Discussing ‘The Ministry of Defeat’ at the Frontline Club

Last week, Defence of the Realm blogger Richard North dropped by struggled down from Bradford to London to discuss his book on Britain’s deployment in Iraq. Focussing on one of his specialities – procurement and provision of equipment for British troops – North painted a bleak picture of the Ministry of Defence and media coverage of the war.

‘The Ministry of Defeat’

North, a political analyst and former research director in the European Parliament, argued the Ministry of Defence had "a genius for doing things very badly at about ten times the price of anyone else".

He listed a catalogue of procurement errors. In particular, he claimed that no effective measure was developed to counter Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP) in the Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) used by Iraqi insurgents.

Noting that the British Army’s much maligned Snatch Landrover couldn’t use the Rhino (a protective arm in front of the vehicle to detonate IEDs ahead of the main cabin) because the electrical system wouldn’t support it, he suggested that the British Army should have been using Buffalo vehicles and far more of the specifically designed Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAP).

North described the practice of British soldiers walking around with mine detectors as "out of the iron age".

He was also highly critical of MoD spending implying that the ‘underfunding’ debate was overplayed by the department and that they were "pissing money down the drain". 

Of course, it would have been interesting to hear a Ministry of Defence voice on these points. But General Sir Mike Jackson pulled out of the debate at short notice. No doubt the MoD would deny most of it especially the ‘wasting money’ claim.

They might also emphasise the difficulties of counterinsurgency warfare – recently we’ve heard a lot about armour vs mobility (which North claims doesn’t make sense), but also issues such as the importance of dismounting and engaging with the local population. But it’s not my job to fight the MoD’s corner – they can do it in the comments section if they want to.

The Media and Iraq

There were two journalists on the panel: Kim Sengupta from The Independent and Deborah Haynes of The Times. Sengupta agreed that the procurement system is a mess, but described Britain’s failure in Iraq as a result of arrogance, a lack of knowledge, a tendency to incorrectly liken the conflict to Northern Ireland, and a lack of political and public will. 

North’s central criticism of the media was their failure to provide audiences with any structure to the conflict. When he was constructing the narrative for his book, he relied on the Arab press to fill the gaps and suggested that at times the insurgents were better at telling the story than the British media.

(It might also be worth considering the difficulties of reporting unconventional warfare when compared with a conflict like the Falklands. For starters, there’s no discernable ‘frontline’ after the initial invasion and a variety of insurgent actors to get your head round.) 

Sengupta replied that reporting war is imperfect and that the full picture was difficult to obtain. All he felt he could offer was a ‘snapshot’ of what was happening. He also highlighted the well-documented dangers of reporting from Iraq. Deborah Haynes was frustrated that she couldn’t always speak to ‘the other side’ despite her best efforts to talk to Iraqi citizens.

The Final Word

One of the great things about the Frontline Club is that on a good day you get voices from all spectrums of the debate in a small room. A British soldier who had served in Iraq admitted he had mixed feelings about what he had achieved in the country. But the last word here goes to the points made by a couple of Iraqis that were present.

At the start of the evening, the chair for the evening, ITV’s International Editor Bill Neely, suggested that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had switched places: the latter had become the ‘forgotten war’ in recent weeks.

But in questions and comments, Iraqis reminded the room that untold thousands of Iraqis have been killed, injured and displaced. For them the war has had a profound, disturbing impact on their lives. In any discussion of Iraq, that fact should never be forgotten.