Brawny subtitle aside, BBC Newsnight diplomatic and defense editor Urban (Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution, 2007, etc.) takes a cerebral approach to establishing the unique challenges faced by both British SAS and American Special Forces (SF) as the Iraq occupation developed, unraveled and was ultimately stabilized by the “surge.”
The prickly relationship between the two countries helps the author focus his narrative on the British forces—he explains that they had to grapple with the controversial strategies of American Joint Special Operations Command head General Stanley McChrystal, a “soldier-monk” who favored “industrial counter-terrorism,” a constant cycle of missions to counter the evolving threat. Although the British contingent was small, they “managed to play a key role in the battle for Baghdad and the suppression of al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Yet this positive assessment is possible only in retrospect. Much of the narrative suggests that the British played a costly game of catch-up, as their initially cautious rules of engagement provided the initiative to both the evolving insurgency and their aggressive American SF counterparts. Urban documents several missions in which British units lost soldiers due to their plans becoming overwhelmed in the heat of battle. As chaos expanded in 2004 and ’05, the specialized units increased their reliance on the new surveillance capabilities of the NSA and other agencies to make up for a lack of intelligence through normal military channels: “The SAS summarised their operational process during the early days in Baghdad as find-fix-finish.” However, keeping their American counterparts at a distance and suffering significant losses, the SAS ultimately engaged “McChrystal’s central idea—that the insurgency could only be overwhelmed by a relentless tempo of operations.” Urban thus suggests that the units of both nations both prefaced and benefited from the much-debated “surge” of troops in Iraq. The author’s approach is painstaking and sometimes dry, capturing the complicated brutalities of the insurgency and the difficulties troops encountered in responding to it.
Useful overview of a bloody, confusing war, emphasizing the sophistication of the specialized units.