By rights the mortally wounded Taliban fighter lying in the cornfield should not have survived. An Apache helicopter had just strafed the area around the man with 139 rounds of 30mm ammunition. As the patrol of Royal Marines moved out of the tree line and neared the wounded fighter, they were surprised to find the insurgent was still moving.
“Why couldn’t you just be f***ing dead,” one Royal Marine remarked as they gathered around the dying man. His clothes were bloodied, his eyes open. The marines dragged him to the tree line and threw him on the ground. The fighter winced in pain. After a while, when the marines were sure that the Apache was no longer able to see them, the patrol commander crouched beside the casualty, drew his pistol, and fired a single round into the wounded man’s chest.
“Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***,” the Royal Marine said. Ten seconds later he spoke again, this time to his patrol. “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention.”
Yet one of the marines on the patrol was wearing a helmet-mounted camera and had filmed the entire incident. Far from being preserved as just another group secret among a British patrol in Helmand, the moment spread far and wide. The killing of the wounded Taliban fighter by Sergeant Alexander Blackman, 42 Commando, Royal Marines, on 15 September 2011 became the subject not only of Blackman’s subsequent court martial and conviction, but of heated debate as the British public and military tried to make sense of the moral implications of a decade of botched campaigns. The killing is also one of two pivotal moments in The Changing of the Guard, Simon Akam’s excoriating study of the British military establishment since 9/11. For Akam it illuminates far deeper failings than merely the criminal decision of a weary sergeant nearing the end of a violent tour.
[see also: The lights that failed]
Blackman, the author argues, is not just a rogue individual but the product of a failing unit, with a failed strategy, in a failing campaign. This grim chain was itself the product of the systemic leadership failure at the most senior levels of the British military, and an inability to acknowledge and correct the repeated errors made by commanders on the path to losing both the UK’s most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Blackman’s case, Akam describes how the Royal Marine’s brigade commander had been repeatedly warned that during their 2011 tour, 42 Commando was operating without any regard to the new doctrine of restraint that sought to minimise violence by coalition forces in Afghanistan. The aggressive approach the unit was encouraged to take by its officers was dramatically out of kilter with the conduct of the rest of the brigade. Yet Blackman was left to carry sole responsibility for his actions, as if he was a lone bad apple.
“Academic literature on atrocities in war shows that bad apples are almost never the issue, and instead poor leadership is the culprit,” Akam writes, noting lessons from My Lai and Abu Ghraib.
The failure of leadership runs as an arterial vein throughout Akam’s study of Britain’s two most recent land campaigns. The book begins with preparations made by 7th Armoured Brigade as they readied themselves for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and from this point onward Akam advances his argument that the British army – largely unfamiliar with war despite its self-perception as the Best Little Army in the World – was ill-equipped to stabilise and reconstruct its area of responsibility in southern Iraq.
British hubris led to nemesis in Basra. Here, by late 2007, senior British officers had struck a bargain with hostile Shia militias, releasing prisoners and ceding control of the streets to the militants in return for being allowed to withdraw British forces from the city unmolested. Consequently, in 2008, US and Iraqi units later had to fight a battle, Operation Charge of the Knights, to recapture the city, while British units watched on coyly from the airport: a gravely damaging moment for British military prestige.
“Q: How many Brits does it take to clear Basra?” read the graffiti on a Basra Portaloo used by US Marines as they deployed to retake the city.
“A: None. They couldn’t hold it so they sent the Marines.”
Next, in Afghanistan, Akam describes how the British rampaged into Helmand with scant regard for the mission to influence and reconstruct. A series of furious defensive actions there in 2006 set the pattern for subsequent deployments, allowing British units little opportunity to shape circumstances in the province, and inspiring the enmity of swathes of the local population. The Taliban endured. The British withdrew.
According to the author, a core element of the British military’s strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to stem from a desire to impress the American military machine as a reliable ally. In this, too, veering between disdain and obsequiousness in their regard of US forces, the British failed.
Akam writes of a conversation between a British officer, ashamed and humiliated by the performance of the British military, and the American general David Petraeus, which took place in Afghanistan in 2010.
“It’s going to take a generation at least for us to forget this,” said the British officer.
“Slightly longer,” Petraeus replied.
Drawing on 260 interviews conducted across a broad spectrum of military ranks – as well as with soldiers’ families, journalists, Iraqis and sex workers from a bordello near Fallingbostel in Germany – Akam just manages to prevent his detailed account from becoming too crowded in military jargon, with some illuminating tales from barracks, brothel and battlefield.
Sometimes, these vignettes afford toe-curling exposés of the arcane stupidity at the heart of military culture. Akam describes how in 2008 the Household Cavalry, once the British army’s most socially elite formation but by then largely officered by a curdled mix of passé toffs and eager nouveaux riches, commissioned Louise Pragnell to paint a portrait of the regiment’s officers to show how they had embraced the modern age. The officers chose their own poses. One elected to have a mess servant pouring him a glass of champagne while he looked fixedly away; another held a copy of Horse and Hound with his own photo on the cover. Others dressed for polo or hunting. There were two black officers present. The mess decided to invite Lucian Freud, by then in his eighties and suffering from Alzheimer’s, to attend the unveiling. On the day Freud could not remember what he was doing there. When Pragnell told him that he was with the Household Cavalry, Freud looked at one of the black officers present and asked: “So why is there a negro here?”
Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the senior US officer who in 2008 witnessed the British absence from Basra as American and Iraqi forces were deployed to recapture the city, is the recently appointed US secretary of defence. The year the Household Cavalry officers embarked on their mess portrait wheeze, General Austin commanded a force in Iraq that was larger than the entire British army. “Austin is alien as a very concept in British military circles,” Akam notes. “He is a three-star general, and also a black man.”
Elite British formations could sometimes behave as crassly as the Household Cavalry. Akam writes how a company of 42 Commando, Sgt Blackman’s battalion, arrived in Camp Bastion at the start of the fateful Helmand 2011 tour. On arrival every member of the company, including the major in charge, refused to answer roll-call as they were playing a game called “don’t talk to females” and the NCO attempting to register them was a woman.
These incidents are illustrative asides. The thrust of Akam’s argument is that at senior level the British military establishment is fatally flawed by an unwillingness to self-criticise and respond to mistakes, or even acknowledge them.
The Changing of the Guard is not the first study of recent shortcomings caused by British military hubris. Frank Ledwidge in his 2011 work Losing Small Wars wrote with angry eloquence of the strategic errors by service chiefs during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns: their underestimation of the threat and the number of forces required for the operations, as well as the “Yes minister” culture among senior officers that hid unpalatable facts from government.
Akam’s addition to the existing body of work is detailed and well-structured, yet he appears to have little personal affinity for the soldiers he writes about, and his style is academic and at times dour. He introduces his own fleeting, gap-year flirtation with the army, much of it spent adventure training with a cavalry regiment in Germany, as something that allowed him to “make my point, rebel against my parents and… not have to kill”.
After that rather priggish self-introduction, it is at times jarring to read his detailed evaluations of those men and women – young, under pressure, committed to more than a winter’s laugh skiing with the cavalry – who went to war and did kill.
Yet Akam’s description of how British soldiers emerged from these two wars with an uneasy victim-perpetrator image in the eyes of the public is persuasive. Soldiers waltzed between being seen on one hand as suffering heroically for their service and sometimes pursued wrongfully by war crimes investigators, and on the other as brutalised combatants who brought death and misery upon others to no good end.
Blackman’s case epitomised the public’s inconsistency. In 2013 he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of ten years and dismissed with disgrace from the Marines. After his sentencing, a petition demanding his immediate release and the quashing of his conviction received 107, 261 signatures, and described killing a wounded Afghan fighter on home soil as Blackman “defend[ing] his country from a terrorist”.
The public furore obscured a greater truth. Regardless of whether the sergeant was guilty of murder or manslaughter, he ended up carrying the can for an establishment that in Iraq and Afghanistan had underestimated, over-promised, and failed to deliver, losing the trust of local people and international allies – along with two wars. While Blackman languished in jail, his commanders were decorated and promoted.
Three years later, an appeals process reduced Blackman’s conviction to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He was released from prison in April 2017, smuggled out of prison under a blanket: “A shabby end,” Akam notes, “to a decade and a half of Britain trying to impose accountability for things that happen in – and the decision to undertake – 21st-century war.”
Anthony Loyd is a war reporter for the Times
The Changing of the Guard
Scribe, 704pp, £25
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus