability (or, less charitably) the retention of particular infantry battalions. This behaviour has echoes in the frantic deployment of Typhoon aircraft for operations in Libya. This 'use it or loose it' mentality is illustrated by a quote to the effect that 'if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail'.
Having expertly described this trap, Ledwidge falls straight into it.. His 'hammer' is the argument of strategic failure due to poor generalship and he uses it with enthusiasm and determination to hit every example he can find; many of them are not really suited and the result is that this otherwise excellent books tends towards hectoring in its third quarter.
Nonetheless, this is well worth a read, perhaps the first seriously critical work on the issue and a welcome counterbalance to the war stories and self-serving political memoir genres.
on 18 October 2015
My first experience of author Frank Ledwidge was hearing him on the radio debating the prospect of RAF air strikes into Syria. He spoke with commitment and authority so I had high hopes of this book.
Ledwidge has served on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and has supplemented his personal experience with interviews. It makes depressing reading for anyone who instinctively supports the military but equally instinctively knew that both campaigns were failing. I was going to write failing in their objectives but both have been bedevilled by the lack of objectives. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me and I’m not alone. And Ledwidge is not afraid to use the word failure.
The book makes for painful reading. The British so-called superiority in “hearts and minds” warfare is laid bare. As is the myth of British ground troops providing reassurance and security to the indigenous population when it never existed outside the wire of their compounds and patrol houses. The six month rotation of service personnel – justifiable in many respects – undermines continuity and confidence among the locals. And where continuity did exist at staff level accountability seems to have been absent.
So what’s the solution? Ledwidge believes there should be far greater emphasis on non-kinetic activities and it’s hard to disagree. But engagement means long-term commitment and the public mood is not amenable to another decade of occupation in any country. We don’t invest enough time and resources into “thinking” rather than fighting. And the pyramid of officers from Major and above across all three services looks top heavy in relation to the lean and efficient armed forces of today.
My principal criticism is that the book could have been more concise. There is an air of repetition, making the same point across several pages. Reducing the page numbers would not reduce the impact.
I don’t think “Losing Small Wars” provides all the answers to why the British (and this is a book about the British) failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it asks questions that may help minimise the prospect of another failed campaign in the Middle East.
on 21 August 2011
Searing insights and a difficult read, as it speaks the unpalatable truth which is too often glibly passed over. Ledwidge chooses his targets with care and creates a measured but compelling argument for what went wrong, and how to avoid these same mistakes happening again. Readable, well researched and gripping, this book should become required reading for anyone interested in the military, what is done in the name of the UK and especially to anyone in a position of authority who may one day have to make the kind of decisions that affect others. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
on 2 February 2012
Frank Ledwidge is a retired military intelligence officer with 15 years' experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a scathing account of the failures of Britain's generals, especially of their failure to speak truth to power.
Ledwidge indicts the conformist military culture, which inhibits original and critical thinking about war. The top brass now blame any failure on a junior officer, or deny the failure ever happened, and truth is, as ever, derided as defeatism.
Ledwidge observes that there was no US or British planning for the post-combat phase of intervention in Iraq, and no effort to set up a legal system. British forces ceded the city of Basra to religious terrorists, failing to provide any safety for the people of the city. In March 2008, the Iraqi army did what the British had failed to do - swept the militia out. Iraq cost the British army 179 dead, and a large part of its reputation for competence.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan was, Ledwidge wrote, "what I believed to be a just and winnable war." He notes that it costs us £400,000 to keep one British soldier in Afghanistan for a year and that the war costs us £6 billion every year. The `Afghan Development Zone' was entirely illusory and the "dysfunctional local government we were there to support was totally corrupt and distrusted."
The UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee reported early in 2011, "in reality, there is a strong argument to make that Afghanistan, and the Taliban insurgency, does not currently, in itself represent an immediate security threat to the UK." Not one al-Qaeda activist has been captured in Helmand and the CIA estimates that there are at most 50 to 100 al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. In contrast, Britain hosts the largest al-Qaeda presence in the Western world.
One needs 20 troops per 1,000 civilians to ensure a stable peacekeeping environment. That would have meant 20,000 troops for Basra city, which is the size of Manchester, and 50,000 for Helmand. Actually there were 8,000 for the entire Basra region and 3,500 for Helmand.
As Ledwidge points out, not one soldier has been disciplined, never mind prosecuted, for any of the hundreds of civilian deaths inflicted by British forces. Killing locals multiplies insurgents.
British intervention "played a role (at the very least) in starting one civil war in Iraq and in exacerbating another in Afghanistan." As Ledwidge justly observes, "very many soldiers like me ... joined to defend our country, not to invade others ..."
Foreign troops are the problem. "So perverse is mankind that every nation prefers to be misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another", as General Charles James Napier noted in the 19th century.
The House of Commons Public Administration Committee called the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan `strategic failures'. Ledwidge agrees, calling them `these last two disastrous wars'. He concludes, "these are not struggles we should become involved in at all."
on 24 January 2016
Must congratulate Frank Ledwidge in such a open hard hitting review of the British Armed Forces experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. I left the British Army albeit as a STAB about the time he joined the RNR. Although never been to Iraq and Afghanistan and did [counterinsurgency] warefare in the context he described many things Frank outlined is very true. But like many large organisation the British Military there are certainly an internal culture syndrome that is at some degree self reinforcing. After all it was this thinking that made this organisation successful in the first place? American had Vietnam which cause the US military to do a vital soul searching self reexamining of how to fight wars whereas the British military did not had her [Vietnam] which cause her to review her actions from the inside out. How the British military will fare through this self re-examination is unknown, history will tell, but the British military must know that Britain of the 21 century is not the Britain in the 19th Century, where Britannia rules the waves. Fighting war is expensive and Britain can keep an military above what she can pay for. Britain must look at the capacity of the nation and not to punch her weight or ability. The Dutch once had an empire, so did Portugal and Spain, they have all diminished to a level which makes then a follower rather than a leader, a member of NATO under US leadership.
A good book should be read by all serving officers!
on 9 October 2011
I cannot recommend this book too highly. However, this comes with a warning. Like many people, I believe the UK's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were primarily profound failures of political leadership. But I had, unthinkingly and naively, assumed that our armed forces made the best of a bad job. Frank Ledwidge's book does not let the politicians off the hook but lays out in shocking and referenced detail the truly abject failures of the bloated leadership of the UK's armed forces. And what a bloated leadership! The US Marines - an integrated land, sea and air force, is roughly the same size as the whole of the UK's armed forces. Yet the UK armed forces have 8 (yes that's eight!) times the number of general officers as the Marines. The British Army now has more general officers than tanks. But the performance of this multitude of generals seems to be in inverse relationship to their number. Whilst we cannot forget that the main casualties were/are innocent civilians in Basra and Helmand, plus our own poor bloody infantry, this book is a wake-up call for us all. This institutional ineptitude and incompetence, born of delusion and hubris, is being done in our name. Time for root and branch changes.
on 16 October 2011
This book is interesting and no doubt well researched but at the same time there are a number of well spun opinions that almost slip into the manipulation of the facts that the author seems to take such offence at. A number of the other books that are referenced in the book are the work of dis-enfranchised ex-army types who tried to make a quick buck out of the campaign before they left the forces. Largest frustration is the constant selective heralding of the no doubt important achievements of 52 Bde in comparison to their fore runners, without any recognition that they deployed out of the fighting season during a time when due to large scale, albeit tactical successes, the Taliban had an operational pause before adopting more IED based tactics - there is also a largely unsubstantiated celebration of reservists as if they are the panacea to all difficult military scenarios. A good book , and some of it is eye wateringly painful to read, especially the litany of own goals and strategic failures but in my opinion the book falters when the tone of the author becomes somewhat hysterical and repetitive.