When 18,000 British troops took control of southern Iraq after the 2003 invasion, they did so with a formidable reputation enhanced by successful recent interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan.
Four years later, as the Army marks the beginning of the end of British involvement in Iraq by withdrawing from Basra to a final staging post at the airport, it is a very different institution. Serving and former officers say the campaign has:
•stretched the Army close to the breaking point, particularly because of its large commitment in Afghanistan;
•sowed mistrust of government because of the dubious casus belli;
•strained the covenant between state and military, under which soldiers expect to be properly looked after in return for active service;
•raised real questions as to whether the British Army can, with current levels of investment and manpower, take on the kind of foreign policy roles that government has ascribed to it.
"These are unique times for the British Army – we have not had this level of operational tempo and casualties since the 1950s," says one Army officer familiar with the situation. "Yes, there is overstretch. Yes, we can manage it. But the longer it goes on, the greater the likelihood that we reach breaking point."
"It's getting towards crisis-management," adds the officer, who spoke frankly but on condition of anonymity. "How much longer it is going to be manageable like this is difficult to say."
The officer was echoing sentiments repeatedly expressed by his Army chief, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, who warned recently that Britain needed a durable Army and not one "that expended itself in the middle of the current decade."
Survey: Public says Britain is losing
Britain's four-year effort in shoring up security in four southern Iraqi provinces has come at a steep price. Thus far, 168 troops have been killed, at a pro rata tempo matching the US death toll.
Equally uncomfortable is the domestic perception that the occupation has done more harm than good – that the deaths have essentially been in vain.
A BBC survey published Monday found that two-thirds of the public think British troops are losing the war in Iraq, while 42 percent felt the remaining 5,500 troops at Basra airport should be withdrawn as soon as possible. Only 20 percent thought they were making the security situation in southern Iraq better.
Officers say there is a feeling among frontline troops that the public at home has forgotten about them, their sacrifice, and the war. Lance Cpl. Leigh Pool told the Independent: "What makes me a bit angry is there have been soldiers dying out here and people, and there is so little notice taken back at home. It seems people have forgotten about the Iraq war."
Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon was killed in Iraq in 2004, says: "People haven't forgotten the Army. They are proud of their Army. But they think they should never have been sent to this war."
Where Iraq differs from other dangerous Army campaigns in recent years, including the Falklands, Northern Ireland, and Afghanistan, is that a sizable preponderance of officers are thought to feel the same way.
"Like most of the rest of the country, we feel we were lied to," says the Army officer, adding that this has strained the symbiotic relationship between state and military. That relationship has been further undermined by a strong feeling in the Army that soldiers are not being cared for properly. A so-called "covenant" holds that soldiers put their lives at risk and in return expect to benefit from decent housing, proper medical treatment, support for their families, and other preferential terms.
"The covenant is under terrible strain," says Maj. Charles Heyman, a former Army officer and now editor of Armed Forces of the UK, an annual. Pay is uncompetitive; some housing stock is in parlous condition. But even worse, he says, is the treatment of the wounded.
"Military hospitals in the UK have all been closed, and now they are treated in the wing of a civilian hospital in Birmingham," he says. Soldiers with serious injuries and psychological stress can find themselves on a ward surrounded by medical staff and civilian patients with little or no understanding of what they have endured.
The cutbacks, part of economies that have seen defense spending tumble by more than half from cold-war peaks to about 2.3 percent of GDP ($65 billion, compared with $530 billion for the US), have left the Army with a sense of "confusion at best and betrayal at worst," according to Amyas Godfrey, a former Army captain who served in Iraq.
In particular, he says, there is dismay at the Labour government's use of the Army for foreign policy objectives while running it down in terms of investment and numbers.
"Tony Blair used the military as a cornerstone of his foreign policy and it was crucial in building him up into who he became … but then, at the same time, he cut military spending and the size of the military," he adds.
Army ranks decline
Steady depletion of resources has reduced the Army to about 100,000, from 170,000 a generation ago. The Army currently has 5,500 in Iraq and 7,800 in Afghanistan, meaning that currently almost half the Army is either deployed in these two countries, preparing for a tour there, or recovering from one.
Beyond that, the Army still has a large contingent in Germany, a presence in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and the South Atlantic, units involved in UN missions in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, and Georgia, as well as standing commitments to NATO.
Former and serving officers say the manpower equation, stretched drum-skin thin, is further at risk from resignations.
"This is a problem of a small Army with too many commitments," says Major Heyman. "The people who you want to keep are senior NCOs and officers, and they are often married and are under pressure from their families to do something else." In times of high employment, moreover, he adds, "they are of great attraction to employers."
One former lieutenant who left the Army 18 months ago for better paid (and less risky) work out of uniform said that peers were trickling away from the Army – not because of the dangers of wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, but because demands on soldiers were becoming ever more onerous.
Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan generally serve a six-month tour and are then supposed to have 18 months clear for leave, recuperation, normal Army work, and pre-tour training. That period is now getting shorter and shorter.
"Soldiers don't mind going to these places, but it's more about the frequency of the tours coming round" that is deterring some, says the former lieutenant, who preferred not to be named. "People are finding they have to go on these tours once every 18 months, and so are either on operations, training for it, or recovering from it, and it doesn't leave much time for the other things."
The Army officer said this cycle – deeper commitments, shorter tours, servicemen quitting, greater pressure on those who remain – had to be addressed quickly. "People will start to leave eventually," he says. "If tours are coming around more ... quickly, there will be domestic situations where people can't cope with people going away every nine months. More ... people will leave, and so you'll have emergency fill-ins, and at some stage the system will break."
Heyman said the lesson was that the Army was still capable of projecting a presence overseas, but politicians had to face up to its limitations. "The British Army is capable of fulfilling short, sharp overseas roles. But it's only 100,000 strong. It doesn't have the depth to fulfill long-term commitments."