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Combat Camera: From Auntie Beeb to the Afghan Frontline (Alma Books) by Christian Hill (Alma Books)

The British Approach to Counterinsurgency: From Malaya and Northern Ireland to Iraq and Afghanistan by Paul Dixon, ed. (Palgrave)

In his autobiography, published in 2010, General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the armed forces from 2006 to 2009, wrote:

Of course we need to win the hearts and minds of the people of Helmand, but we also need to win, or retain, the hearts and minds of the people in this country. If Iraq was unpopular, Afghanistan was misunderstood, and it was vital to get a clear explanation of what we were doing and why. Losing popular support at home is one guaranteed way to lose a counter-insurgency campaign, as the Americans discovered to their cost in Vietnam.

The two books reviewed here are both concerned with the phenomenon of “hearts and minds”, although they could not be more different. The first, Combat Camera, is a rather desultory memoir written by an ex-army officer who worked for the military media operations in Afghanistan in 2011; the second, a collection of essays edited by counterinsurgency analyst Paul Dixon, discusses the theory and practice of British and US military doctrine in the context of Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Helmand. Yet both books help to explain how, after two disastrous expeditions lasting longer than 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 combined, the UK armed forces are currently enjoying unprecedented levels of public support.

The last Saturday in June will see the sixth consecutive Armed Forces Day to be held in this country. This year it is Stirling’s turn to host the spectacular national parade, complete with aerial displays and the sound of gunfire. The event was inserted into the nation’s calendar following Gordon Brown’s inquiry into the “National Recognition of our Armed Forces” that he set up in the winter of 2007. In his foreword to the resulting report, Brown wrote that it was “vital for our serving men and women, especially those engaged in difficult and dangerous overseas campaigns, to know that the whole of Britain understands and appreciates the work that they do in our name”. Assigning this special day was hailed as an opportunity to say “thank you” to the troops.

The report warned that the military had become increasingly “separated from civilian life and consciousness”, a development that was dangerous for all concerned. It recommended that the armed forces should step up their attempts to promote the benefits of military service through a range of activities: schools, youth clubs, community events, local government, chambers of commerce. Improving their relationship with the local and national media would be key to all these attempts to reach out to members of the public. This extract provides a flavour of the new communication strategy promoted by the government:

We further recommend that when worthwhile news stories can be anticipated (the Musa Qala offensive in Afghanistan is a good example) selected journalists with experience of military operations should be invited, if necessary at 24 hours’ notice, to be embedded in the front line.

The report was published in May 2008 at a time when the main news stories coming out of Afghanistan concerned the increasing number of fatalities involving British soldiers as a result of improvised explosive devices. In the meantime, the Wiltshire town of Wootton Bassett had become renowned for staging dignified demonstrations to mark the repatriation of dead soldiers.

Three were killed in May that year, including James Thompson in Musa Qala, and 13 would die the following month. Many more were returning home with life-changing injuries, a phenomenon that was also beginning to attract publicity through the auspices of the recently formed charity Help for Heroes. Now one of the most successful fund-raising charities ever, H4H has succeeded in rebranding soldier work as a selfless, noble profession deserving of unquestioning public admiration.

Monitoring the confluence of events during this period – briefly sketched out here – is essential if we are to understand the rapid change in public attitudes to soldiers, whether they are cast as heroes or victims. In 2012 a report by the War Studies department at Kings College, London showed that nine out of ten people, of all ages, declared their support for Armed Service personnel who had recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of their opinions about the actual military deployment. This discrepancy poses the double edged-question: why were the electorate unable to convince the UK to withdraw troops from the NATO operation, as they were in the Netherlands, for example? And will this process of militarisation have a longer-term impact on civil society?

As Paul Dixon emphasises in the introduction to his book on the history of counterinsurgency, the hackneyed phrase “hearts and minds”, first used in the context of the British suppression of insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s, was directed at the civilians living in the area of conflict rather than the domestic population. Today, as Dannatt’s assertion points out, we are all in it together. In the general’s no-nonsense view, wavering public support for the armed forces is problematic for two reasons: it damages the morale of the troops, but it also sends a signal to the enemy. His memoir, Leading from the Front, provides a candid account of his personal campaign to fix public uninterest, whether through fighting with Gordon Brown or collaborating with powerful media organisations. It includes a remarkable scene in which he takes Rebekah Brooks, Sun editor at the time, and News International executive Matthew Harding to Helmand to persuade them that they too had a strategic role in this “counterinsurgency”.

But here is where the term is revealed to be a huge confidence trick, since it suggests a thought-out strategy founded on proven military success in the past. The group of analysts that Dixon has brought together not only examine this history in detail but they also demolish the notion that “population-centric” warfare worked successfully anywhere, let alone Iraq or Helmand.

David Hunt, for example, writes about the application of the doctrine in the context of Vietnam where it was written off as a “vague and flimsy construct”. The version of counterinsurgency, or COIN as it was known, that the newly elected President Obama directed General McChrystal to pursue in Afghanistan in 2009 was explicitly based on colonial precedent – “seeking ways to legitimate the US as an ‘occupying power’ in foreign lands”. In Hunt’s view, “its Manichean view of enemy insurgents recalls the extremes of Cold War anti-communism”.

For the non-specialist reader, this book provides a wealth of historical background that helps to explain why the “insurgency narrative” has been catastrophically inappropriate, particularly in Afghanistan. The dysfunctional dynamics between British and US military elites are part of this story, and so too is the folly of using military methods to pursue ostensibly humanitarian objectives. Huw Bennett’s essay on the murder of Baha Mousa provides stunning detail on the use of torture techniques banned in Northern Ireland but used in Iraq regardless. A feminist analysis of counterinsurgency theory by Claire Duncanson and Hilary Cornish explores the reasons why the British Army prefers “the traits and practices associated with masculinity: action, strength, decisiveness” over talking to and engaging with the Afghan population as human beings. In his own wide-ranging contributions, Dixon consistently underlines the salience of domestic public opinion in the militarisation process, particularly in a chapter called “Bringing it all back home”.

Combat Camera is written from the perspective of a military media operative given the task of shaping the “strategic message” for UK consumption. Journalist Christian Hill, who left the army in 2000 but rejoined as a reservist in 2009, spent four months as a leader of the “Combat Camera Team” in the summer of 2011. His account, drawn from the diary he kept while he was there, illustrates the gap between what was actually happening in and around Camp Bastion and what the MoD thought worth promoting with the help of a largely compliant media.

A rather diffident character, Hill admits to all kinds of doubts and fears, not least the prospect of being killed himself. Faced with ethical dilemmas over the prescriptive terms of his mission as well as endless periods with nothing to do, he finds himself fascinated by the factual narrative of NATO field reports, some of which are reproduced verbatim. His publishers know a thing or two about marketing as well. The blurb on the back cover suggests that, “as coalition troops return home after years of fighting”, the book “will appeal to anyone who wants to know if our campaign against the Taliban has really been worth the effort.”