- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve just finished reading most of British Generals in Blair’s Wars, a fascinating volume, one of the most interesting I’ve read this year. As the title indicates, it is a compilation of talks and essays by generals who played various senior roles over the last 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
The views are remarkably diverse. For example, some generals look to the Americans as an example of a military that was more adaptive than the British, while Gen. (ret.) Sir Michael Jackson calls the U.S. military “intellectually bankrupt.” (That may be due to a time difference: Jackson led British forces in Kosovo in 1999, while others saw the U.S. Army and the Marines finally get their act together in Iraq eight long years later.) Maj. Gen. (ret.) Andrew Stewart, who served in Iraq, states as a given that “aside from the USA, there are no armed forces in the world that have all the capabilities needed to wage modern warfare.” Gen. (ret.) John McColl, who was deputy commander of MNF-Iraq, also says enviously that American soldiers have more pride than do their British counterparts. He adds that he found the American military to be generous and open.
They also are candid about each other in ways that American generals rarely are in public. “The majority I would rate as fair,” Lt. Gen. (ret.) Graeme Lamb, says of his peers, “a few I would gladly join and assault hell’s gate, and some I wouldn’t follow to the latrine.”
The talk by Lamb, who did four tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, is for me the high point of the collection, in part because he addresses issues I spent much of the last three years contemplating as I wrote The Generals. He says that generalship is about three things: character, competence, and communication. “So do we select our generals on such criteria? Don’t be daft, of course we don’t. We pull them up through patronage, misplaced loyalty, self-promotion and a host of other rather tawdry reasons and, occasionally, on ability; but it is not always the brightest and the best that are selected for high office.” The majority of people disagree with him, he notes, but adds that they “lack the balls to say so.”
The book would be even more candid except that the Ministry of Defence refused to allow the editors to publish the remarks of generals still on active duty. “Indeed, even this book has had chapters by serving officers withdrawn on orders of the MOD, including a chapter by the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff on the difficulties of making strategy in the twenty-first century.” All told, six chapters were ordered withdrawn.
(More to come.)