A simple story: two books; one subject.
The first, 688 pages - including 94 of detailed footnotes - of beautifully written, evocative, and passionate prose, placing you in the boots of British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly discovering the mission they've volunteered for isn't the war they're fighting at all. That's The Changing of the Guard, by former officer, now journalist, Simon Akam.
The other book is its direct contrast, a slim, taut and logically theoretical military monograph called Planning to Not Lose from our Army's Research Centre, written by Albert Palazzo. Although this may (initially) appear to have nothing in common with the other book (dealing as it does with possible future Australian contingencies, not past wars), taken together the two grasp and shake conventional assumptions about conflict until they fall apart.
This September, some 20 years after the invasion of first Afghanistan and later Iraq, the final fighting forces will be withdrawn from the Middle East. And after two decades of fighting, the loss of more than 40 Australian lives, hundreds of British, thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of locals, millions of lives ruined, trillions of dollars spent, and conflict still cascading around the region; what's been achieved? Nothing.
The question driving Akam's relentless inquiry is simple. 'Why?'
He loved the military and joined up for a gap year, serving as an officer with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards before Oxford. After a scholarship (and further degree from Columbia) he became a journalist for, first The New York Times and then writing for Reuters and The Economist. But he was always drawn back to that huge, defining conflict of our times, wondering why things had turned out so terribly badly. How had the British Army in particular, once so adept at counter-insurgency, failed so terribly? What processes, what particular interactions could possibly explain why everything went so terribly wrong for a military he'd once been thrilled to be a part of?
He begins asking questions at ground level, 260 interviews probing everyone from privates to commanders, medal winners to those accused of war crimes. We hear from sex workers in Germany and generals fighting the bureaucratic battles of Whitehall (with one eye firmly fixed on the next promotion board). This breadth of research gives Akam's book immense power. He delves deep from exploring the motivations and split-second decisions, situating these in the broader framework of a huge organisation placed in an impossible position. Tracing this chain - from the decision to pull the trigger through to promotion and medals - provides a rich seam that shines light on the way life really works. What an academic might drily describe as 'the human factors shaping events' become real individuals working, operating and trying to survive within an institutional setting. The result is not pretty.
Even the backstory to publication is revealing. The original publisher backed away after some interviewees realised the book might not burnish their reputation. Akam persisted. He describes a subsequent meeting with Australian publisher Henry Rosenbloom in Scribe's London office (just down from Charles Dickens' house) that grew, firstly, into a longer discussion and finally determination to ensure the book made it into print. In conversation now Akam wonders if perhaps outsiders, such as Australians, are more willing to question comfortable, complacent assumptions that avoid difficult issues.
I demur. Making the choice to examine failure is hard and regulatory capture isn't simply a product of legal threats. The UK's Generals did, at least, examine Blair's wars back in 2013 (even if the subsequent result felt to many like a self-congratulatory, back-slapping exercise). Australia still avoids examining why our massive deployment to the tiny, rocky, backward province of Urzgan produced nothing lasting and resulted in failure.
Was the mission impossible to achieve?
That's not a question Palazzo's paper, a sleek work of 44 tightly-reasoned pages, ostensibly seeks to achieve although it lies at its very centre. It represents a new philosophy of war by inverting von Clausewitz' original, classic dictum. The German theorist established war as simply representing the continuation of policy by other means. Palazzo goes a step further, asking what happens when victory can never be achieved.
In doing so he pushes out the trajectories of weapons development (increasingly destructive) and economic trends (increasingly unfavourable to Australia).
He points out that, for Australia, the deployment to Afghanistan achieved its main objective precisely because our "alignment with the US is today stronger than ever". From that perspective the commitment was a success. Those weren't the sentiments expressed by politicians, however, as in the years post-2006 they successively boosted the contribution to the remote Afghan province. Palazzo reconciles what happened with the insight that "winning and losing are not opposites, it is only the achievement of a goal that determines victory".
Frame the deployment of military force this way and war's objectives change. Current technological advances mean any future conflict will be remarkably destructive; economic developments mean Australia can no longer just assume it will have the ability to choose to intervene as it has in the past. This country requires an entirely new philosophy of war, one intimately focused on understanding the political ramifications of military action rather than solely on "winning" the conflict. Palazzo doesn't say this however perhaps had we carried such a focus to Afghanistan the results achieved would have been far more positive than the legacy today - a war crimes investigation and a province that's been left under effective Taliban control.
What both books have in common is that they describe - one lyrically, exploring the detail of what occurred on the ground; one analytically, through a ruthless examination of the limitations of military force - how war has changed.
A soldier armed with a rifle can't be expected to change the direction of history. We need to understand what armed force can, and can't, achieve. These books offer a valuable starting point.
- Nicholas Stuart is a regular columnist.
- This article has been edited to properly reflect Akam's education and work history.