British Generals in Blair’s Wars – a guest post from Hew Strachan

This is a guest post from Hew Strachan, editor (with Jonathan Bailey and Richard Iron) of British Generals in Blair’s Wars

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In 2003–4 I was one of a group of five Oxford academics who set up the Changing Character of War Programme, thanks to a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. We were determined that this would be an opportunity not just to conduct academic study but also to engage with practitioners, and to that end we were extremely fortunate to engage Major General Jonathan Bailey. He had not only been the British Army’s last Director General of Development and Doctrine but also—very unusually for a British general—possessed a Ph. D. The book would not have come into being without the Programme, the Trust and the General.

British Generals in Blairs WarsNobody then could foresee how the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan would dominate the next decade. Jonathan’s original focus lay on the Army’s most recent conflicts, those of the 1990s in the Gulf, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. They form the opening chapters of the book and for somebody like me—who had been brought up in the Cold War—they carried a great deal of intrinsic interest precisely because they dealt with real wars and not with conflict understood simply as theory. But the real excitement was to follow. Soon we were in a fortnightly cycle of seminars during the Oxford terms, at which officers who had recently returned from operations gave us their thoughts and reflections.

Following the campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan vicariously, albeit in the comfort of All Souls College, Oxford, gave me an insight into the conduct of war which I had never imagined that I—as an academic—would ever be privileged to acquire. Of course, I was not experiencing the intensity of fighting or even of service in a theatre of war. I was safe, warm and well fed. But I gained a perspective different from those who were in the field, precisely because my involvement was not broken by the rotations into and out of theatre but continued week by week. I developed a real sense of development over time—of the ways in which the character of war does indeed change as one side adapts to the enemy, to its political masters and its allies, and to the terrain and the seasons. I learnt that ‘the changing character of war’ was not just a convenient phrase, but a reflection of a core truth.

For a historian, there was a further privilege. This was the first cut at a narrative, revealing details and depths untouched by the press. Much is now in the public domain, not least as a result of the evidence taken by the Chilcot enquiry. But the discussions by Tim Cross of the arrangements (or lack of them) for the post-war occupation of Iraq or by Andrew Stewart of coalition politics in MND South East were then both new and jaw-dropping.

Jonathan Bailey had intended that he would edit the results into a book, but his other commitments precluded that. We were lucky that Richard Iron, himself a key figure in the British Army in Iraq as well as another very thoughtful and reflective soldier, came to Oxford on a Defence Fellowship and could begin to collate and coordinate what Jonathan had accumulated. Richard rendered what had been intended for oral delivery into prose for the page, without losing immediacy or suppressing difference. I had never imagined that, for all my role as the host at the original seminars, I would find myself figuring so prominently, both as contributor and as co-editor. It has been a privilege. It is also one which I hope will benefit the British Army as it digests the lessons of its recent conflicts, waged by an unusually intelligent and articulate group of officers.

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About the author: Sir Hew Strachan is Chichele Professor of the History of War, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and was Director of the Oxford Programme on the Changing Character of War from its inception in 2004 until 2012. He is the author of several highly acclaimed books on military history, including European Armies and the Conduct of War (1983), The Politics of the British Army (1997), and The First World War: Volume 1: To Arms (2001). He is a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the World War I Centenary Advisory Board. He has also written extensively on strategy, and is a member of the Chief of Defence Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel.

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