Book Review: Ministry of Defeat: The British in Iraq 2003-2009

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by Richard North

London/New York: Continuum, 2009. Pp. xi, 265. Illus., notes, index. $32.95. ISBN: 1441169970

The decision of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq was vital to President Bush’s efforts to line up political and diplomatic support for the war.  Britain provided the second largest military contingent as well, with 43,000 troops taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  But, as Richard North reveals in Ministry of Defeat, the British occupation of Southern Iraq began to go badly wrong almost as soon as Saddam Hussein was deposed.  Over the six years that followed, things went from bad to worse, until the Iraqi government, in disgust, effectively ordered the British to leave the country in 2009.

British blogger and political analyst North, author, among others, of the forthcoming The Many Not The Few: The Stolen History of the Battle of Britain, shows how the British army began its occupation of Basra confident that its experience in Ulster had prepared it for an urban guerilla war.  Early press reports often contrasted the chaos in Baghdad with the relative calm of the British occupation zone in the south.  This was highly misleading.  Basra only seemed quiet because the British were oblivious to the storm gathering around them.  The British believed their own press clippings, and quickly reduced their troop strength to just 11,000.

Once the insurgency was fully underway, the Blair government decided it had no appetite for the war it had taken Britain into.  The British troops in Basra found that they had little protection from deadly IEDs.  They were sent Snatch Land Rover vehicles in which to conduct patrols.  But these were left over from Northern Ireland, and were little better than death traps against the increasingly powerful and sophisticated IEDs employed by the insurgents.  The British lacked mine clearing equipment as well, having got rid of some excellent kit that had been bought for operations in Bosnia just three years earlier.

North blames the Ministry of Defence and Tony Blair for doing nothing to get the British troops in Basra better vehicles and protection. Instead, procurement money was diverted to the European Rapid Reaction Force, which for the Blair government had a higher priority than the war British troops were actually fighting.  That program relied on high tech gear of doubtful worth, often developed in conjunction with European partners at many times the cost of comparable American equipment that could be had off the shelf.

While the Americans were being reinforced and re-equipped to take on the insurgency, the Blair government’s plan was to abandon Basra, turning it over to half trained Iraqi troops who were nowhere near ready, all the while masking what they were doing behind a cloud of media spin.  The British press mostly covered the war from inside the Green Zone in Baghdad, leaving the British public in the dark about how bad things had become.  Parliament endlessly debated he legality of the war, giving not enough attention to how it was actually being fought.  What happened in Basra stayed in Basra.

North makes clear that ordinary British soldiers showed courage and grit under fire, but they lacked proper equipment, their government was intent on bugging out, and their commanders did not believe victory was possible.  When the British Army abandoned its base at Al Amarah, they made to deal with the Mahdi Army to release Mahdist prisoners in exchange for being allowed to retreat unmolested.  The insurgents then looted the base and turned it into a huge bomb factory.  Basra became a chaotic hell, ruled over by militias, criminal gangs, and Islamist fanatics.  The situation was only retrieved by the American surge, and by Operation Charge of the Knights, in which US and Iraqi forces finally swept into Basra and routed the Mahdi Army.

Ministry of Defeat was written for a British audience.  North provides no glossary, and assumes that his readers will be familiar with British Army customs and terminology.  This may at times be confusing to American readers.  For example, North refers to “the PWRR battle group”.  Most Yanks probably won’t know that PWRR is short for The Prince of Wales’ Royal Regiment.  This isn’t a major problem, since the book is compulsively readable, and the story North is telling mostly speaks for itself.  American readers will be able to follow along easily enough, and for those who are puzzled about British terminology or traditions, there is always Google.  North gives no bibliography, but does provide extensive footnotes for
his sources.

Ministry of Defeat is a riveting and horrifying read. Richard North gives a detailed account of a part of the Iraq War that is virtually unknown in the U.S.  This is the war the British press missed.  One could wish that he had been able to interview some of Britain’s senior commanders, but they were likely not at liberty to speak openly, even if they wished to do so.  This is a story of brave men and women betrayed by a government that did not care about them, and which was more concerned with its public image than winning the war it had sent those men and women to fight.

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Military history buff and veteran wargamer Burke G Sheppard previously reviewed Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945 for StrategyPage.
Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   


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