Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ministry of Defeat: the British War in Iraq 2003-2009 by Richard North: review

The Daily Telegraph

Richard North might mock himself as an “armchair general”, but this forceful and searching analysis of the British military’s failings in Iraq provides greater plausibility than anything else put forward to date. Ministry of Defeat tells us that the British Army that was sent into Iraq partly to secure its strategic alliance with the US has suffered a humiliating setback that has lowered its standing in the eyes of the Americans.

North’s greatest service is to highlight the great disservice to the Lions fighting on the front line led by the Donkeys back in Whitehall. In particular, the Army’s current chief, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, is accused of focusing on purchasing equipment for some unknown future conflict rather than getting desperately needed mine-protected vehicles into Iraq. He questions the MoD’s priorities of spending billions on aircraft carriers and fighter jets when the Army is doing the bulk of the fighting “palmed off with wholly unsuitable, second-hand equipment”.

North, a blogger and political researcher, was quick off the mark in criticising the now-notorious Snatch Land Rover used in Iraq, long before it was picked up by the mainstream press. While the Army had much ill-chosen equipment, North chooses Snatch as the symbol of the Army’s “culpable ill-preparedness and lack of flexibility” in dealing with the insurgency.

Ministry of Defeat also highlights a previously unreported “major strategic failure” in that when the British abandoned the volatile town of Al Amarah they opened the door to the insurgents creating the biggest bomb-making factory for all Iraq.

With the right equipment the British could have held the base, North argues, but instead, the town had to wait for the joint US and Iraq offensive in 2007 to be liberated from the insurgents. Similarly, he accuses the British of precipitately abandoning their bases in Basra city and choosing to “skulk” in the airbase on the outskirts.

North also focuses on the media’s lacklustre coverage of southern Iraq, which allowed much of the story to go unreported. But he also makes allowance for the climate of spin that led one British Army spokesman to proclaim all was “very, very quiet” in southern Iraq when in fact the nascent insurgency was in full cry. “Instead of a portal for information,” the MoD chose to use its resources “for propaganda, distorting rather than illuminating”. Often the insurgent outlets were better sources of information, North concludes.

He makes the point that while the US media reporting shaped the campaign, the British media’s “lack of engagement” meant mistakes went unreported.

If the important inquest into Britain’s questionable performance in Iraq is going to have any impact then those in positions of power should take heed of North’s urging that to recognise failure “is not to apportion blame, but to prevent it from being repeated”.

To view the article on-line click on the title

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