BAMBY21 and all that.

‘Its a barren wasteland out there Darling’, ‘Turn it over Sir’

Twenty years ago, on arrival at my first Regular unit, I remember being told that at the last parade of the day I would be expected to read Routine Orders to the Company. I found this curious and asked why, only to be told that many of the younger soldiers could not read. As a 30 year old man who had benefitted from an excellent education I found this astonishing, but over the next three years disbelief turned to dismay as widespread illiteracy was demonstrated time and again. In Northern Ireland, Canada, and Iraq, I was asked by soldiers to write letters to their friends and family back home, not just because they couldn’t read and write, but because these proud young men felt ashamed of their inability or awkwardness with the written word.

I decided then, that if I could, I would find ways to improve literacy amongst soldiers; as I began to exploit the many educational opportunities the Army provides, but I became aware of the limited nature of the formal educational pathways offered to non-commissioned soldiers. It struck me, indeed it still strikes me, as unjustifiably profligate of the Army to offer so little professional military education to its people. If one looks at the average career length of a soldier, they are likely to complete only a couple of weeks of professional education before discharge, in that same time he will complete far more adventure training and sport. If we compare this to educational investment lavished on commissioned officers, it is clear that the emphasis is not on the 85% of the Army who do not hold the Queen’s commission. How wasteful to neglect one’s most ‘important asset’, moreover, how short-sighted to ignore the talent one employs in preservation of a nineteenth century structure of rank and hierarchy!

So what did I decide to do about it? Well, I was lucky enough to work close enough to Prince Consort’s Library in Aldershot to attend the book talks organised by the Librarian. On his retirement the Book talks ended so I founded the War Talks Programme to replace them, similarly I took over the organisation of the British Army Military Book of the Year (BAMBY) after a fallow year in 2017. I have written much about War Talks and BAMBY and so won’t repeat myself here other than to introduce the 2021 shortlisted books and list the previous winners.

First, we have Brigadier (Ret’d) Ben Barry’s ‘Blood, Metal, and Dust: How Victory Turned to Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq‘ which has proven to be a provocative and analytical masterpiece and was the subject of my recent book review. Brig Barry is the Land Warfare Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and is well placed to write such an important work. Next, we have Professor Saul David’s book, ‘Crucible of Hell: Okinawa: The Last Great Battle of the Second World War‘, Prof David is an old friend of the War Talks programme and last spoke on the subject of his excellent book, ‘Operation Thunderbolt’ about the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. This was subsequently made into a movie. For the second year in succession, James Holland has been listed for the BAMBY. His recent series of books, of which ‘Sicily ’43: The First Assault on Fortress Europe‘ is our shortlisted option, has been excellent, James is an eminent popular historian notably working with Al Murray on the ‘We have Ways’ podcast and organising the Chalke Valley History Festival, the UK’s largest festival of its type.

Next we have Doctor Robert Johnson’s book, ‘Lawrence of Arabia on War: The Campaign in the Desert 1916-18‘: Dr Johnson is the Director of the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre and is well-placed to look at this important campaign and the lessons we can drawn from it today. Someone who became a household name in the ‘Coinista’ community in the years after 9/11 is Professor David Kilcullen. His book, ‘The Dragons and the Snakes: How the rest Learned to Fight the West‘ is our next choice. Our penultimate book is, ‘War:How Conflict Shaped Us‘, one of the most widely debated works of the year from the legendary Professor Margaret MacMillan of the University of Oxford. Last, but by no means least, is Doctor Julie Wheelwright’s, ‘Sisters in Arms: Female Warriors from Antiquity to the New Millenium‘, a brilliant examination of the often overlooked role of fighting women in the history of war.

The list of previous winners is as follows:

2008 – Patrick Bishop’s ‘3 Para. Afghanistan 2006

2009 – James Fergusson’s ‘A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan

2010 – Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War

2011 – Feargal Keane’s ‘Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima

2012 – Roderic Braithwaite’s ‘Afgantsy

2013 – Lord Ashdown’s ‘A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes

2014 – Allan Mallinson’s ‘1914: Fight the Good Fight

2015 – Alex Watson’s ‘Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria Hungary in the First World War

2016 – Eugene Rogan’s ‘The Fall of the Ottomans

2018 – Aimée Fox’s – ‘Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army 1914-18

2019 – Jonathan Boff’s – ‘Haig’s Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front

2020 – Anthony King’s – ‘Command: The Twenty-First Century General

I hope you enjoy the books and encourage your soldiers to engage with them, lets fill the gap left by formal professional military education!

All the best,

Barney

Curtain Call in Andover.

Into the Sunset.

Tonight I closed the laptop on my last full week at Army Communications. In this first blog of 2021, I’ll take a look back at the last two years, talk about the highs and lows, make some observations, and give a look forward to what I’ll be doing over the next few months.

I arrived at Army Headquarters in the Spring of 2019 fresh from the most enjoyable six months of my Army career, the Army Visiting Fellowship at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). The transition was prolonged by an unofficial extension at the Institute leading up to the Land Warfare Conference in June 2019 which saw me working in London three days a week and in Andover two days a week. I was glad to retain the link, although the travel was a little draining, and even more pleased to be appointed to their Military Science Advisory Board later that year. For those interested in pursuing the Fellowship, I would encourage you to do so, it was a valuable learning experience and opens one up to the latest Defence thinking and some of the most brilliant and talented young thinkers.

The command team at Army Communications were fulsome in their encouragement of my connection with RUSI and allowed me time to teach at the Georgian Defence Academy in Tbilisi, speak to the Chiefs of Staff of the European armies in Malta and Czechia, and travel the UK speaking to Army audiences. I was very lucky to be permitted to indulge my passions and am very grateful to Maj Gen Neil Sexton and his team, particularly Chris MacGregor, the then Assistant Head of Army Communications, who has recently retired from the Army. My post at Army Communications was officially SO3 Media Operations, but I was put to work in the Digital team with responsibility for the Army’s Twitter account.

The Digital team was a small and largely civilian entity whose outputs are enormous compared to the resource applied to them. When I arrived, five full-time personnel were allocated to the task of telling the Army’s story to the World on social media as well as maintaining a large and comprehensive website. I was relatively unused to working with civilians and it took me some time to understand the dynamic to which they work. It is often said that they are inflexible and of less utility than soldiers, while I accept some have lived up to that stereotype, my experience is of hard-working, dedicated people, somewhat under-rewarded and under-appreciated, treading a difficult path with diplomacy and consistency. Inevitably, civil servants are not soldiers, as soon as one understand the difference and adapts to it, it becomes clear what a great asset to Defence they really are every single day. This was cemented by the British Army Challenge Book project, for which I was Project Officer, here civilian expertise really got me through, producing a bestseller, and helping to win a Defence Communications Award along the way.

I have been really lucky to be allowed to run a number of projects at Army Communications, but two sorts of have given me the greatest satisfaction: the freedom to run the British Army’s digital historical content, including for the D-Day 75, Arnhem 75, VE Day 75, and VJ Day 75 events, and since October last year the British Army LinkedIn account. History is my real passion and is the subject in which I find it easiest to immerse myself, but LinkedIn – telling the Army’s innovation and strategic engagement story to a professional audience – has given me the greatest satisfaction. Running Twitter from 2019 – 2020 was a real pleasure, but the LinkedIn project has brought huge audience growth and stratospheric engagement for the Army. Of all the things I will miss about Army Communications, this will be the hardest to leave behind. The enduring lesson learnt has to be that social media, particularly Twitter, is not the real world… it is run by people like me, ‘gobshites’, who tend to believe they are right all the time and who, more worryingly, believe their opinion is held by everyone else. In the long term, nothing that is said on social media really matters, except to those that say it. The value is in telling a story, not in feeding the trolls.

So what is next? Well at the beginning of March, I start at the Land Warfare Centre as SO2 Warfare writing doctrine and concepts, taking me back into the world of military thought in what will be the challenge of my Army career. I will continue to run the War Talks series when released from Covid-19 and the British Army Military Book of the Year and to deliver talks, articles, and battlefield tours to anyone who wants me to help. I am also about to start writing a book…more later in the year I hope. Leave in February will be filled with a pair of articles for publication in the United States and Australia, a book review or two, and some attention to my academic interests, not least the Fellowship I hold at West Point.

So thank you Army Communications, it has been a blast, you follow in a long line of posts beginning with 2620 (Norfolk) Squadron R Aux AF Regiment back in 1992 and are right at the top of my all time favourites list. Army Communications will continue to grow and improve and I will follow its progress with interest and a little itch to return one day.

Have a great weekend all,

Barney