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Last Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006, 13:02 GMT
Three years on

Three years after the start of the Iraq conflict, military historian Peter Caddick-Adams says the UK is unlikely to repeat such an invasion.

It was Wednesday; the heat was intolerable; at least the soldiers' last minute equipment checks provided a welcome distraction.

Deep in the Kuwaiti desert they wrestled with their nerves and vicious sandstorms.

Hours earlier, 3,000 miles away, attention had focused on the House of Commons, where a debate was in progress over the prospect of war. A rebel Labour amendment stating that there was no moral case for war attracted 218 votes, but 396 supported the government. Another vote approved the use of military force to disarm Iraq by 412 votes to 149.

Whilst the UK newspapers discussed the result, the Desert Rats in tanks and armoured personnel carriers moved into position with troops of 16th Air Assault Brigade.

Cruise missiles

In the early hours of Thursday 20 March 2003, Royal Navy submarines fired cruise missiles into Iraq, while in driving rain and poor visibility, Royal Marines of 3rd Commando Brigade leapt ashore from their assault craft onto the sand dunes of the Al Faw Peninsula - the southernmost tip of Iraq.

The UK military has been uncertain about where it's being led

Overhead shells thudded into the defenders' bunkers, fired from British and Australian warships. Others had already seized the nearby oil and gas platforms that marked Iraq's importance to the world.

Elsewhere RAF Tornados and American F-15 jets sliced through local air defences to subdue Iraqi armour formations on the ground. Behind the berms - walls of sand that marked the Kuwait-Iraq border - British and American armoured vehicles were gunning their engines, whilst radio operators listened over the static for the codeword to 'Go!'

It was an impressive display of political will, with 45,000 British personnel joining a huge American force. Overall, the UK contribution to coalition forces in the Gulf - which also included an Australian contingent of 4,000 - would amount eventually to 10% of the total of 467,000 personnel.

The invasion of Iraq was on - Operation Iraqi Freedom to the Americans, Operation Telic to the Brits and Operation Falconer to the Aussies.

Legal doubts

Three years on would we do it again? Hindsight is a wonderful gift, but today I believe the answer is "no" on several counts.

Destroyed tank
Should there have been a clearer exit strategy after the war?

The British military have traditionally been divorced from politics and have gone where their politicians ordered. It is clear that behind the scenes that officers (some very senior) had private doubts on moral or legal grounds about this particular military operation.

Sometimes these were voiced; on occasions the legal arguments for going to war had to be spelt out, but in the end, the army trusted its masters and went.

I suspect that trust has been breached as it has become clear just how tenuous the intelligence and legal advice had been before the resort to military force.

Not that the military would ever disobey, but they will grill government ministers more closely than has been the case. And there will be a reluctance to embark on missions without a clear exit strategy and where the vital post-conflict phase of operations has been mapped out clearly. In Iraq it was not.

Special relationship

There was an inclination to trust American policy makers, based on 60 years of the "special relationship", and a feeling now that this trust may be misplaced.

British soldier talks to Iraqis while on patrol in Basra - September 2004
The army has been struggling to recruit enough soldiers

In the three years since the invasion, Britain's armed forces have been undergoing an overhaul. "Rebalancing" says the MOD, "cuts" say their critics.

The fact remains that all three services were tightly stretched before the Iraq war (and stocks of vital stores like desert clothing run down to dangerous levels) but since, that "stretching" has continued.

Currently the army are reorganising (a kind euphemism for the destruction of the old county regimental system) which will leave fewer combat troops available for deployment than before.

Committees in the House of Commons have noted that the UK's military readiness has declined, with up to 30% of (smaller than ever) forces committed overseas at one time.

Could the Navy match the 9,000 personnel and 30 ships it sent to the Gulf in 2003? Evidence submitted to the Defence Committee says "no". This month testimony suggested that the majority of repeat tours to places like Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on a minority of specialists, such as intelligence, medical and helicopter crews.


This is affecting morale in the forces, but more importantly is expressed by a disinclination to join the military in the first place. Recruitment is down as doubts about operations in Iraq persist and a sense that Middle East service is inviting death or wounding.

US forces
UK forces are now less trustful of US policymakers

Actually, percentage-wise, it's more dangerous for a journalist in Iraq than for a soldier. Then the sore of Deepcut continues to fester. Actually the military treats its recruits pretty well (as most continue with their chosen careers and thrive) but there is a public perception that the military is harsh and secretive.

And it is perception that counts. Apart from Iraq, the military is mostly out of the public eye. How important an issue was defence in the last election, or how many policy speeches has David Cameron made on military issues?

Exactly. There is less interest in defence and an idea that the regular and reserve forces need fewer recruits, so fewer think of it as a career option.

Again, a survey of 16-24 year old young men recently found that one of the key factors governing their choice of job (apart from money) was an atmosphere of family stability. Frequent deployments to the hot spots of the world are hardly likely to make soldiering a first choice for most.

This probably reflects the reality of military deployments for the 21st Century, as war moves from battlefields and front lines, to "war among the people", where an enemy is hard to identify, even if he or she bothers to wear uniform. And if you open fire, litigation may follow.

So three years on, the United Kingdom probably wouldn't and couldn't launch another war on the scale of Iraq. Legally, we have become more cautious, politically we are less trusting, while the unpopularity of some missions and forces rebalancing have left us (albeit temporarily) with less to deploy.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I doubt that the close co-operation in action between the UK and US military forces will diminish, in spite of the debacle in Iraq. Political alliance between the two governments and the ongoing integration of military, naval and aerial functions of the forces of the two nations suggest future collaboration. Unfortunately, although the Americans frequently complain about lack of friends and allies, they fail to acknowledge help when they do get it. The impressive and essential British contribution to the Iraqi war is generally ignored by the media in the US.
John Davis, Philadelphia, US/Manchester, UK

The 'Dodgy Dossier" that helped Blair to get the commons backing for war wouldn't work twice. The number of MPs who have said they regret their vote for war is carved in history. Blair cannot change the facts. He and Bush have said things that have turned out to be wrong so many times that future politicians will no longer be given the benefit of the doubt. Seventy percent of Brits were against invading Iraq and they have turned out to be right. Next time there would be anarchy if a PM tried to go to war again against the wishes of such a majority of the population.
John Farmer, Henley-on-Thames, UK

I don't believe that any UK government would survive another unnecessary war, or even survive the suggestion long enough to actually begin a conflict. I would be very surprised if any tried, especially since Tony Blair's days are now numbered.
Emma, Birmingham, UK

Initially at one with the strategy employed to combat such hideous attacks as New York's 9/11, as the years progressed, I have become saddened by the misuse of power in our name. On leaving the RAF, the impression that the military, and the people they serve, is being let down by our political masters has continued to grow. Watching the cynical manoeuvres of men and women willing to put others in harm's way to serve their dogmatic stance, I was moved to make it a theme of my novel, 10 Downing St. While it would be unreasonable to expect our politicians to be saints, their constant spin-gineering will some day come to haunt us all. Meanwhile we should all remember that our troops are doing a tough job with admirable courage and proficiency. I agree with the article. Beware the politician who professes to support our forces while spreading them like thin camouflage over muddy thinking.
Paul Story, Glasgow

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