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​Q&A with Simon Akam, author of The Changing of the Guard

Posted by Lucy H on 22nd Mar 2021

​Q&A with Simon Akam, author of The Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard cover photoWe recently spoke with Simon Akam, author of the highly acclaimed The Changing of the Guard. He has previously written very eloquently and in detail about the subjects covered in the book - that interview is below our Q&A here. 

There’s clearly a huge amount of rigorous research underpinning this book. How long did it take you to write?

It took three years of intense work, from the summer of 2015 when I got the book deal to completion of the text in late 2018. But there were another two years beforehand, between when I conceived of the idea in 2013 and when I got the contract to write the book, and then another two years at the end in the struggle to get it published. So it was a long road all in.

What was the inspiration for this book?

I had spent a year in the army when I was 18, on a programme called a Gap Year Commission. A decade later, having become a journalist, I wanted to go back and see what had become of the institution I briefly knew as a teenager. Beyond that, I wanted to take my nonfiction writing, which I had developed at magazine scale, onto a larger canvas.

Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?

This book has clearly appealed to – and been meaningful for – many people who were engaged in the British Army during the period of the post-9/11 wars. But my hope right from the start was that The Changing of the Guard could jump the genre fence and appeal to people with no prior interest in or experience of the military. My hope was that this would be a book about Britain through the lens of the army. I’ve been very touched among the mail I’ve received to hear from people with completely different backgrounds with whom the book resonated. So I would like it to reach the widest readership possible.

Do you think your book could affect decision-making around either recruitment, training, or procurement policy for the Armed Forces?

I would hope so, but we will have to see. It’s been fascinating to see the bifurcated response to the book within the military, from real anger in some quarters to lavish praise in others. Elsewhere there just seems to be a sense that I would characterise as relief – that someone really tried to tell the story without romanticising it or hiding anything. But whether it will have an impact on official policy is another matter.

What made you decide to join an armoured regiment after Sandhurst, and did you consider a full military career after University?

I was steered towards the Royal Artillery but ended up going to a cavalry regiment, seduced by the promise of glamour and smart uniforms. The tension between that preconception and reality was profound and I explore it in detail in the first part of the book. I was also always pretty sure the army was just for a spell before university for me – there were other things I wanted to do with my life.

Do you have much time to read? Do you read for pleasure or for work?

I read a great deal for pleasure but I also regard it as crucial part of my personal development as a writer. I aim to alternate non-fiction – much which I have to read for my work – with novels, though I don’t always achieve that. I also try and consistently read other leading examples of longform magazine journalism, and am experimenting in reading in French and German for a new project I am working on which requires those languages. 

I also really enjoying interviewing all sorts of writers and other literary professionals for Always Take Notes, the writing podcast I co-host. I learn a great deal from those conversations.

How do you write? Do you have a special place, rituals, or a system that you like to use?

I make notes and a plan in longhand, then write a first draft also in longhand, which I type up roughly straightaway. I push on to the end of the section or – if shorter – the piece in that way. Only then do I go back to edit and fact check etc. For me it’s crucial to keep forward momentum.

Do you have a favourite genre or author? What books or authors would you say were significant influences on you?

In non-fiction: Tom Wolfe, Martha Gellhorn, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Patrick Leigh Fermor. In fiction Cormac McCarthy, John le Carré, Mary McCarthy, Evelyn Waugh.

The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in the lockdowns?

I’ve written extensively about covid for the Economist’s 1843 magazine, and it’s been helpful to have that professional engagement with the pandemic. I have not enjoyed the isolation element.

What would your perfect day look like?

It would probably be in the mountains, which are my other passion.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently reading Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, which I somehow failed to include in my voracious previous consumption of the literature of alpinism. I’ve also just finished We Germans, by Alex Starritt. Alex was at university with me, so I’m not a fully impartial observer, but I’m far from the only person to have found it a really powerful novel about the past, the present, and the meaning of guilt and responsibility in war.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves.

Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.


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Q&A with Simon Akam, author of The Changing of the Guard

1)What was your own personal experience of the army?

I and many classmates signed up for the Army when we left school in the early 2000s, having played an active role in my school’s cadet force, led by an inspirational history teacher. I did what the army often describes as a “Gap Year” Commission, comprising a brief officer course at Sandhurst and then – in my case – a stint with an armoured regiment.

My own military experiences were fleeting but gave me an insight into the culture of the army at a pivotal time: as one former officer summarised it, ‘I spoke fluent army, but I was not of the army’. Ten years later I returned to see what a decade of war had done to the institution.

2)Soldiering is unique in that you can spend your lifetime working without ever doing the job for real. What implications does this have for the realities of warfare?

It makes it very hard to keep the organisation rooted in reality. Imagine if doctors only practiced on dummies and never saw a real patient, or if actors only rehearsed but never performed in front of a camera or real audience. How do you determine who is competent, or who to promote? And why take risks when the career consequences of failure are too severe?

Planning also becomes very difficult. In peacetime capability has to be determined against a hypothetical enemy. And myths soon arise. You get instructors with no experience of combat projecting a fantasy to the next generation. The desire to ‘do it for real’ when the opportunity arises becomes overwhelming. That can have disastrous results, as I explore in the early Helmand tours.

3)How prevalent is the cliched “unreconstructed man” stereotype in the 21st Century Army? Is there still a place for sexism and racism?

The attitude of the British Army to women, to ethnic minorities and to gay soldiers shifted dramatically in the past two decades. This is partly the paradox of authoritarianism – if the top man says it is now okay to be gay, that trickles down the hierarchy – but also due to operational realities – when there is real work to be done a simpler assessment of competence replaces the traditional peacetime codes of face-fitting.

However, it would be a mistake to overstate the change. There is still much behaviour that could cause shock in civilian circles. I write about events in a brothel outside a British garrison in German where troops splurged their bonuses after Iraq and Afghan tours – much of what went on there could be a scene from an estaminet in France in 1916.

Social class is still an issue too. Since the 1980s at least the army has theoretically determined that officers are not defined by a class distinction from soldiers. But it has failed to conceptualise what exactly defines that difference and class distinctions still prevail.

4)To what degree are those in charge of the army seen as responsible for its failings?

There has been very limited real accountability for the senior military figures responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan. No British general was fired or resigned over Iraq and Afghanistan. But many junior figures have had their lives turned upside down by court cases and public inquiries that have lasted for years. Paul Yingling, a US Army lieutenant colonel, wrote in the darkest days of the Iraq War in 2007, that ‘as matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.’ That holds on this side of the Atlantic too.

5)How much was the army’s failure a matter of funding?

In peacetime armies have to make a case for resources against a hypothetical threat; hence their understandable interest in going to war. When the post-9/11 campaigns began, there were severe problems with equipment, in particular a shortage of helicopters and vehicles that could withstand roadside bombs.

It is also clear that the wars provided a funding boom for the military on a vast scale. The Urgent Operational Requirement programme led to the expenditure of vast sums – £4.2 billion by 2009 alone. Much of this equipment was vital. But the system was sometimes taken advantage of and was a victim to the forces of so-called ‘ally,’ – that which the army thought was cool. The L128A1 Combat Shotgun for example, sailed through the procurement process because ‘the infantry had always wanted a shotgun, because shotguns are fucking cool.’ As one retired officer told me: ‘The brakes were taken off. You could just fucking go shopping.’

6)What did the 2011 killing of an Afghan by Royal Marine Alexander Blackman in Helmand reveal about the British military?

By 2011 there was a clear tension in the military between an aggressive, violence-led approach and a more sophisticated ‘counterinsurgency’ strategy based on building trust.

In 2011 Blackman’s unit, 42 Commando, wanted to go ‘toe-to-toe with the Taliban, … to hit him hard so he wouldn’t want to get up again’ whereas 45 Commando, posted only a short distance away, under different leadership, employed a more nuanced policing-style approach. ‘However justifiable our kinetic actions,’ their commanding officer wrote, ‘they result in Afghan funerals which generate brothers and cousins bent on revenge.’

While one constituent company of 45 Commando passed their entire six-month tour without a firing a shot in anger, 42 Commando ran riot. Alexander Blackman’s company made widespread use of heavy weapons, handed out compensation notes to local Afghans for property damage that read ‘fuck off you gay cunts’, wrote ‘fuck COIN’ [counter-insurgency] on rocket launchers and played a game called ‘Don’t Talk to Females,’ when they would literally refuse to take any direction from anyone who was not a man.

After Blackman’s crimes were uncovered some 12 months later, the marines determinedly pushed a ‘lone bad apple’ line, despite the fact that battlefield atrocity has been proven time and time again to be the product of bad leadership. As one officer told me, ‘Indeed, it is often said in the army there is no such thing as a bad soldier — only bad leaders.’

45’s commanding officer, widely regarded as the most-promising Royal Marine officer of his generation, ended up resigning his commission. Meanwhile all the commanders who were implemented in what actually happened, from Blackman’s company commander, to 42 Commando’s commanding officer and the brigadier above him, were promoted.

7)To what degree were the failings of our army a uniquely British problem?

There is an argument that even the most sophisticated theories of counterinsurgency are built on a false premise; that you can build up a country at the point of a rifle. It is also true that other militaries have faced their own recent problems with atrocity. In particular the Australian army is currently roiled in a scandal about their special forces killing Afghan civilians so severe that it has led to the disbandment of an Australian SAS squadron.

But there are specific British failings too. The British Army has a fundamental difficulty in learning and implementing lessons that goes beyond the inevitable structural problems. And they impose profound limits on internal debate, often taking extraordinary measures to neuter and suppress their own internal inquiries into campaigns. The US military, by contrast, maintains a relatively open internal dialogue.

Likewise on command accountability there is a fundamentally different culture at play. After a serious breach of camp security during the so-called ‘Battle of Bastion’ in 2012 for example, the US Marine corps forced two generals from their side to retire while their British counterparts were promoted.

Britain has allowed a tight coterie politic to develop at the top of its military, aided by the army’s shrinking size and the overpopulation of senior ranks. This inward focus, and stonewalling of outside criticism, is in some ways understandable. At present the army feels under siege – it has lost the trust of government, and in a British society dominated by Brexit and the pandemic its role is limited. But in this kind of situation it is even more pressing not to turn inwards, but rather outwards. To embrace accountability, rather than shun it.

8)How did the British Army’s attitude to the Americans change over time?

In short: enormously. Around the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the institution’s identity was built almost on the very fact of not being American. This culture reflected a superiority complex, and also the classic little sibling syndrome. Ultimately this attitude unravelled in Iraq. The events in Basra in 2007-8 – and what followed – caused many British soldiers and officers to question their own superiors and on occasion to idolise – sometimes in as oversimplistic a manner as they had previously scorned them – American methods and competencies.

9)How exactly did the deal struck between British troops and Iraqi insurgents play out in Basra in 2007? What was its legacy for the army?

During the immediate post-invasion period, the British Army preached their perceived expertise in counterinsurgency operations, drawn from operations in Northern Ireland, and theoretically the legacy of late imperial policing. This posture and talk grated with the Americans, in particular as by 2006 Britain was losing control of Iraq’s second city of Basra. In the violent aftermath following the crash of a Lynx helicopter in Basra in May 2006, Iraqis rioted as the British tried to secure the crash site. This event showed the Emperor’s New Clothes reality of British claims about security in the city.

In late 2006 President Bush went against the advice of the majority of the American military and drastically increased US troop numbers – the so-called Surge. For Britain Iraq was by this stage acutely politically toxic and there was no appetite for similar reinforcement.

In 2007, the British negotiated a pact with the Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Shia militia that were terrorising the city, offering staggered prisoner releases in return for security. The aim was to be able to withdraw British forces without appearing to be chased out. This deal, known as ‘The Accommodation,’ was viewed as capitulation in many quarters, in particular by the Americans. And as soon as the last prisoners were released, rocket and mortar attacks began to rain down on the remaining British cantonment at Basra airport.

The accommodation finally unravelled precipitously when, in March 2008, Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki jumped the gun on a long-planned clearance operation. He sent troops to Basra while the British commanding general was away skiing in Austria. George Flynn, a two-star US general, walked into the British headquarters and, although his exact wording is disputed, effectively told the humiliated British staff officers he had arrived to stop their failure.

This operation, known as Charge of the Knights, led to a severe loss of British military reputational capital with the Americans and was the nadir of the post-911 experience for the British Army. And then, afterwards, all bar one of the senior officers who ran it were promoted.

10)How important was the Iraq inquiry in revealing the lack of planning before the invasion and the subsequent failure of military action?

Sir John Chilcot did not swerve from identifying problems and the narrative his team produced is an invaluable historical resource. But the inquiry was, by its very design, incapable of imposing sanctions. The other major legal inquiries into Iraq, Baha Moussa and Al-Sweady were also huge feats of collective inquisition, but both also side-stepped the central legal question of the conflict, which was the decision to invade in the first place.

This failure to hold individuals to account creates a moral hazard situation – bluntly it means that senior commanders do not have skin in the game. All institutions have a fundamental tendency to protect their senior people, but there are real world counterexamples of different approaches. I compare Chilcot with Israel’s Winograd probe into the 2006 Lebanon war, which led to several senior resignations in the Israeli Defence Forces. The difference was that war and military performance really matter at an existential level to the Israelis. The Winograd Commission made Chilcot look like a ‘bureaucratic cuddle.’

11)How much has the army changed since your first encounters with it?

The army has both changed a great deal and very little. It has become more professional, better-led, less racist, sexist and drunken, and far better equipped. But it has also lost two wars back-to-back, and haemorrhaged the trust of the politicians who commanded it — and vice versa.

The army’s current position in the British state and public trust in it is diminished. Defence expenditure today focuses on the navy and its new carriers, though involvement in the covid response may change perceptions of the army to an extent.

In a challenging situation like this it is likely that any institution might feel under siege. It is tempting to hunker down and present a game face to the outside world rather than to examine what actually went wrong last time. If the people are the top were all involved in those campaigns too, and no one ever comes in from outside, it is very hard not to do anything else.

Yet overall that is not a helpful attitude. It is entirely possible that, as it has happened in past, a change of geopolitical circumstances will once again thrust the army to relevance and the peak of national need. In that case Britain needs an institution that is dynamic, professional and able to learn its lessons. It is not clear that that is what it has at the moment.

12)Your account weaves memoir, and first-person narrative with political analysis and historical research. How would you best describe the book?

I knew right from the start of this project that I wanted to write a book that would appeal well beyond the typical demographic that usually buys and reads military books. I wanted to use the army as a vehicle to write a book that was really about Britain and addressed a host of broader issues.

While there is first person writing bookending the text, the majority of the book is though reportage and – I hope - within the tradition of American-style longform nonfiction. I had a Fulbright scholarship to go to the US when was 23. I studied at Columbia Journalism School and worked at the New York Times. Much of my journalistic work is now for American magazines. I believe in that tradition, its rigour and the way it dares to take itself seriously.

I aimed to use my insider-outsider status to optimum effect and to aim for the ‘severe compassion’ that is the model for good nonfiction writing. I wanted compassion for suffering and loss – on all sides - but above all I wanted this book to be raw, to get beyond the platitudes of ‘another soldier has died,’ to take in the drink and the misbehaviour and the prostitution and the broken kit, the profligacy and the childish search for cool and the thrill, as well as the courage and bravery and more mainstream military virtues.

Years ago I read Dispatches by Michael Herr – his pivotal Vietnam account drawn from his work for Esquire, and it had a great impact on me. This is a very different book, but I was inspired by Herr’s refusal to put aside literary and aesthetic concerns, the way he eschewed machismo, and his proof that by telling the stories of small groups of individuals you better access the realities of a whole conflict.