The British Military, Democracy and the Limits of ‘Legitimate Debate’

The UK’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went badly wrong, but who was to blame? In response to Simon Akam’s controversial new book The Changing of the Guard, Paul Dixon questions why the military command’s undemocratic political influence in promoting these wars has not been discussed more widely.

Since its publication in February, Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard: The British Army Since 9/11 has generated considerable controversy as the book the ‘Military Establishment’ tried to censor, if not ban. This controversy is all the more significant because Akam’s book is critical, but not that critical, of the military. Written by a journalist with brief experience as a junior army officer, it largely expresses the criticisms of those within or close to the army. Remarkably, it ignores The Chilcot Report’s (2016) evidence on the influence of the military on British democracy.

The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war produced important evidence that the army had manipulated and pressured for ‘beyond maximum’ involvement in both the Iraq and Afghan wars. ‘Beyond maximum’ because these wars exceeded the ‘harmony guidelines’ that were supposed to prevent excessive military deployment and protect the mental health of the armed forces.

Clearly, the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown bear considerable responsibility for the Iraq and Afghan wars and the deception that was perpetrated to justify the Iraq invasion. But the Militarist Coalition that drove Britain towards these disastrous wars extended beyond the Prime Minister into the Military-Industrial-Political-Media-Entertainment-Academic+ Complex.

Paradoxically, this Militarist Coalition was, if anything, empowered by failure in these wars. Responsibility for the military’s crisis was successfully deflected onto the government and the nation. The response was a Militarisation Offensive that significantly increased the influence and popularity of the military institution.

Iraq: ‘beyond maximum’ involvement

Akam does not seem to think that the power of the military and its role in pressuring for beyond maximum involvement in both wars is a serious criticism of the army.

“I actually think it’s not very surprising, it’s very natural and it is understandable that armies lobby for things to do and I don’t think they should be blamed for it, but it should be accepted as a factor.”

The problem for democracy arises when the government is unable to withstand the power of the military elite, particularly when combined with this broader Militarist Coalition.

Post-Cold War cuts in military spending meant that the army, and its rivals in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, were incentivised to participate in war to justify military spending: the infamous rationale of ‘use it or lose it’.

President George W. Bush wanted British symbolic involvement in the Iraq invasion. This could have been a modest package largely comprising intelligence support, access to UK bases and limited numbers of special forces. Embarrassingly, just before the invasion the Americans let slip that they didn’t actually require any British military participation.

The army in particular, pressured and manipulated for maximum British military involvement in the invasion, using their influence with the US military to reach President Bush. At a meeting with the US President on 7 September 2002, Tony Blair “had been alarmed by the US expectations that the UK would lead the northern axis [the invasion of Iraq from Turkey] …”

In the end, the army got its way and about 46,000 military personnel were deployed to the Gulf in 2003. This considerably increased the risk to British lives and, therefore, the political significance of the war to the government.

Afghanistan: From ‘peacebuilding’ to warfighting

The pretext for war was Iraq’s alleged possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which were never found. ‘Liberation’ turned into occupation and a growing insurgency. But after six months in Iraq the British military was already looking to its next adventure, leading NATO’s expansion into the dangerous south of Afghanistan.

The Chilcot Report found that the military elite had assured the politicians that it could simultaneously fight both the war in Iraq and take on a new ‘peacebuilding’ role in Afghanistan. In 2006, the army’s decisions – and acting without government approval – turned its peacebuilding mission into warfighting.

General Richard Dannatt, then head of the army (2006-09), blamed overstretch and military crisis on the Labour government and the nation for breaking the ancient ‘Military Covenant’. The Covenant was not ancient but had been invented by the army in 2000. But it was used to justify increasing the power and popularity of the military.

Under pressure from the international Militarist Coalition, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Obama struggled to extricate themselves from an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Unaccountability: The Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard is unconcerned with the military’s excessive political power and its threat to democracy in the US and the UK. Yet it was this power that led to the war on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, preventing the reinforcement of Iraq that Akam seems to believe might have led to success.

Akam is rightly concerned that journalists are not censored and get to write their books, even though, as he points out, many of these tend to mythologise and glorify war. But there are limits to debate, and Akam does not even consider a more radical critique of the army. Lawyers attempting to improve conditions for soldiers are dismissed, “… ideologically they often came from an old hard-left anti-war tradition that was, de facto, opposed to anything and everything the army did” (p.448).

Yet the Left would share many of the astute criticisms that Changing of the Guard makes of the army. The army is an authoritarian organisation (pp.557-80), supported particularly by the hard right, that is hostile to liberal values on gender, class and race. It also has problems with bullying, alcohol and drugs.

But most of all, the army’s authoritarianism means that the military elite are unaccountable for failure in the two disastrous wars since 9/11. Hierarchy crushes dissenting views and creative thinking. Secrecy and censorship are also used to shape the public narrative. Akam believes that a broader debate “could have improved performance on the battlefield…” and saved lives (p.617, fn 47).

There is some accountability on the front line but “almost zero accountability for the high-level decision-making that led to the prosecution of two deeply troubled campaigns” (p.388). There is strong evidence of major abuses against Iraqi civilians, but the emphasis is on individual blame rather than the systemic issues for which senior officers are responsible (p.477).

These issues include a culture of Warrior masculinity within the army that, partly through its award of medals and promotions, encourages the use of extreme and counterproductive violence. Turning the army into a human security service, as some in the Labour Party have argued, represents a considerable challenge.

The Military-Industrial+ Complex has considerable incentives for fighting wars; it allowed the military to ‘go shopping’ at ‘eye-watering’ cost. Fighting wars was an effective way for the military to get what they wanted and close down discussion: “[D]on’t ask that question – there’s men dying out there”. At one point they “(literally) wheeled out” a soldier who had lost both legs in order to persuade civil servants to approve resources (p. 374).

But it was the government, rather than the military, that pressured for the replacement of the Snatch Land Rover, that cost so many lives. And it was the politicians in the UK and, more importantly, in the US who finally extricated themselves from their disastrous involvement in the Iraq and Afghan wars. While the international Military-Industrial+ Complex continued to argue for the ‘Long War’.


Paul Dixon is completing a book called The Authoritarian Temptation: The Iraq and Afghan Wars and the Militarisation of British Democracy. His many other publications include Warrior Nation: War, militarisation and British democracy (Forces Watch, 2018). He is Honorary Visiting Professor at Birkbeck College, University of London.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: A Royal Irish Regiment (British Army) vehicle passes a burning oil well during the invasion of Iraq, 22 March 2003. WO2 Giles Penfound, Crown Copyright, via National Army Museum.

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