2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 July 2014
This is a most remarkable collection of essays on the conduct, effects and costs of the British state’s military operations since 1991. The book is a product of the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), Britain’s leading think tank on international military and security matters, which carried out an audit of these interventions. The editor, Malcolm Chalmers, is the Research Director and Director (UK Defence Policy) at the RUSI. The eleven contributors are all respected experts in the field.
Britain is the world’s fourth largest military spender and its second biggest aid donor. We are Europe’s largest military spender and its biggest aid donor. The state’s commitment to both these goals “stems from a common cause: its determination to remain one of the most important powers on the international stage”, as Chalmers notes.
The end of the Soviet Union unleashed the dogs of war. In a brilliant essay ‘On the Offensive, Chalmers notes that “the true return to Asia took place in the summer of 1990, when, barely nine months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promised that the UK would stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with US President George HW Bush in seeking to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. … the UK and the US became increasingly comfortable with a more expansive concept for the use of their military power.”
Chalmers points out, “First and most important, the end of the Soviet Union’s role as a world power meant that the risk of escalation to major-power conflict ceased to be an important restraining factor when considering military deployments outside the NATO area. … The end of the Cold War not only created the permissive conditions in which the UK’s ‘offensive turn’ was possible. It was also central to the belief, on the part of both the UK and the US, that increased intervention was now desirable.” Professor Clarke concurs, “Once the Cold War was over, … UK policy moved from an essentially defensive posture to an essentially offensive one.”
Michael Codner, a Senior Research Fellow in the Military Sciences at the RUSI, points out, “A common feature of the UK’s overseas interventions in this decade was that not one, either in fact or in government rhetoric, was undertaken for reasons of direct national interest.”
Chalmers agrees: “The discretionary nature of military operations during this period also distinguished the campaigns of the last two decades from either the Second World War or the Cold War. … No comparably important national interest was at stake in the decisions taken after 1991. … the main operations in which the UK took part were more obviously wars of choice. All the post-1991 operations involved taking the war to the enemy – a decision that tends, by its very nature, to be more a matter of choice than the decision to resist an attack.
… Viewed strategically, UK military campaigns in all three of these major theatres of operations [Former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan] were thus about coercion, not direct self-defence. By 2013, the UK had been involved in military operations that forcibly changed the government of three UN member states (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya), installed a new regime in a breakaway province (Kosovo) of a fourth (Serbia), and used lethal force to oblige warring parties within a fifth UN member states (Bosnia) to sign up to an internationally brokered settlement.”
It was an ‘era of the strategic offensive’, as Chalmers notes. These aggressive wars were supposed to be about promoting liberal values. But the states of Former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are hardly shining examples of liberal values. As was said of the Roman Empire’s wars, “They created a desert and called it peace.”
Chalmers judges that both the war against Iraq (2003-09) and the ‘surge’ period of the war against Afghanistan (2006-13) were failures. He concludes, “Far from reducing international terrorism, moreover, the 2003 invasion had the effect of promoting it.”
Professor Sir David Omand agrees, writing of the war against Iraq, “there seems little doubt that the campaign, as it turned out, substantially exacerbated the domestic threat, an effect intensified by the imagery of the bloody aftermath of occupation which the rapidly expanding Internet carried globally. … The overall effect of the war in Iraq and the second intervention in Afghanistan, taken with the excesses of the original US War on Terror, has, however, been to make it much harder, over the period, to counter the jihadist message and thus to protect the British public at home and abroad.” Professor Michael Clarke, the Director General of the RUSI, also agrees, “There is no longer any serious disagreement over the fact that the UK’s active involvement in the Iraq War, in particular, served to channel and increase those domestic sources of radicalisation.”
In August 2013, just 11 per cent of us backed the idea of arming the Syrian rebels, 66 per cent were against. 9 per cent backed the idea of sending British troops to try to overthrow President Assad, 72 per cent were against. After the House of Commons voted against intervening in Syria, 68 per cent of us thought that they had done the right thing, 16 per cent not.
In Chalmers’ brilliant essay on The Sinews of War, he notes that the Korean War cost the USA $341 billion (in 2011 prices), the Vietnam War cost it $738 billion, the Iraq War $784 billion and the Afghan War $600 billion. Care for its veterans could cost the USA £600 billion over the next 30 years.
The wars in Former Yugoslavia cost Britain £3 billion, the Iraq War cost us £9.56 billion and the Afghan War £23.65 billion. Care for our veterans could cost us £30 billion - £1 billion a year – over the next 30 years.
Chalmers estimates that a Europe-centred defence posture, shorn of extra-European force projection capabilities (like aircraft carriers), could have saved us £130 billion by now - £7 billion a year. But we are never offered a choice on this, or on the issues of war. All the parliamentary parties are wedded to the offensive posture and to overseas interventions.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This book is produced by the RUSI, a 'think-tank based in London. Several well-known authors have contributed pieces to what is a survey of the UK's military engagements since the end of the Cold War.
During this 25 years we are reminded of the engagement in Kosovo, the first invasion of Iraq and other, mainly 'small wars'. Lord Richards, there former chief of the defence staff who might not like being reminded that shortly after his appointment as CDS he declared on television that we could be in Afghanistan for up to 30 years, warns us of the obvious, namely we should only intervene overseas again if we can do so with sufficient resources. Again we are reminded in this book of Clausewitz's warning that wars are political acts and cannot be won by military force alone.
The book claims that Iraq and Afghanistan were 'strategic failures', an understatement, that cost the taxpayer over £30 billion. It is stated that future conflicts will be like recent ones, that is between non-state opponents. This is a very dangerous assertion. A glance at history tells us that such predictions are often wide of the mark. The unexpected always threatens plannners of future wars. Recent events in the Ukraine should warn us that the possibility of conventional wars cannot be written off. Moltke said about wars, plan for three possibilities and the fourth will happen. In truth, much of defence planning is guesswork although this would never be admitted.
The use of the word 'strategic' to describe the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan is interesting. It smacks of an attempt to put all the blame on government and excuse the failures of the military on the ground. The truth is that we did not cover ourselves in glory in either campaign. Arrogant claims that, given our experiences in Northern Ireland, we were experts in counterinsurgency operations went down very badly with the Americans. A number of Brigadiers on 6 month tours achieved little being intent on demonstrating their tactics were superior to their predecessor rather than how to overcome a clever determined foe. Intelligence was poor, and the lack of linguists who spoke the local dialects was scandalous.
In both theaters we tried to impress America in particular, that this country could still punch above its weight. The attempt failed. Recent deep cuts 'to the bone' in our armed forces mean we are no longer a military power of the first rank. Let us hope government and generals take note.
An interesting book but one that offers few new insights. I would recommend that two other recent books be read alonside this one: 'British Generals in Blair's Wars', by Jonathan Bailey, and 'The Direction of War' by Hew Strachan.