The publication of the book was fraught with difficulty as the military establishment closed ranks. (The original publisher was Penguin Random House, which put the book on hold, telling Akam there was a “quite unprecedented level of withdrawal of support and co-operation for the book from multiple sources”). This alone goes a long way to substantiating the author’s powerful accusation that the army, a reflexively defensive, instinctively conservative and opaque institution, has limited ability to adapt to change, whether military, social or political. And this means things go wrong... This is a long book. There are chapters of useful and rigorous investigation of alleged abuses committed by British troops in both theatres, and these may have explained the ire of some interviewees. That Akam has taken the trouble to interview sex workers about the scared British soldiers who come to them to talk as often as to have sex on the eve of the Iraq war is impressive. The detail often makes for gripping individual episodes, but sometimes clouds the overall argument and narrative.
Akam’s closing pages might usefully have catalogued the things that are still admirable about the army. He could also have reminded his readers of Lord Tedder’s wise words: “War is organised confusion.” Instead he reprises his thundering denunciation of commanders. “By giving senior individuals free passes, we had set up the wrong incentives . . . The generals had supervised failure on a grandiose scale and faced no accountability for it; that hypocrisy had trickled down into the institution.”
From the start of this long and clumsily written book, it is clear that the author has a jaundiced view of the Army, which appears to derive from his brief experience of a gap year commission before going to university. Anyone with a working knowledge of the military knows that training can seem dull and futile, and that military exercises are often run by those with little or no experience of live combat. Akam blames his own uninspiring experience on a schoolmaster who, while being a military enthusiast, had no actual experience of fighting in a war.