Book review: High Command by Christopher L. Elliott
The elephant in the room at the General Election has been the legacy of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the lobbying by retired senior officers, and some politicians and journalists about the level of defence spending. There has been both anger and disappointment that the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War has been delayed and publication will not take place until after the election.
Apart from those who are seeking scapegoats and guilty parties there has been a genuine desire to seek political, military and wider lessons from the two conflicts. There is a great deal of evidence from witnesses on line at the Chilcot Inquiry website from ministers, civil servants, the military and intelligence agencies. Also, former senior military have published their memoirs which are selective and at times self-serving. There is an absence of memoirs from many former ministers apart from Tony Blair and Jack Straw.
Christopher Elliott is a retired major-general who left the army in 2002 but maintained an interest in strategic and operational affairs. High Command is based upon a series of interviews he has conducted over a number of years with senior military, civil servants and some former ministers. In many respects High Command is an hors d’ourves to the Chilcot Inquiry with the added advantage of covering Afghanistan.
In his book, Elliott explores the circumstances that led to these wars and how the Ministry of Defence coped with the challenges presented. He reveals how the Service Chief were set at odds by the system, almost as rivals in the making, with responsibility diffuse and authority ambiguous. The MOD concentrated on making things work, rather than questioning whether what they were being asked to do was practicable. Often the opinion of a junior tactical commander led the entire strategy of the MOD, not the other way around.
Elliott is judicious in his conclusions but he highlights the absence of ownership and accountability behind some of the biggest operational decisions of the time. Whether politicians, civil servants and the military have really learnt the right lessons is another matter.