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Going to war

Iraq, Eric Ambler and me

Artillery Row

Eric Ambler was not a name that immediately leapt out at one. I knew he was a writer because on the shelf before me were several grimy old paperbacks and hardbacks that had once belonged to my father. Dad didn’t read widely, but (as with most people) his bookshelves revealed more about his character than any number of hours of face-to-face conversation. 

There were a lot of bibles and endless religious tomes, for he was a suffocatingly devout man. Wisden Cricketer’s Almanacs featured (he took the Daily Telegraph every morning, but seemed to read it only for the cricket scores — international affairs, strikes and the arts be damned), along with a straight run of Baroness Orczy (Scarlet Pimpernel) adventures and those of Leslie Charteris (Simon Templar, aka, The Saint) — both popular spy staples of the 1920s and 1930s. I spied John Buchan, whose literary reputation is too closely tied to The Thirty-Nine Steps, when his other novels (particularly Greenmantle) are better. There was some Bulldog Drummond by Herman Cyril McNeile, writing pseudonymously as “Sapper”.

Eric Ambler apart, these volumes were rousing adventures, highly improbable in a way rarely questioned by 1930s short-trousered schoolboys, where the heroes were invariably entitled, right-wing, violently anti-Communist, pro-Empire and jingoistic. Dad was born in 1923, and his inter-war generation could see that the Great War had left Europe in a shambles, where monarchies and democracies had failed and allowed the slaughter of their subjects. Instead, riding a wave of popular support against the establishment types of 1914-18, authoritarian leaders of the right and left had appeared and were quickly spreading across Europe. Economies were bad, kings had been deposed, old nations were fracturing, new countries were squabbling over borders and most governments seemed to wobble dangerously. 

In these dangerous times, thriller and spy writers reached for the easy genre of imagined pre-1914 Imperial values of fair play and opposition to dictators. Tea, cricket and the Maxim gun would guard the Empire against the “Bolshevik, the Levantine and the Hun”. So much so that the genre came to be brilliantly parodied in the late 1970s by some of the Monty Python crowd in Ripping Yarns and the film Bullshot Crummond (1983), whose inspiration is obvious. I could imagine Dad’s novels, replete with their spies, revolvers, secret plans and heroines, being passed around the school dorms for reading by torchlight after lights-out. I surmise they filled the gap between Hornby clockwork trains and the discovery of sex. In my day it was the same, except the content, almost without exception, was the gratuitous military gore of Sven Hassel and Leo Kessler. 

Curious, I worked my way through the Ambler oeuvre. Six titles were published in a burst before the Second World War, each with catchy titles, from The Dark Frontier (1936) to Journey Into Fear (1940). They all reflected the sinister tides of geopolitical and financial forces swamping Europe, whose peoples were mere flotsam and froth being helplessly washed along on the fringes. There was a wartime pause, when Lieutenant Colonel Ambler led a British Army Photographic and Film unit in the Western Desert and Italy, working with Peter Ustinov, Carol Reed and John Huston. Scripts followed for a dozen movies, including The Way Ahead (1944), his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Cruel Sea (1953), Yangtse Incident (1957) and the Titanic-themed A Night to Remember (1958). All were ripping yarns for the British screen, featuring David Niven, Jack Hawkins, Richard Todd and Kenneth Moore being, well, unbelievably British. 

From 1951, another dozen spy thrillers followed. However, Ambler’s main characters were unlike any which had gone before. The author’s eye for international travel and espionage was razor sharp, but the men and women who are threatened by his global and nefarious forces are not portrayed as glamorous or even politically aware. He paints them as unexceptional, ordinary folk, ensnared in extraordinary circumstances. Middle Class engineers, writers and journalists, they stumble unexpectedly into danger through happenstance, having never fired a gun and without any awareness of the tradecraft of espionage. They have little option but to dig themselves out of trouble using their own resources. They always succeed, just. 

These lines, penned 87 years ago in 1936, seem very modern indeed

Eric Ambler bridges the gap between the dashing gentleman spies of Buchan and Bulldog Drummond and post-war Ian Fleming, whose first Bond novel, Casino Royale, appeared in 1952. Ambler’s protagonists (they are not heroes) are best reflected in John Le Carré’s more modern characters, or those of Len Deighton. The former called Ambler “the source on which we all draw”; the latter thought he was “the man who lit the way for us all”. Frederick Forsyth labelled him “the man who took the spy thriller out of the gentility of the drawing room and into the back streets where it all really happened”. Ambler himself thought he had made the spy thriller “respectable now. They really say more the way people think and governments behave, than many conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world”.

Consider how he introduced his second novel, Uncommon Danger, in 1937: “Today, with Europe assuming the appearance of an armed camp in which an incident, unimportant in itself, would be sufficient to ignite a conflagration that would consume Europe and perhaps to other quarters of the globe: today, when national security depends primarily upon the strength and effectiveness of a nation’s armed forces, the question of supply of raw materials and particularly supply of petroleum is of the first importance”. 

You will agree that these lines, penned 87 years ago in 1936, the year in which civil war broke out in Spain and Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland, a year of refugees and migrants and hasty marriages to confer visas and passports, seem very modern indeed. Without raw materials and petroleum, Ambler nails the eventual reason for the downfall of Nazi Germany. Clearly troubled by the “incident” in Sarajevo which led to global conflagration in 1914, every word could also be referring to Ukraine, invaded by Russia in 2022, or hinting at the unfortunate boat people, washed up today on the shores of the Mediterranean and English Channel. I was confronted with exactly these questions myself — particularly those relating to the supply of petroleum for export — when I put on uniform and invaded Iraq exactly twenty years ago, in March 2003.

There were not enough rifle companies or squadrons of armour to go round. Although my guys always swore they would follow me anywhere, they warned me it was only out of curiosity to see where we’d end up. Thus, I found myself in the world’s foremost military coalition headquarters about to go to war. A military historian by trade, and curious to witness a campaign at close quarters, I was a mere major in a sea of generals. This was no exercise. We lived in a peculiar bubble, all carried pistols, dog tags, little medical packs and gas masks, and we practised mad, masked rushes to sandbagged air raid shelters and trenches. “Scud alerts” we called them, after the principal Iraqi missile. We checked our boots and the shelters daily for scorpions, camel spiders and venomous snakes. The variety of dangers, real and imagined, confirmed in our minds that this was the “real thing”.

The world’s news media was camped on our doorstep. Many were ex-military themselves and astonishingly well-informed. Their communications equipment and satellite links were as good as ours. The UK media advisor with whom I shared an office had a direct line to Downing Street. The legal and policy advisors spoke almost hourly to the Foreign Office. The British and American defence secretaries, Geoff Hoon and Donald Rumsfeld, dropped by often. I interviewed the third coalition commander, Brigadier Maurie McNarn, responsible for several RAN ships, a RAAF squadron and a Special Forces unit, a handy 2,000-strong force. We discussed the possible ribbon and design of a future Australian Iraq Medal. Whilst only three partner nations launched the invasion, eventually 37 others from around the world would deploy personnel to Iraq.

The launch date was kept so secret that we junior officers had no idea of D-Day until the last moment, just like 1944. I remember we had a winner-takes-all sweepstake pinned to a wall, with dates ranging from March to June. I picked a day in April I was sure would be too late. Each morning I noted the meteorological briefings, vital for our aircraft, and how waves of obliterating sandstorms threatened to delay everything. I was amazed that despite the high-tech nature of the strife about to begin, satellite links between headquarters and London still broke down with amazing frequency. Our bird table maps, with their unit symbols depicting life and death encounters, were no longer a wargame. We were sufficiently low-tech enough to push these symbols around using croupiers’ queues, à la Battle of Britain. By contrast, our Star Wars “blue force tracker” electronic screens showed the real-time positions of Coalition assets. We watched Hollywood-like drone footage of dramatic encounters with the opposition, common these days, but then a novelty. I was particularly struck by the image of several cruise missiles, filmed by a passing RAF jet, en route to their targets, but clearly following the path of a highway, visible below.

Daily media briefings gave us a feel for the mood back home and across the Gulf. I cannot deny the Stop the War protests across the world of 15 February 2003 were dispiriting, especially as many of us had friends waving placards on the streets. I remember our commander observing that though they were widely reported, the moment war began, the UK media would swing into line behind the troops. And it did.

Elsewhere, scattered across the Gulf States, hundreds of thousands of service personnel loaded live ammunition into their weapons, armoured vehicles, aircraft and ships then conducted decontamination drills, for we were convinced Saddam Hussein would use gas against us, as he had on his own people. My world was the central command post, manned 24-7, full of phones and radios, laptops, maps, charts and anxious people, for we all had friends about to cross the Line of Departure and mix-it, Alamein-like, with the opposition. It could all go horribly wrong, as war often does. Friends reading this may remember The Sandy Times, a troops’ newspaper edited by a good military friend, designed to keep the British force in the picture and raise morale. As I was the world’s biggest collector of “military souvenirs”, many commented on the irony of my weekly column about why it was important not to pick up discarded battlefield detritus. 

Combat soldiers rarely have time or space to acquire battlefield “loot”. That prerogative belongs to the logistics personnel who follow in their wake. My Iraqi helmet was given to me by its owner, Mohammed, who surrendered to me and then shared a cup of tea. I vividly recall a long line of stationary US Army trucks with a small boy walking up and down the convoy, selling bayonets he had presumably just looted from a deserted barracks. He was making an unbelievable killing at $5 apiece, but behind him walked an American captain: “Now remember, guys. Only one bayonet each”.

“The scent, and smoke, and sweat … are nauseating at three in the morning,” wrote Ian Fleming in the opening sentence of his first novel, the aforementioned Casino Royale. Although the setting was an upmarket gambling den, when Fleming bashed out these words on his Triumph typewriter in 1952, he was thinking of the Second World War, which had finished only seven years earlier. He was then Commander Fleming, chief of staff to the Director of Naval Intelligence, and he knew a thing or two about all-night stints in military operations rooms like mine. Overseeing an invasion remains an unglamorous, Fleming-esque atmosphere of stale socks, cigarettes, perspiration and the fear associated with military endeavour. Casino Royale was all about Fleming transferring his memories of military risk-taking to the roulette wheel.

Those who went to Iraq, or the wider theatre, did not go lightly

To sustain the interest during the run-up to war, I lectured in several headquarters on the First World War battles in the region. The Mesopotamian campaign was of mixed fortunes for the British, but it brought Lawrence of Arabia to the fore. Later I would drop into Kut al-Amara, southeast of Baghdad, on the left bank of the Tigris River, where we found British rifle cartridges dating back to 1916. I dropped into Kut in the very early days in a Landrover, wearing a beret and sporting only a 9mm pistol. Later, when it became a centre of the insurrection, I would have struggled to get anywhere near, even in full combat gear at the head of an armoured battlegroup. Despite the heavy military presence across the Gulf of our American friends, it was from them I first gained a sense that even they regarded this region as somehow “British”. This was built on their sketchy knowledge of the Crusades — of Richard the Lionheart and the still extant Crusader castles — and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Established in 1909, it enabled Winston Churchill to switch the Royal Navy from coal to oil, never mind the substantial British presence in 1939–45. 

Every study of the Iraq War that began overnight on 18-19 March 2003 is today clouded with strongly held opinions, about the national leadership of the era, and suspicion of true geopolitical agendas, of which Eric Ambler wrote in 1936. Using lessons from the administration of Germany and Japan in 1945, it had been explained to us that a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) would be established as soon as the invasion phase was over. Its purpose, with the US-led Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), was to act as a caretaker administration in Baghdad until a democratically elected government was in place. The CPA/ORHA would employ Iraqis and retrain their institutions, such as the police and the army, to swiftly put the country back on its feet. Although this did not happen, at the bottom of the food-chain, we taking part did so in good faith.

The business of donning a military cloak and shouldering a weapon requires a literal and metaphorical contract. The latter involves the state undertaking to pay, clothe, equip and feed you — to see that you will come to no harm, or if you do, to mend you for as long as it takes. In return, your country can send you where it wishes, on whatever duties, that it has set out in justification to its people and the wider world. In effect, by serving your country, you are signing a blank cheque, of unlimited service that might result in your death. Those who went to Iraq, or the wider theatre, did not go lightly. They had discussed the matter with their consciences, their families, their commanders and their mates.

No one foresaw a lingering presence in the region, least of all Her Majesty’s Government. Due to the Coalition’s failure to re-employ the disbanded local army and police forces, tens of thousands of angry, unemployed young men, guided by outside actors with their own agendas, took to the streets and fomented an insurgency in that long, hot summer. The drift from invasion to occupation to counter insurgency took us all by surprise, and that was when the bulk of the 179 British deaths incurred in Iraq happened. I think it was the deaths of six Royal Military Police personnel, cornered by an angry mob in the local police station at Majar al-Kabir on 24 June 2003, that really shook us all up. It reinforced our understanding that Iraq was fast descending into domestic violence that, as some have argued, was never preordained and need not have happened.

Technically, my small part was in Operation TELIC One, the invasion of Iraq, conducted during a few weeks of March-May 2003. Unlike the Pentagon outside Washington DC, which labels military deployments to reflect their strategic purposes, the Ministry of Defence in London uses a damnable computer to generate random names which betray no obvious objectives. Thus, the US-named Operation Iraqi Freedom was codenamed TELIC to the British and FALCONER to the Australians. When I deployed to Bosnia seven years earlier, the computer at least gave me a code word I was proud to serve under: “RESOLUTE”. In jest, the meaningless TELIC was soon understood as an acronym for Tell Everyone Leave Is Cancelled. It still irritates me that we ditched the majestic codenames Churchill imposed during 1940–45. As the invasion morphed into other kinds of challenges, there would be thirteen TELICs in all, lasting from January 2003 until 30 April 2009, with a protracted presence of training missions for two years after that.

With 46,000 personnel deployed in early 2003, the UK-Australian force matched the one that assembled for Suez in 1956, and it neared the 53,000 present in the first Gulf War of 1991. It dwarfed the British contribution in Korea (1950–53) and the Falklands (1982). It was a major feat to position the huge force with their 15,000 vehicles and 9,100 shipping containers in the Gulf within 10 weeks. I’m not sure we ever discovered what was in each container, such was the primitive asset-tracking system of the era. The huge assemblage of steel boxes in a US Marine Corps base in Kuwait was not dissimilar to the giant warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored in the Indiana Jones movies. I am still missing a military laptop and camera, if you find them. 

We were commanded by a three-star UK National Contingent headquarters led by Air Marshal Brian Burridge, with Major General Peter Wall, a future Chief of the General Staff, as his deputy. This independent organisation, where I worked, was blistered onto the American Central Command (CENTCOM) base, outside Doha in Qatar. When our seniors (sometimes with their historian in tow) visited neighbouring countries, they did so by special aircraft of the Queen’s Flight, RAF, borrowed for war and configured as short-haul VIP craft. I was somewhat astonished to be served mid-flight coffee in Her Majesty’s personal gilt-monogrammed E II R cups and saucers. In my grimy desert combat attire, never have I felt so underdressed.

The British force arrived with not enough of everything

When the war unfolded overnight on 18–19 March 2003, immediately we had the stomach-churning impact of the loss in the opening hours of a US-crewed Sea Knight helicopter carrying Royal Marines, killing all twelve on board. Soon after, on the twenty-third, an RAF Tornado was brought down by a US Patriot battery’s “friendly” fire. They were our colleagues, with whom we had bantered days earlier. In the headquarters, to calm his nerves, I recall a corporal teaching himself to juggle, using field dressings. On the media side, there were endless reports of shortages of kit. The Ministry of Defence in London inexpertly batted these complaints away, but it all came to a head when tank commander Sergeant Steve Roberts was killed on 24 March — only because he had passed his own body armour to another soldier, as his regiment had not been supplied with enough sets. 

Yes, the British force set out with not enough of everything. Alas, the 19th century habit of arriving just in time, and managing everything on a shoe-string and sealing-wax, accompanied their descendants even into Iraq. However, I like to think, for the invasion phase at least, we did rather well. The casualties for that first month of a full-on, heavy-metal blitzkrieg invasion were incredibly light. By air, land and sea, the well-equipped Iraqi Army was defeated. The killed and wounded were a tragedy for their next-of-kin, but the sort of numbers that would have been a hiccup before breakfast on the Somme.

Modern military body armour and medicine have ensured that those in combat have a far lower chance of being wounded or killed. In the two world wars, the incidence was roughly three wounded for every death. These days, because everyone has basic medical training and personnel can often be evacuated to a field hospital by helicopter within minutes, most of those who would have died in earlier wars can be kept alive. Britain’s chief medical advisor in Iraq told me that he was as worried by the 500 personnel he lost each month (almost a battalion), who tripped over tent pegs in the dark, fell into trenches, were bitten by something nasty or caught a violent bug. All had to be removed from the theatre. 

My war ended in a peculiar way. I was invited to visit the USAF Tallil Air Base at Nasiriyah. I found it was dominated by the ancient ziggurat and Chaldean city of Ur. The original settlement was Abraham’s birthplace, but the many bullet holes and bomb craters were created during the First Gulf War of 1991. I picked up an old mud brick. My fingers immediately slipped into the fingerprints of the potter who had made it, maybe 6,000 years ago. As an historian, I thought it fitting to spend my last day in Iraq in a city founded several millennia earlier.

I have tried to keep the politics, why and how we went to war in 2003, and why we stayed so long, out of this memoir. For that, you can read the findings of two government investigations: the National Audit Office report of December 2003, and the lengthy Chilcot Enquiry, announced in 2009 and published in 2016, as well as several unit-level lessons learned pamphlets, essays and articles. Secured by time and distance, wrapped in our strategists’ arm chairs, it is easy to forget that the persistence of war is a reality of our history. It is our stubborn companion as we travel forward through the years. Eric Ambler would have been surprised by none of what transpired in 2003. 

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion, the cost, not just of waging war, but of keeping personnel and equipment trained and ready, has challenged successive governments. After decades of wars of choice for the West, ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine reminds us that we do not always have the luxury of opting for combat or peace. 

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