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on 7 May 2009
Just finished reading this book, and I take my hat off to the author, who has written an extremely well-researched account mostly of the events of 2006 in Helmand Province but which has been updated fairly recently (the author's note dated January 2009).

I doubt if A Million Bullets was conceived as a polemic, but it does read like one: the UK is up the neck in a military operation it can ill afford (both in terms of the cost in terms of young human life and limb and the colossal monetary cost of the equipment and munitions expended).

As the book shows, "mission creep" set in almost as soon as the UK forces deployed in the country in 2006, to shore up the multinational US-led mission and the fragile democratic government. Troops were deployed in the far north of Helmand in so-called platoon houses which became mini-Alamos and the focus of determined attacks by the Taliban, locals and have-a-go jihadis. Or as a general puts it, "tethered goats".

This is so much more than a McNab-style account of guts and glory, but because Fergusson interviewed large numbers of soldiers of all ranks, it's often a gripping squad-level depiction of the action. Much of it, as Fergusson notes, was barely reported in a war that Ministry of Defence has adeptly spoon-fed through embedded correspondents but which can also be followed - after a fashion - on the first-hand footage posted by soldiers on YouTube.

Fergusson has also spoken to senior officers and development officials and even - at great risk to himself - a group of Taliban leaders who treat him hospitably and make the rationale behind the invasion seem decidedly weak. The idea was to facilitate the reconstruction of a country racked by years of war - but, just as in Iraq, the west seems to have made the security situation even worse, not better.

Clearly the soldiers are doing an incredible job despite muddled strategy, often unsuitable equipment (vehicles with no air conditioning, lightly-armoured Land Rovers), and not enough soldiers (the war they are fighting requires boots on the ground - without enough ground troops the Coalition is over dependent on air power which makes the risk of civilian casualties higher).

This is certainly not a defeatist book - the Taliban can hardly be said to have the upper hand - but it sounds alarm bells about where the operation is going. Even the head of the army says that if the British Army is forced to continue the same tempo of operations for many years to come, there soon won't be an army. Fergusson notes that numbers are diminishing and recruitment is slow.

Serious though these issues are, this is much more that a book about the military - if you have any interest in modern politics, you should read it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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James Fergusson has set out to cover a number of tangential matters than combine to point out the lack of a coherence and reality to NATO policy in Afghanistan, especially as this is applied by the British Army.

He tends to travel in the backwaters. Instead of the much rated 3 Para he visits the Gurkhas and Royal Fusiliers from the 3 Para Battlegroup shut away in some unsupported location getting shot at by the Taleban and unable to perform their mission of reconstruction.

He examines the practical difficulties of a small force of military professionals trying to bring peace to an area by bringing war. The difficulties of persuading the locals that the corrupt and brutal police and Afghan Army are to be supported are laid out; as is the difficulty of making the police and army anything but corrupt when they are underpaid and undertrained. It's a real muddle.

By comparing the units supporting two helicopter types (Chinooks and Apaches) Fergusson can make valuable points about the under-funding of the effort and (perhaps more important) the underinvestment in keeping skilled personnel. Just having the best kit is no answer when service
personnel are condemned to long tours and divorces. But looking at the armour kit used by the cavalry one can see that in some cases it is not only old but designed for different operational conditions (mostly the North German Plain).

Fergusson travels to meet and talk to the Taliban, he clearly respects them and feels they need to be part of the solution. This has been the view of a number of British officials but is apparently not acceptable in the eyes of the more manichean Americans.

Although at times Fergusson seems rather innocent it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is on to something. There is only one thing worse than fighting a war with allies; and that is fighting one without any.
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on 29 December 2008
This book is courageous in more ways than one. First and foremost, the author has exposed himself to danger in researching his story, which is something that deserves the reader's respect. Second, he hasn't made black and white judgements on either side of the conflict. This might upset the Daily Mail (especially JF's effort to understand the motives of the Taliban), but at heart it is an intelligent approach that assumes the reader can make his/her own mind up (or try to). It is a rare example of honest and old-fashioned rapportage that does not offer prescriptions but informs the prescriptive process. Like many of us, JF has huge sympathy for the professional soldier and somewhat less for the motives and actions of the politicians who deploy him (and, increasingly, her). The accounts of military action and technology in difficult terrain are as gripping as any adventure story, although like the war itself there is no satisfying conclusion, only a disturbing sense that mistakes have been made in the name of western nations. I am no military historian, but I find nothing especially surprising in the notion of soldiers doing their best but repeatedly tripping over the bootlaces of organisational challenges, inadequate supplies and other shortcomings. These and other themes were covered brilliantly in Dixon's "Psycholoigy of Military Incompetence". However Fergusson updates them in a contemporaneous context, which soldiers and politicians alike should find an instructive addition to Dixon's work.
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James Fergusson has set out to cover a number of tangential matters than combine to point out the lack of a coherence and reality to NATO policy in Afghanistan, especially as this is applied by the British Army.

He tends to travel in the backwaters. Instead of the much rated 3 Para he visits the Gurkhas and Royal Fusiliers from the 3 Para Battlegroup shut away in some unsupported location getting shot at by the Taleban and unable to perform their mission of reconstruction.

He examines the practical difficulties of a small force of military professionals trying to bring peace to an area by bringing war. The difficulties of persuading the locals that the corrupt and brutal police and Afghan Army are to be supported are laid out; as is the difficulty of making the police and army anything but corrupt when they are underpaid and undertrained. It's a real muddle.

By comparing the units supporting two helicopter types (Chinooks and Apaches) Fergusson can make valuable points about the under-funding of the effort and (perhaps more important) the underinvestment in keeping skilled personnel. Just having the best kit is no answer when service
personnel are condemned to long tours and divorces. But looking at the armour kit used by the cavalry one can see that in some cases it is not only old but designed for different operational conditions (mostly the North German Plain).

Fergusson travels to meet and talk to the Taliban, he clearly respects them and feels they need to be part of the solution. This has been the view of a number of British officials but is apparently not acceptable in the eyes of the more manichean Americans.

Although at times Fergusson seems rather innocent it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is on to something. There is only one thing worse than fighting a war with allies; and that is fighting one without any.
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HALL OF FAMEon 15 February 2010
A Million Bullets is an excellently researched and written account of the British Armys deployment in Afganistan following the events of September 11.
The book centres on the events of operation Herrick 4 in southern Afganistan in 2006, but the highly detailed accounts of small unit actions during this operation also serves as an effective springboard for the authors analysis of earlier and later events as well as taking a much broader look at the reasons and politics behind the conflict.
This superb analysis picks up the stories of individuals involved in the fiercest fighting, and there are some quite incredible stories, and it is astonishing that the British Army did not suffer much higher numbers of causualties at this time.
The Author puts the new Afghan war in perspective against those of the past as well as the counter insurgency tactics borrowed from the Malayan war.
A book full of respect for the military on the ground and the air doing their utmost to perform their role professionally, but asking some serious questions of those in the military and government running the war.
An excellent, well balanced and highly readable modern military history.
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on 26 November 2008
I don't know much about the politics of war but having read this book I feel that I now have a pretty good inkling of what goes on - and it's not comforting. Perhaps most military adventures have always been conducted on a wing and a prayer but it's hard not to feel dismayed by the chances for real change and engagement that seem to have been thrown away, especially when the Taliban mention the fact that if somebody had tried diplomacy rather than dynamite, perhaps some kind of deal could have been struck - with better consequences for everybody. After all, it's hard to imagine worse consequences than those yielded by the gung-ho method so far. Brilliantly written, constantly engaging, this book also proves that the writer is not just a man of letters but also of considerable bravery. Would YOU go and meet the Taliban deep in their heartland for a chat, so that you could hear their point of view? Not me - so thank you, James Fergusson.
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on 13 January 2010
I bought this book on recommendation from a friend of mine (we are both ex forces). All I can say is if you want an insight to the problems being faced in Afghanistan (Political, Military and Cultural), then this book is an absolute must read.

It gives you a feel for the problems we have and are facing in Afghanistan. Most of these problems are of our own making, through poor understanding of the cultural and tribal systems it has to be said, and are confirmed by this book, in conjunction with what I have been told by serving friends.

I found the battle descriptions 100% authentic, you find yourself wanting to take cover, and the expletives flow. The interviews are informal and you get a real sense of guys, 'telling it as it is'.

This book should be compulsory reading for politicians and senior commanders.

Whether you have a forces background or not I am sure the majority of people will enjoy reading this book for so many reasons, also money from the book goes to the charity 'Combat Stress'. So it's worth the purchase price just for that.

This book also ends up making you feel that one day Afghanistan will be a changed and much better place if we can learn the lessons and be flexible enough to make rapid changes to both politcal and military strategy.
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on 4 February 2009
A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the War in Afghanistan
A thought provoking and intelligent analysis. An indictment of the politicians who, as all too often in British history, committed the armed forces with inadequate resources and manpower leading to a progressively deteriorating situation. How also a tangled command structure, inadequate funding for civil development and unexpected and excessive commitments threw the intended operations off track and put the military in an almost untenable situation. However a striking tribute to the determination, courage, and resilience of the British and other allied troops on the ground and the airmen in close support.
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on 2 June 2010
If you're interested in any way in the current war in Afghanistan, this is a must-read for you. Easily understood and impartial, it helps understanding of this increasingly difficult struggle and engenders enormous admiration of all our troops out there, and of the difficulties of re-integration faced by those who have returned.
The book was written about events out there in 2006. Sadly the war has moved on and become even more dangerous and difficult, but it still gives a penetrating insight in to what our troops are dealing with.
Highly recommended.
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on 13 June 2008
Gripping book which gives an accurate and disturbing insight into what our soldiers(the Gurkhas, the Fusiliers, the Royal Irish, the Household Cavalry and the RAF), are faced with in Afghanistan. Its disturbing to see just how under funded and under prepared our troops are when posted to such a hostile environment. Together with the lack of collaberation between all allies involed this book really does paint a picture that this is a war with no easy fix and a war that we could very well lose if we continue in the same vain.
Brilliant book and am looking forward to reading 3 Para for the Paras perspective of it all.
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