One should not speak ill of an ally who is your first-cousin and has stood by you in war after war. An explanation, then, is in order about my remarks in Sangin district to Paul Wood of the BBC. We both were accompanying a US Marine patrol engaged in a firefight. Since I had written several books about Marines at war, Mr. Wood asked me to explain why the Marines were attacking day after day, intent on driving the Taliban from the entire 40-kilometer Sangin Valley in Helmand Province.
I said, “the Marines have pushed out from Sangin more quickly than anyone thought, because their high command is letting them be aggressive." That was a fact. The Marines believed in crushing the enemy, killing and driving them out into the desert.
When Mr. Wood asked why the British forces had not done so, I replied, "I don't think the British [soldiers and marines] were doing something wrong. Something happened in the British spirit about casualties - right at the top - that prevented them from doing what the US marines are doing."
Mr. Wood called my opinion “controversial.” After all, for four years the British Army had fought to hold Sangin at a cost of 106 men killed. The British held the district center, while the Taliban encircled them with mine belts and ruled over the surrounding farmlands. Britain’s Provincial Reconstruction Team spent tens of millions of pounds on projects to win the hearts and minds of the local Pashtuns and turn them against the Taliban.
This approach accorded with the American benevolent counterinsurgency strategy that sought to secure and serve the civilian population by providing both money and (theoretically) Afghan officials dedicated to good government and the Western-style rule of law. Although fraught with oxymoron, that strategy had guided the disposition of British troops in Sangin and the generous allocation of monies.
Then in the fall of 2010, an American Marine battalion relieved the British battalion. The Marines immediately assaulted the Taliban defenses, suffering 26 killed in 100 days, three times the loss rate of the British. When Mr. Wood of the BBC and I accompanied the offensive patrols, we saw Marines armed with rifles and supported by two small mortars back at their patrol base where there was no electricity or running water. The American high-tech advantage at the point of attack consisted of a handheld mine detector sold commercially to detect coins on sandy beaches and skillfully applied by a full-blooded Navajo Marine at point.
The abrupt switch from defense to offense was due to different attitudes, not to different military equipment. As a military writer, I have talked with hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan elders, interpreters and soldiers, as well as thousands of American soldiers and marines at all levels. The perception is widespread that British military performance at Basra, Iraq in 2007 was too passive. And again at Sangin from 2006 through 2010, the British military knew it had to strike out, overturn diplomatic niceties and take casualties in the short term to avoid slogging through a campaign of never-ending attrition bound to sap the political will.
Not closing with the enemy runs counter to the British military instinct. I devote a chapter in the book, The Wrong War, to the aggressive patrolling by an adviser team from the Worcesters and Sherwood Foresters. While attached to a US Marine battalion, they were so skilled and stout that they were employed interchangeably with the American Marines.
Their aggressive performance will come as a surprise to no citizen of the United Kingdom. Yet to me as an outsider, the British political system – the British people who elect the system – appear not to treat the British soldiers with the care, respect and admiration that American soldiers receive in the States. In the book, Danger Close, Colonel Stuart Tootal describes soldiers wounded at Sangin receiving minimum care in public wards in London and military families struggling with inadequate paychecks. Granted, if society views the military as just one union guild among many - with not enough money to give every union what it demands - then material care and military equipment are bound to suffer.
There’s something more awry with the British martial tradition, though, than just the mediocrity influence and inevitable penury of socialism. Here in the States, large elements of our public treated our soldiers shamefully during the Vietnam War. Later, there was public embarrassment about that mean-spirited behavior. Since then, Congress and the public have strongly supported our soldiers, regardless of political beliefs about the wars.
Similarly, unlike in other European nations, traditionally the British have fulsomely supported their warriors and cheered them onto success, regardless of political animus about any particular war. But something has infected that admirable spirit that only a vigorous discussion among the British people and their leaders can excise. Soldiers deserve admiration, not sympathy. In England as in America, they volunteered to fight. It is unseemly of generals to collude with civil servants and elected officials to manage casualties by avoiding risk and remaining on the defense. The societal and cultural roots that nurture the aggressive martial spirit of Great Britain need tending. Hedgehogs are prey, while Albion is a lion.*****************
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