In his history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun, Ronald Spector described the state of the US army on the eve of the second world war: ‘The main enemies were boredom and debt. The answer to such problems was often liquor.’ When the officer corps was not boozing, it was sufficiently obsessed with athletics to derail training, for ‘success at football and boxing could be as important to a man’s career as success in manoeuvres’. Its weapons were decrepit and its ranks ragged. George Marshall, the future chief of staff, commanded a notional battalion that numbered fewer than 200 men.
That portrait of antebellum decay came to mind when reading The Changing of the Guard, a scathing account of the British army in the years after 9/11. Simon Akam begins his story at the turn of the millennium in Germany, where the residue of what was once the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) lies in what he portrays as bacchanalian stupor. Officers play polo and guzzle Pol Roger. Soldiers drink themselves to oblivion with tax-free booze before piling into the local brothel, ‘as though adhering to that central plank of British military doctrine which holds that a successful assault requires a three-to-one numerical advantage’.
Class is never far from the surface. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a regiment in which Akam briefly served a gap year commission and which will not recruit a state- school-educated officer until 2003, mocks the rival Royal Tank Regiment as ‘council house cavalry’. When war in Iraq comes, they pack their riding crops. What they lack are spare parts. And so the 7th Armoured Brigade, the regiment’s parent unit, earmarked for the Gulf, can only traverse 95km, enough to get to Basra, rather than the 500km to Baghdad with the American juggernaut.
Things do not improve once they get there.