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on 25 August 2017
The definitive account of the real reasons why the British counter-insurgency operation in Iraq was ultimately unsuccessful.
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on 10 August 2009
I am glad that I bought this book. It was about time that someone grasped the nettle and let people know what had gone on in Iraq(and is still going on in Afghanistan). It is well written and easy to follow. I think that the 'snatch rover' bit is a bit overdone - there were other items just as important - lack of body armour, poor boots and personal kit, lack of choppers. Looking back to General Rose's book on UN Ops in Jugoslavia, written in the nineties, his forecast that Brit soldiers would face a defeat in the not-too-distant future has come to fruition. The book is also a timely reminder that selection of the people at the top must be looked at, as their decision making seemed to be very poor and grunts on the ground seemed to be settled in a base mentality, hardly venturing out. Well worth a read.
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on 8 June 2009
Ministry of Defeat is the first and only forensic examination of the political and military failures by the British in Iraq. As the government, the media and the army were quick to downplay the unfolding catastrophe as the birth pangs of democracy, the evidence from the front line was telling a very different story. Ministry of Defeat explores that evidence and paints a picture of Southern Iraq very different to the popular narrative.

Richard North highlights the political indifference to military procurement and outlines the staggering, willful ignorance of the media and senior members of the government who should have known better. He also points the finger at a military establishment, untouchable in its arrogance, which not only refused to respond to threats but actively denied them.

North demonstrates how procurement has a direct impact on any force's ability to wage a successful campaign and highlights the critical failures which lead to the deaths of scores of soldiers and countless Iraqis. He also shows how the political realities in Iraq were swept under the carpet to the detriment of public debate and subsequently policy. Unlike any soldiers eye view, in Ministry of Defeat we get a holistic view of situation on the ground and how it relates to events in Westminster; A tale of political opportunism, military incompetence and most damningly of all, a systemic parliamentary failure to scrutinise military affairs.

This is a unique perspective on the British experience, not swept up by the macro politics of the Iraq war or the decision to invade and it brings to light the much neglected questions pertaining to inadequate armoured vehicles, namely the Snatch Landrover, counter terrorist strategy and the stagnation in the chain of command. North was one of the few asking not how do we pull out, but how do we win?
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on 28 June 2009
Richard North has written a devastating history of the British Army`s involvement in Iraq. He has stated his case with a lot of verve and passion. He should rightly take some credit for highlighting the "Snatch landrover" scandal, but in many ways the book falls short of its considerable promise.
For instance, the book almost invariably cites references to newspapers` coverage of events but the author does not appear to have interviewed many significant individuals involved in the conflict who might have shed greater light on some of the wider issues involved - he does not seem to have interviewed any US politicians or military for their input, and I was also surprised to see he was not able to access any major documents from US under "Freedom of Information". I find it difficult to believe that there are not some rich pickings from US diplomatic, military and intelligence sources on their views of the British involvement.
Mr North also takes aim at Tony Blair re his opportunism and lack of reality but then again Blair was no novice in the employment of military forces as John Kampfner has set out in "Blair`s Wars" - he committed British forces to action five times in six years. Where Blair seems to have fallen short is poor selection of politicians of a sufficient weight and stature as Defence Ministers to exercise robust oversight over the conduct of the war, and particularly the military, in Iraq and that he probably should have made some changes in senior personnel similar to Bush`s overhaul of his military ie the appointment of Gates as a "heavyweight" Defence Secretary, Petraeus as forces commander etc.
And it is in this sphere, the conduct of the war on the ground and its political supervision, Mr North has tended to "pull his punches". There was quite rightly, as he has identified, major deficiencies in the procurement system. (There is an anti EU slant given to why procurement was badly skewed - due to a deal with Chirac re future EU forces, but this fails to convince entirely). Mr North only leaves it really to the final part of the book when he starts to take aim at the British officers and their inability to confront the situation on the ground - as Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup is quoted: "I think that we were a bit too complacent about our experiences in Northern Ireland and certainly on occasion we were a bit too smug about those experiences". As readers of "Fiasco" and "The Gamble", as well as "The War Within", know: the Americans had to ascend a very steep, learning curve in learning how to cope with the insurgency and there was a fair amount of "we have the background and experience gathered in Northern Ireland etc" from the British side for them to contend with. The Americans seem to have been able to find it within themselves to revamp equipment, tactics, training and personnel, particularly senior officers, to at least start to turn things round. There seems to have been nothing approaching this on the British side and it is unfortunate that the author doesn`t see fit to comment on why not.
This is troubling as the UK military commitment to Afghanistan is being increased and one wonders whether, based on the unhappy experiences in Basra, we may be setting up our forces for a major fall there. Have the forces learnt the lessons from Basra - are they able to adapt to a new situation? The author seems to be proffering proper "procurement" as the answer but he does admit to there also being required "right structures, tactics" although he does not much elaborate thereon.
In addition, while criticising the UK government for withdrawing the forces over the period from 2003 onwards, the author states "More troops devoted to fighting the insurgency are not necssarily an answer". But this flies in the face of one of the reasons why the US forces were able to reduce the level of violence by means of "the Surge". The author doesn`t elaborate why this was not pursued by the British in their area of responsibility. In the US context, it was a small group of army officers, some retired, under the cover of President Bush and Republican Senator McCain, who pushed through an increased level of forces to successfully conduct a counter insurgency campaign as a counterproposal to the military and political establishment`s view of a progressive, if not outright, reduction of forces in Iraq. There does not seem to have been any military officers on the British side pushing for changes in troop levels or tactics etc. Did officers believe that there was no way to adjust tactics or consider alternatives? Did officers believe their forces were adequate? The author is silent on this whole area. In the US context, US forces were also initially poorly equipped for the insurgency and Rumsfield was called to account by disgruntled troops on a visit to the area re lack of protection. But this was viewed by some at the time as a secondary (albeit still important) symptom of a wider set of problems connected with an insurgency that seemed to have spun out of the US` control.
The US forces seem to have successfully turned around significant numbers of hostile locals - sometimes by arming them and getting them to fight other insurgents - why did this not take place in southern Iraq? Could they not find or persuade anyone?! Was there no political will? Was there a military decision not to do so? Were the forces on the ground inadequate to train significant numbers of Iraqis to fight? Again the author is silent.
Most successful counter insurgencies to some extent rely on good intelligence gathering eg Malaysia, Northern Ireland etc - again this is not really addressed by the author throughout his book.
The 'for you, Tommy, the war is over" moment came in May/June 2008 when US and Iraqi forces, without any substantive British military involvement, launched Operation 'Promise of Peace' in Basra and southern Iraq which killed 2,000 of the Mahdi Army - long a major bugbear of the British forces in their area, and significantly curtailed their abilities to terrorise the local population. The Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki thereafter appears to have effectivly terminated the British presence in the country due to "nonperformance".
Overall, Mr North should be complimented on writing this book on what appears to have been one of the British Army`s saddest and most unsuccessful military actions in a very long time. He rightfully deserves credit for identifying problems in the army`s procurement system. It is regrettable however he has not more fully explored some of the other major issues arising - some of which he briefly alludes to but without developing further in his book. Also he may have missed an opportunity to comment on whether lessons have been learnt for Afghanistan.
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on 6 July 2009
I have used the title 'Some light . . ' because that is what this book is. Dr Richard North has only 256 pages to explore a massive issue so he has only been able to cover part of it in this excellent book. The part that he does cover he covers encyclopiedically. The book covers the British Armed Forces defeat in Iraq primarily from the standpoints of procurement errors, policy and tactical doctrine errors and the worst error of all - a failure to learn from our mistakes and correct our policy and tactical doctrine on the ground from our mistakes. The book starts by providing a brief history of the military occupation of Southern Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As is usual in Dr North's books the narrative is well crossreferenced to footnotes to verify each statement. There is also a good quality gallery of photos - some of them very interesting & original. As the book goes on the historical narrative starts to show the confused changes in policy and tactical doctrine on the ground, changes often driven to suit the timescales and press schedules of politicians in London. The problems and restrictions on tactics caused by unsuitable equipment are reviewed in forensic detail. Dr North became well known for his campaign against the deployment of Snatch LandRovers. With his reputation on that subject and a limited number of pages he concentrates on that issue as an example of the procurement fiascos but also covers, in less detail, shortage of usable helicopters, counter-mortar equipment (which was already in service but not in Iraq) and unmanned surveillance drones (UAV's).
I have already mentioned above that some of the tactical errors were, in Richard North's opinion, caused by the wrong equipment being in theatre but a further problem was a total refusal by senior British officers to realise there was a problem and try to improvise new tactics - something which military officers have to do in every war they fight if they are to be on the winning side. The later chapters of the book cover the refusal to recognise the tactical errors, in-depth analysis of the procurement sagas and the failure to review doctrine and equipment decisions which are now affecting our troops in Afghanistan. An excellent example of senior British military mentality is on page 186. The British kept claiming to our allies in Iraq that we had great experience of counter insurgency from our deployments in Ulster. In fact our deployments in Ulster were radically different in most aspects from our deployment in Iraq - as just one example I cannot remember an IRA suicide bomber ! Yet in 2007 the senior British Major General J Shaw was lecturing US counterparts about British experience in Ulster - US officers 'were just rolling their eyeballs'. The British had just withdrawn from Basra handing it over to the militias yet thought they could still lecture allies on counter insurgency tactics and hadn't learnt anything in four years in Iraq.
The final point that is made in this book is very simple. We can criticise the govt. of the day (with some exceptions) we can criticise senior civil servants and officers but we do live in a democracy. Where were our 'Free Press' and 'HM Opposition' during all this ? Richard does give some examples of MOD 'media management' during the occupation. Yet the Press accepted the media management without protest and didn't cover many issues that were in the public domain. It is a salutory lesson to note that in the earlier chapters of the book (the beginning of the occupation) most of the reference footnotes are to UK media sources - in the later chapters (end of the occupation, the procurement sagas etc) the references are often to foreign Press sources (including Middle Eastern sources !). US and Canadian Press were openly discussing British military issues our own Press were avoiding. Similarly, in Parliament some of the best questions that were asked on defence issues were asked by Tory backbenchers such as Ann Winterton while the Tory 'shadow' Defence team were inactive.
This is an excellent start at throwing some light on this massive issue and the timing is very neat as the govt. has now of course just announced an inquiry into the 'Iraq War' and the lessons to be learned from it. This means a vast amount more material will come into the public realm. I look forward to Dr North writing a(much needed)update to this work.
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on 4 January 2010
For those of us who try to stay abreast of current affairs via the British press and BBC News, there are certain areas of obscurity which somehow we never penetrate. But of all the activities of our governing elite, none is more impenetrably obscure than Defence: and when - if ever - the ordinary voter should stumble across a discussion of Defence Procurement, eyes glaze over and we tiptoe away to something less obscure.

Yet the equipment of an army is a continuous strategic process, evolving over twenty year cycles currently costing British taxpayers over £40bn annually and we should be grateful to Richard North for this detailed, well informed polemical book for the clear link he draws between what he unhesitatingly describes as the defeat of the British army in Southern Iraq and the bureaucratic failure to execute a proper plan to supply it with the tools it needed for the task it was asked to undertake in the seven years after the 2003 invasion.

However, this is not simply a matter of brave soldiers being let down by incompetent civil servants. North shows unerringly, sometimes comically, how the demands of the invasion of Iraq collided head-on with the army's own plans for long-term re-organization and how the lack of belief among the army top brass in the whole Iraq invasion all combined fatally to produce a seven year scramble to try to fill the gap left by the lack of mine-proof vehicles. In spite of a growing roll call of soldiers killed and maimed in the infamous `snatch' land rovers by the improvised explosive devices employed by Iraqi insurgents, generals and politicians colluded in insisting that the job of the army was to act as in Northern Ireland `in support of the civil power'. The fact that there was no such power, but rather a growing and bitter insurgency against the occupying British, complicated by a Shi'a civil war was denied by top politicians and generals from Blair downwards and carefully concealed from British voters. How many of us recall that sense of slightly smug satisfaction we felt as we downed our diet of stories and pictures of British troops patrolling in soft hats, handing out sweets to Iraqi children. So different from those ignorant and inexperienced Americans in Baghdad!

North does not hesitate to finger the British press and particularly BBC News for their connivance in this deception. While for the most part, soldiers' deaths were documented (and he relies on these reports throughout the book) the spin with which they were announced was invariably relayed in faithful detail.

Despite its lurid cover, Ministry of Defeat is not an easy read. But its conclusions will, one hopes, earn it a place on the library shelves at Sandhurst and the Military Staff College. `Fault, writes North, 'is a complex, multi-factoral issue. In Iraq the army was defeated. Indisputably, the major fault lay with the politicians, in particular one man - Tony Blair. But the Army was not without fault. Its equipment was wrong, its tactics were wrong and, in the final analysis, it lost faith in its mission and gave up.....'

This morning as I finished the book, BBC News carried another curt report of yet another British soldier `killed by an explosion while on foot patrol in Afghanistan.' Did he too have to step down from an unarmoured vehicle to examine a suspect bump in the road?
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on 16 July 2009
This is an astonishing book and should be required for any reader with a serious interest in the Iraq War. The author systematically demolishes the arguments and statements of a Government that dissmbled in the public forum about the conduct of military operations in Iraq. Interestingly he suggests that the news media appears to have missed the really important story while concentrating on the increasing stale discussion of whether or not we should have gone to war. The central debate should have been about strategy, tactics and equipment not hyperbolic, emotion laden shouting matches about the legitimacy or otherwise of the Blair/Bush decision to go to war. As we face increasing difficulties and fatalities in Afghanistan I would respectfully suggest that this book should be on the reading list of anyone seriously interested in these conflicts.
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on 3 August 2009
"War is an engineering problem" - so said one of the few successful generals of WW1. In this book, Richard North describes how the Iranian-backed militia found an engineering solution to the problem of how to inflict casualties on the British forces in Iraq - roadside bombs and mortar attacks on British bases; how the US, confronted with the same problems, found solutions - mine resistant vehicles and UAVs patrolling over their bases; and how the British failed, and eventually retreated to a single base at Basra airport. It is a tale of waste, stupidity, cover-up and spin that everyone should read.
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on 25 May 2014
It strips away the double-speak mealy mouthed gobbledygook of M o D desk pushers and illustrates starkley that the government and military establishment don't care a fig for the ordinary soldier.

It is authoritative and well researched with clear references to available sources.

Normally one would have to wait a couple of hundred years for a glimmer of light through dark glass but this is brilliant.

Recommended bedtime reading for Mr Blair.
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on 25 November 2014
Don't waste your money.
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