There is a danger of over-intellectualising war

Fall When Hit
Jan 5, 2015 · 6 min read

Note: this piece is a response to “Our Culture of Cracking On Must be Tempered”, which was previously published on Fall When Hit.

British soldiers in Afghanistan (BBC)

The recent Fall When Hit article on cracking on contains some nuggets of truth but ultimately fails to prove its thesis.

To start with, some things are certainly true:

The British Army has been defeated in both Southern Iraq and Afghanistan. To be doctrinal about it, defeat means the enemy has prevented us carrying out our mission. Despite several amendments to the mission as we went along — in both cases — it was never achieved.

A culture of cracking on is essential at the lowest tactical level but less and less relevant the further you go up the levels of war.

Tony Blair in Kosovo, alongside General Sir Mike Jackson

The British Army has been riding its luck for generations. The tapering of events in Northern Ireland and Blair’s early wars enabled the British to get succeed operationally through bluff and luck (and in some cases the fact that their enemies had the modern-day equivalent of sharpened mangos), and some commanders started to think this was down to skill. However, I would argue that the UK’s political settlement and geographical location have meant that it has always ridden its luck until some disaster or other meant it had to generate a truly effective land force for a limited period of time before slipping back to its old ways.

On the other hand, other arguments in the article are wide of the mark:

Lt Col John Nagl, the Coindinista-in-chief

The British were not the junior intellectual party. The HR MacMasters’ of the US Army were as sidelined as their equivalents in the British Army until political desperation from Bush hauled Jack Keane out of retirement to promote anyone who didn’t think Iraq was a lost cause. The ‘Petreaus crowd’ in the US Army were outsiders, and in many cases still are. In other words, the Coindinistas rose to the top of the US Army because of the US political commitment to Iraq, not because of the institutional brilliance of the US Army. Until the Baker report, many of the leaders of the US Army (less General George Casey) were blundering along in only slightly less intellectual flummery than the British.

Let’s compare this to the British political situation and the subsequent performance of its army in Iraq. There was no such commitment to the Iraq campaign either among the British population or within their government. Labour did not have the ‘luxury’ of being lame-ducks like Bush, and instead had to fight for re-election. Also, the nature of being the junior partner, for whom the campaign was a treaty obligation rather than a direct interest (despite Blair’s initial idealism), tends to reduce one’s capacity to influence things at the top table and subsequently one’s enthusiasm to throw in the kitchen sink (rather than the towel) when things get tough. In Iraq, there was therefore no impetus to promote bright new ideas; indeed General Richard Shirreff, as a multi-national divisional commander, tried to but was firmly squashed. There was plenty of free-thinking in the British Army, probably as much as in the US Army, but at all levels the context was so constrained that it wasn’t allowed to impact the situation. These tight constrictions also, of course, reduced the motivation for incompetent British commanders to be sacked, whilst the different conditions faced by the Americans meant they could more easily be removed.

The original approach to the operation in Helmand did show rather more intellectual flair than people appreciate. That it didn’t work was down to the reduction in numbers (poor strategic planning in balancing commitments with Iraq is at fault here), bad intelligence and political understanding (the sacking of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada) and most importantly dire operational and tactical decision-making (the platoon houses). In my view, the US Army showed equal failures in each of these areas during the fight in Afghanistan, with similar results. The US Marine Corps surge into Helmand did not see peace surge into the Upper Sangin Valley. In the end, generals McCrystal and Petreaus had little to offer but a carbon copy of the operational approach that worked in Iraq. And this have not delivered dramatic success in the same way.

I should add that there has been a sea-change in the British tactical approach since the bad old-days of Op HERRICK 10. Not only has there been humility but also whole-hearted embracing of the intellectualism of the Coindinistas. Essay competitions and TE Lawrence quotations came to be common in the British Army. In fact, now that revisionists question the extent to which a Kilcullen-style COIN approach really impacted on the situation in Iraq, I wonder whether the true legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan for the British Army is that we will try to over-intellectualise every problem, and forget to do what armies are designed to do: apply lethal force to the enemy in order to bring about his defeat.

The myths of Stirling, Lawrence and their ilk exceed their actual contributions. Lets face it, they were great characters and their exploits made great stories but what did they really achieve in the context of the wars they were fighting in? Even if Lawrence did succeed in providing a useful distraction to General Allenby’s advance, the whole theatre was a bit of side-show compared to the Western Front where Allenby was as successful a commander as any of the other ‘donkeys’. And you can convincingly argue that Lawrence was seriously out of his depth, making ad-hoc political promises that had disastrous consequences after the war. Stirling was perhaps still less successful, apart from blowing up a few planes and ships here and there. Perhaps we might also consider the impact on the WW2 Burma Campaign of that ‘out-of-the box’military intellectual Ord Wingate. Come to think of it, how much was it the surge of US troops and their shift in low-level TTPs that delivered success in Iraq, and how much was it that Sunni Arabs got sick of al Qaeda in Iraq and that Maliki was able to divide the Shia militias?

There is a real danger of taking away the wrong lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.

BH Liddell Hart

It is true that the conceptual agility of commanders at all levels of war is the foundation of their ability to generate tempo and therefore to win. It is also true that the British Army has traditionally been pretty bad at this, at least in the initial stages of conflict, probably due to the culture of its professional military. However, I worry that we might run into a new sort of ‘indirect approach’ mind-set here. Just as BH Liddell Hart invented the fallacy that there was always a way around the enemy’s flank if you just looked hard enough (which was also the foundation of most of Churchill’s strategic follies), are we in danger of assuming that success will always involve jettisoning our doctrine and abandoning all plans in favour of those of the most out-spoken and controversial junior subaltern we can find? Hopefully not. We need to integrate and institutionalise dynamism but remember that military success has mostly come about through rapid and agile linear changes, which have often been bloody and tough, rather than through dramatic and seductive conceptual leaps into the unknown. John Boyd is partly wrong: we do need doctrine, we have just got to treat it as a jumping off point, not a blueprint for success. And let us not forget that hostility to doctrine is a classic mark of British Army culture; this tendency needs correcting, not reinforcing.

Fall When Hit

Disruptive ideas for the British Army, by anonymous posters. Member of Military Writers Guild. Broadcast from @fallwhenhit. Curated by @durnure. Submissions welcome: durnure at

    Fall When Hit

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    A blog by British Army heretics. Background photo used under UK OGL.

    Fall When Hit

    Disruptive ideas for the British Army, by anonymous posters. Member of Military Writers Guild. Broadcast from @fallwhenhit. Curated by @durnure. Submissions welcome: durnure at

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