Even at the time, I knew it was a deal with the devil. Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, commanding officer of the Welsh Guards and a friend of mine from the late 1990s, had just been killed in Afghanistan. He was the first battalion commander to die in action since the Falklands. Colleagues of his were encouraging me to consider writing a book about him and his beloved Welsh Guardsmen, who were still engaged in ferocious fighting. I had spent time with the Welsh Guards in Northern Ireland and Iraq. It seemed like an opportunity presented by fate. To explore the idea, I had to go to Helmand to be with the Welsh Guards.
Three years earlier, I had been driven there from Kandahar (albeit clad in a shalwar kameez and lying on the back seat). By now, however, it was the summer of 2009. Operation Panther’s Claw was raging and the roads were seeded with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). I needed the army’s help to get there. The quid pro quo for being flown from Kabul to Camp Bastion, and for being granted access to the Welsh Guards, was an inch-thick contract agreeing to submit any book manuscript to the Ministry of Defence for it to be checked for ‘operational security’ and ‘accuracy’.
It sounded straightforward enough but I had a sinking feeling. Back in the early 1990s, I worked in the MoD on an admiral’s staff. I was well aware that ‘operational security’ often meant ‘what we don’t want you to reveal’ while accuracy was ‘according to how we see things’. The MoD’s control-freakishness is well known amongst defence reporters. All journalists embedded with British troops are required to submit their reports, photographs and videos to be vetted by ‘media ops’. These strictures were not applied by UK forces during the initial years of the Iraq war and journalists embedded with American forces do not have to follow such procedures.
Someone had passed me an aide memoire issued to soldiers that instructed them to ‘use words such as: Professionalism, Capable, Motivated, Proud, Privileged’ when speaking to the press and added helpfully: ‘If you have these in your mind they will come out in interview.’
Entering into any agreement with the MoD about a book was perilous. But I had no choice. With some trepidation, I signed.
Fast forward a little over a year and my agent emailed the 150,000-word manuscript of Dead Men Risen to the MoD’s Directorate of Media Communications. Thus began a Kafkaesque journey that would lead to the entire print run of my book being bought by the MoD at a cost to the taxpayer of £151,450 and then pulped. The book is already being reprinted with changes to the text that amount to about 50 words of utter inconsequence.
How did this happen? Even now, I’m scratching my head. The review process lasted four months and felt like the literary equivalent of undergoing several colonoscopies a week. I totted up 493 requested changes, comments or quibbles, to each of which I dutifully responded. Much of what was raised I accommodated, sometimes because it was unimportant, occasionally because a legitimate argument was made about protecting soldiers’ lives — counter-IED tactics and the capabilities of equipment being the main categories. Inexorably, however, the review process became a monster that threatened to consume the book. A number of officers sought to ‘improve’ the text to burnish their own reputations. One used material from the review to initiate legal action against my publisher, Quercus.
The focus on the peripheral (and stalwart support for the book from the Welsh Guards, who genuinely wanted a work that portrayed the reality of war) meant that some of the larger issues only began coming up as the print deadline approached. During my research, a trove of 2,374 military documents, some of them classified, had been made available to me. There was dismay that I had got hold of these and resistance to my quoting from them. I had established that Thorneloe had been angered by the shortage of manpower and equipment he had available for the task the Welsh Guards had been given. He had regarded Panther’s Claw as an operation that was a metaphor for flawed British strategy. At times, it was as if figures in the MoD were arguing with Thorneloe using me as a proxy. He had been an immensely talented officer, destined for the Army Board, but there were suggestions to me that he had been arrogant, reckless and blinkered.
Eventually, the clock ran out. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had refused to be ground down and the integrity of the book had been preserved. The MoD passed it for publication.
Two weeks later, the phone rang. There was a problem. One of the more surreal categories of suggested MoD changes had been ‘protecting international relations’. Now, the MoD was in a bit of a tricky situation over something along these lines that they had not spotted. Could we help them out? Even General Sir David Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff, got involved, telephoning from Kenya with a plea for co-operation.
Quercus’s agreement to discuss what could be done was evidently viewed as weakness. Another issue was raised, this time, darkly, about ‘security’. There was a two-day silence and then we were threatened with injunctions and D-Notices. The MoD had decided to go to war with us.
Ultimately, they lost. Quercus’s senior executives, operating from their shabby offices in Bloomsbury and fortified by McCoy’s crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate during marathon negotiating sessions conducted via speaker phone into the early hours, successfully helped me to resist the vast majority of the new changes being demanded. We knew we had a legally safe manuscript that might be embarrassing to the MoD but divulged no state secrets and endangered no lives. Rushing the books into the bookshops was a very real possibility.
When a 48-page document was emailed to us — effectively a proposal to rip the book apart — we politely told them where they could place it. The MoD caved in, agreeing to amendments that in the end amounted to little more than saving face. The final 24 hours — the day the book was supposed to have been published — were spent with the MoD desperately trying to keep secret the £150,000. Eventually, they folded on that too. Publication would be delayed by two weeks but the book had not been compromised. And technically it was already a bestseller, albeit with just one buyer.
If the preoccupation with a gagging clause was an indication of the MoD’s priorities, then their deletion of a line in the settlement agreement made clear their feelings. An undertaking to deal with Quercus and the author ‘on a fair and transparent basis’ in the future was unacceptable to the MoD. Well, at least there was some honesty and consistency in that.