Reading: Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars

 “Ah! the Generals! they are numerous, but not good for much!”

-Aristophanes, The Archanians 

I’ve recently been reading Frank Ledwidge’s book Losing Small Wars: the British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistanand I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few month’s ago at King’s. The book, which I would recommend, is a good read and extremely balanced, though it is a critical book and its conclusions are controversial.

Losing Small Wars examines the difficulties faced by the British Army (though he also touches on the RAF and the Navy) in its last two wars, and it concludes that the means employed the United Kingdom were insufficient to successfully shoulder their portion of operations in Basra and Helmand respectively. In fact, he views these operations as clear defeats, though deemed acceptable in the the hazy terms of waffling political directives and obfuscated narratives from the forces themselves. 

While not in any way degrading the heroic efforts of British soldiers, Ledwidge does come down very hard on the British Officer corps, which is, in his estimation, grossly overloaded with promotions to leadership positions the steadily shrinking army can’t actually accommodate. Promotion is too commonly based on a system of values based on emulation of, and not upon deviation from, patterns. Arguing that this system has come to reward unprofitable groupthink, Ledwidge also asserts that the officers are increasingly shielded from responsibility for the operational mismanagement of entire campaigns. In both Helmand and Basra, 6 month rotations in deployed units and the command meant that upon each rotation one of a cadre of commanding officers promoted for favoring kinetic (usually violence-intensive mobile) operations would arrive to lead a 6 month “battalion-sized” war within the larger one. Coming to make an operational mark for their 6 month tour, the battalion’s kinetic operations often undermined the necessary goal of stabilizing their region, allowing violent struggles between local authorities to create problems well beyond the ability of modest-sized British forces (3,500 combat troops, really 650 mobile combat troops at any one time, for Helmand, an area the size of Wales) to effectively achieve provincial stability and local security.

This issue extended up the line to Generals and Staff Officers, who work primarily in administrative positions because there are no field commands for them to take, who did little to provide the right kinds of equipment for counterinsurgency work or implement better operational criteria and practices for their men on the ground. Too often the forces on the ground, deployed as briefly as they were, had a difficult time imposing any singular doctrine or operations, and suffered from logistical snafus as they attempted to make their individual contributions without effectively creating continuity. The individual contributions often ignored and sometimes frustrated the work of civilians and the progress made by former deployments in order to score ephemeral successes.

Further up the chain, there was often an attitude of both “using so as not to lose”, for example a host of Apache Helicopter Gunships acquired at great expense deployed often short of personnel and equipment needed to maintain effectiveness, and also an attitude of what Ledwidge calls “cracking on” with current strategy in the face of mounting adversity. This attitude, unwilling to concede that new strategy and direction was needed in the war (to say nothing of far expanded resources) reinforced ineffective practices, and lead to what Ledwidge views as wholly compromised positions in northern Helmand and in Basra.

Beyond other general criticisms of the failures of British counter-insurgency strategy, Ledwidge comes home hard on the recent lack of accountability for senior officers, who are rarely relieved and almost never forced to resign despite military setbacks on a unacceptable scale. Contrasting this with previous practices (mentioning, among other things, the execution of Admiral Byng for dereliction of duty and the replacement of multiple commanders in North Africa in World War II), the book is very critical of the modern inability of the British military to promote successful leadership while discouraging ineffective command. Shielding the senior commanders, who kept “cracking on”, led to defeat, Ledwidge argues, because it did not make imperative the process of fixing the imbalances that were losing the war for the British in the field. 

This put me in mind of the American Civil War, particularly Union General George B. McClellan, whose military leadership, while often excellent at maintaining the overall functioning and morale of his army, was notoriously unable to force a decisive issue with resources far exceeding his enemy’s. In writing to Lincoln after being driven back to his starting positions after a series of battles (all but one of which were Union victories), McClellan claimed that he had not lost, but he had failed to win. Lincoln would replace and then reinstate McClellan, who would meet Robert E. Lee at Antietam and fight him to a draw (though again outnumbering his forces by almost 2:1 and possessing a copy of Lee’s orders for the entire campaign), and then fail to pursue the battered Confederates though at extreme numerical advantage. This is what historical “cracking on” looks like. Lincoln, with good sense in hindsight, removed McClellan permanently. 

It has me thinking throughout history for similar examples of disruptive command and control, and indeed many come to mind. Ledwidge cites, as have many others, General H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, which decries the Service Chiefs of the US military for their lack of will to challenge political leadership over Vietnam and what was required to for the United States to achieve its goals in Southeast Asia. A similar theme emerges in both Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents, which documents General Petraeus’ struggle with the DOD and High Command’s refusals to adopt proactive counterinsurgency in Iraq, and, in a similar vein, Lewis Sorley’s book A Better War, and his biography of General Westmoreland, which illuminated the unrealized potential of improving American strategy in Vietnam during the post-1968 phase. In all cases, the culture of “cracking on” in the military led to strategic loss of initiative, which allowed for insurgencies to grow and enemy offensives/resistance to hit America’s armed forces very hard, whether in Tet or in the Sunni Triangle.

That the Americans prevailed in the short term due to superior weaponry, training, and logistical direction is testimony to the excellence of our military capability. But if capabilities are substantially reduced due to financial considerations, it will be necessary to fight tomorrow’s wars with a keen sense of promoting success, cutting failure, and making hard choices. Because strategy is inherently about risk evaluation and making the hard choice of what to pursue at what costs and to what ends.

I would argue that Americans are historically very good at that, and that we have a gift for adaptation under fire throughout history, but we too have the difficulties of fighting through promotion tracks which too often present similar bottlenecks to differing careers and ‘unconventional’ talents (I strongly recommend Kaplan’s book for those interested in what this looks like in practice). While we may not yet be seeing the dire state of affairs visible in Ledwidge’s analysis, this is an area in which comfort zones and complacency needs to be combated if at all possible. I would recommend Ledwidge’s book very highly to anyone interested in the Iraq and Afghan wars and the future of British and American strategy.

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