Book review: Ministry of Defeat. The British War in Iraq 2003-2009 by Richard North

After co-authoring four books with the Sunday Telegraphs Christopher Booker, Dr Richard North – the defence analyst behind the Defence of the Realm blog – has written a blow-by-blow account of Britains disastrous occupation of southern Iraq, from the April 2003 invasion to the withdrawal of all combat troops earlier this year.


As "the central symbol of the British Armys tragic and culpable ill-preparedness and lack of flexibility in dealing with the Iraq insurgency", North returns again and again to the controversial role played by the Snatch Land Rover in what Booker, writing in the foreword, argues was "one of the most humiliating chapters in the history of the British Army".


The problem is that while North clearly has an in-depth knowledge of the many foibles of the British Army, he has produced a fantastically dull chronological, largely descriptive, narrative about an historical event that millions of people feel deeply passionate about. And although Booker boasts that North draws on "a wealth of published and unpublished sources, including private contacts with members of the forces" and "high level sources in the defence establishment", the vast majority of citations are British newspaper reports from the time. 


Frustratingly, North displays a colonially-minded disinterest in the opinions of those people being occupied. So there is no mention of the telling October 2005 Ministry of Defence survey that found 65 percent of Iraqis in the British-controlled Maysan province thought attacks against the British forces were justified, or a December 2007 BBC poll that found fully 86 percent of Basra residents felt British troops had had a negative effect on the city. This ideological blind-spot leads to North making ludicrous statements about Tony Blairs "enthusiasm for international law" (news to those who watched the ex-Prime Minister trample all over the UN Charter before the invasion) and assuming, in the face of all the historical precedents, that the US/UK sincerely want a representative democracy in Iraq.


Ministry of Defeat is a perfect example of radical historian Mark Curtiss thesis about how the ideological system promotes "the idea of Britains basic benevolence" with regards to foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, explains Curtis, but is almost entirely confined to very narrowly defined boundaries of acceptable debate, always highlighting "‘exceptions to, or mistakes in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence."


So rather than the pre-meditated, unprovoked, war of aggression the invasion and occupation actually was, in what could be termed the fight the war better school of criticism, North repeatedly refers to the "strategic errors" and "inadequate equipment" that forced the British Army to fight with one hand behind their back. In short, he is not opposed to the occupation of a sovereign nation on moral grounds, just critical of badly fought wars. More than anything, North is keen for the British Army to learn from their mistakes in Iraq, so they can better project its military power in Afghanistan.


With all this in mind, the question must be asked: if the invasion was illegal (as explained by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan) and the subsequent occupation has led to over one million Iraqi dead and continues to be opposed by the majority of Iraqis, surely it is not just a lack of clear thinking, but a sign of complete moral bankruptcy to make only these ineffectual tactical criticisms about such an unspeakable crime?


Ministry of Defeat. The British War in Iraq 2003-2009 by Richard North is published by Continuum, priced £19.99.


* Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK.  [email protected]


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