The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam, a review by way of opinion.
Updated 8 April 2021
By Philip Ingram MBE
It is rare when you pick up a book and one of the first names, Richard Palmer, a young officer with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, jumps off the page at you. I was there, in Iraq, running Intelligence Operations, when the report of his convoy being struck by an IED came in. Part of my team investigated the incident; I will never forget the post incident report or the autopsy report.
Simon Akam’s book starts in Canada and again brings out names and incidents I was well aware of. I flew to BATUS to be briefed on David Allfrey’s ISTAR Squadron, I had heard of the infamous lunch back in Germany with Her Majesty The Queen, which allegedly caused bad blood between Allfrey and Graham Binns, his Brigade commander, another character I had come across frequently.
The book covers the British Army post 9/11 and a malaise that led to a complete mission failure in Iraq; I had witnessed first-hand the long-handled screwdriver of ordered tactical inaction from PJHQ and Whitehall. Whilst I didn’t have first had experience of Afghanistan, I had sent enough of my soldiers there and had to keep a detailed understanding of what was going on to have a clear inside knowledge of what was happening. Akam has got the tone of what was going on just right.
I mention tactical inaction. There were a number of operations run outside the classic MoD chain of command in various theatres. Many of these were very successful but there is no way Akam would have known about them or be briefed on them; they saved lives and and that was important.
David Richards, Richard Sheriff, Chris Brown are all generals I have at various times, worked for and with. Akams’ general observation that failure is rewarded by promotion and telling the truth rewarded by side-lining, is so true. As he highlights, there is no accountability at senior levels and extrapolating this is why Defence is in such a mess today. The equipment programme, historical recruiting (yes, I know it’s got better), welfare, single living accommodation, the complaints system, women and so much more can only be described as failing or having failed in the past; where are the sackings that would happen in any accountable organisation?
This very well written and researched book is perceptive, accurate and very important. Describing incidents accurately, calling out failures in planning, command and more worrying, openness, i.e. a clear policy, official or learned behaviour, of covering things up. His description of what was presented at some of the inquests are clear examples. It is a pity I can’t elaborate more without distressing some of the families or contravening the Official Secrets Act. I know what I know.
This book is a must read and I would urge the MoD to take it as lessons identified document, as that is what it is and change as a matter of urgency. Defence needs a CDS who will drive to learn the lessons Akan has highlighted and not as continues to happen time and time again, behave like an ostrich.
Before 9/11 much of what the British Army did, worked. In Bosnia the British Bailed the Americans out as they deployed into implement the Dayton Agreement but failed in their river crossing to get troops on the ground. The British Army worked well in Kosovo, FYROM, Croatia, in Northern Ireland and in Germany during the Cold War.
Mind you the Cold War Army perfected the art of covering reality up. As an aside, my small, armoured unit, supporting an armoured brigade, would have taken the whole of the Divisions refuelling assets just to get it to its deployment location as we weren’t allocated transporters but were integral to what was called the Covering Force battle, but that is another story.
One question that needs to be asked is, ‘what was the turning point that changed the British Army from one that was successful on operations, planned by the likes of Jeremy McKenzie and Mike Walker to one of failure?’
Personally, I noticed a significant change around the period the infamous Iraq Dossier was drafted, altered and released. I was in Defence Intelligence at the time. They say the tone is set from the top and it is around then that the super tanker that is the MoD reset its course to the tone from Number 10 that started the rot. Akam has explained the consequences in a masterful way.
An outstanding book – I can’t recommend it more highly.
Addendum – Added 8th April 2021
You know a great book when you keep thinking through many of the issues it highlights. I would suggest that many of the major companies that have failed during and pre the COVID 19 pandemic have experienced the same self-misinforming impotent leadership that Akam rightly and accurately teases out. This book isn’t just a set of lessons for the Army and wider military to learn it is for all to learn, there is so much business can and should take away from what Akam has identified.
I am very much minded of the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” verse 2 ”