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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 15 April 2012
Constant conflict from the first Gulf War to the rise of Al Qaeda (culminating in 9/11) to the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has in many ways been the story of my generation. Unlike the earlier metanarratives of the long stand off of the Cold War or the Second World War, this conflict has felt much more morally ambiguous and indeterminate.

I read Ledwidge's book alongside Danger Close: The True Story of Helmand from the Leader of 3 PARAin Afghanistan by Stuart Tootal. These two contrasting books offer interesting analysis of British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Published in 2009, Colonel Tootal's book was one of the first `herographies' describing the conflict in Afghanistan, while Lt Commander Ledwidge's book is among the first of what will surely be a mountain of literature critiquing British strategy in these wars.

Tootal tells a soldier's story - of being in command of a battalion of paratroopers desperate to prove themselves in combat, and the often bitter reality of what that experience was like. Tootal seems to have been clear sighted about the complexities of being the first significant deployment of British troops into Helmand. How, he asks his Whitehall bosses, will he gain the support of the local population if he destroyed their livelihood - the production of opium poppies? No answers are forthcoming.

Tootal also describes the complexity and confusion of the command structure within which he had to work, "In essence it meant that I had three bosses to work to." This was a recipe for disaster in a theatre of operations like Helmand.

The political and military complexities of Helmand meant that the Paras were put in no win situations, for example, when they were tasked with rescuing a police chief who had been captured by the Taliban. This police chief was corrupt and a threat to the general population, yet to not rescue him would be see to undermine the governor of Helmand who represented the Afghan government and so had to be supported.

Ledwidge is a barrister and military reservist who has served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, and brings a forensic eye to British military strategy. Losing Small Wars is replete with eye watering facts and figures:
* It costs £400,000 to keep each British soldier in Afghanistan for a year
* The campaign in Afghanistan costs £6 billion each year
* Of 7,000 British soldiers in Basra in 2006 only 200 were actually available for patrolling
* In Helmand, from a Brigade of 3,500 men, there were only a maximum of 168 men able to conduct combat operations
* "There are, proportionately eight times more generals in the UK armed forces that there are in the US Marine Corp, four times as many as in the US army, and as astonishing ten times as many as the Israelis have."
* Javelin rockets (costing £70,000) were routinely fired at sniper positions; and "Until early 2010 it was common to call in an air strike and drop 1,000 kilogramme bombs (cost £250,000 plus £35,000 an hour fuel for the constantly patrolling jets) on the position

Tootal recognizes the way his unit's presence inflamed the situation in Helmand:

"There is no doubt in my mind that our arrival had stirred up a hornet's nest in a province that many had considered quiet until then. But it was only quiet because the Taliban and the drug warlords had been allowed to hold the ascendency there. There was no rule of law, no government authority and any `peace' was due to the ruling tyranny and corruption of bandits and insurgents. Although no one ever said it to my face, some safe at home in the bureaucratic corridors of Whitehall later suggested that 3 PARA might have been overly aggressive in its approach. But they were not the ones shedding blood, sweat and tears in the service of their country."

In contrast, Ledwidge argues that the Paras were overly aggressive and it might well have been better to leave some of the `bandits' in position. Ledwidge plots the mess that 3 PARA were going to find themselves in. An SAS team had been operating in Helmand and warned against a number of decisions that Whitehall was to take. "The mess that the British were about to find themselves in was rooted in their meddling with local governance that they neither understood nor had the capacity to control."

Ledwidge is also good on the history of British military entanglements in Afghanistan, and reflects the fact that while the British may not have any cultural memory of our previous Afghan wars, the Afghans certainly do. Three times previously we had entered Afghanistan, and each time received a good whipping; this was simply going to be the next instalment in a series of engagements stretching back to 1839.

Throughout, Ledwidge is critical of British arrogance and sense of superiority over the Americans in fighting counter-insurgency warfare, when it has actually been the Americans who have been faster to learn and displayed greater competence. Senior British officers continually harped on about the lessons of Malaya and Northern Ireland, when these were entirely different conflicts from those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ledwidge is also critical of the decision to make 16 Air Assault Brigade (of which 3 PARA is a part) the first British troops to enter Helmand. As the most aggressive element of the British Army, they were an unlikely choice for what was a peacekeeping mission, and while commending Tootal's professionalism, Ledwidge questions his lack of engagement with the `human terrain' - that is, having an understanding of what a `war among the people' might actually mean.

The Paras were isolated in `platoon houses' and used overwhelming force and heavy weaponry to defend themselves, that destroyed town centres, with the result that, as Ledwidge records it, "the British had fulfilled exactly their historic role as most Helmandis saw it - that of aggressive and destructive invaders."

Ledwidge makes the shocking point that the British have now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were, and have achieved less than the Soviets did. There was a chronic shortage of Pashtu speakers attached to the military, and an apparent blindness to the fact that a group of heavily tooled up foreigners patrolling the streets of Helmand might be perceived as threatening by the natives.

Ledwidge sums up his criticisms like this:

"The form of `expeditionary warfare' on which Britain's armed forces staked their future has proved to be beyond their commanders' capabilities. A failure to adapt, antediluvian structures and intelligence systems, deployment schedules that ensures a lack of continuity, a cavalier attitude to post-entry planning, a mentality geared to excessive readiness to use extreme violence, an attachment to archaic traditions and imagined histories - all of these factors played their part. Inadequate equipment and a dearth of personnel coexisted alongside a vastly swollen command structure that was proportionately eight times the size of that of the US marines."

Having read a number of reviews of Losing Small Wars by serving military personnel it appears that most soldiers agree with Ledwidge's analysis. But against the backdrop of the dreadful strategic failures of the military high command must be measured the bloody reality of the cost to British troops. The most harrowing chapter of Danger Close is the account of a patrol that stumbled into a minefield on Kajaki Ridge which resulted in the death of one man, and several others losing legs. The subsequent poor treatment of the injured men, and the penny-pinching approach to their families (especially in light of the overall costs of the campaign) is shocking.

Reading these books left me with a sense of admiration for the bravery and courage of individual men, but something approaching outrage at the overall picture of our recent military adventures. We have made colossal mistakes.
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on 21 September 2011
This is an excellent book which clearly and concisely tears the veil of spin away from recent British Military performance overseas. Whilst never doubting the extreme professionalism of our well intentioned front line fighting men and women, it exposes a lack of coherent strategy and the absence of learning at the heart of our military culture.

A military composed of separate entities, each more concerned with self promotion (both of unit and self) rather than the contribution to the defence of the realm is not a recipe for success. Whilst the UK has many highly deserved military laurels the time has come to stop resting upon them, this book is a wake up call to those holding this responsibility.
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on 18 August 2013
Frank Ledwidge was a Royal Naval Reserve officer who became an intelligence specialist, and was deployed to the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. This book makes a compelling - even overwhelming - argument that the last two of these were unmitigated failures, and that the British, for all their vaunted expertise in small wars, had no idea what they were doing. In civilian life Ledwidge is a barrister, and I'd hate to be prosecuted by him: he's fluent and convincing, and the first two thirds of the book read much like the best kind of popular military history. If he'd left it there, he would have written an outstanding book.
But this is where the problems start. Unlike the descriptions of failure in the front line, drawn from personal experience, the diagnosis and the prescriptions lead him rapidly into areas where he has no personal knowledge, and he has to rely on interviews and secondary sources. Whilst some of his points are reasonable, he falls occasionally into tabloid-style rants about numbers of senior officers doing nothing, that suggest he hasn't done the elementary research to find out how military officers are actually employed when not in the front line. And anyone who has done battle with the labyrinthine and dysfunctional US system would be surprised to read about how much better it is than the British one. (I mean, have you ever been inside the Pentagon, Frank?) And several of the American commanders he praises so highly have subsequently proved to have feet of clay.
In essence, the book's weaknesses are also its strengths. This is war from ground level, as seen by a junior officer, impatient as all such officers are with the perceived failures of the desk-bound chaps in the rear. What he misses - because he has no personal experience of it - is the fact that the very real weaknesses he identifies are less the result of stupid Generals (as he concedes, most of them are highly intelligent) but of a declining system whose entire rationale is now about trying to have influence over the US, and to do so with armed forces which are simply much too small, now, to do anything useful. So if you are the US, you can send officers off to do Doctorates (though I'm not sure that's the answer). If you're the UK, then you are so desperately overstretched that you can't
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