Michael's Dispatches

Red Flag

A missive arrived to me from a well-placed British officer.  I know this officer well, and respect his abilities.  He has been to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  In part, the missive said:

“Please have a look at the attached from the UK Times.  Regarding the Rachel Sylvester piece, we have not been able to find any such document/memo although it is possible that an e-mail exists somewhere that refers to such a matter – more likely to be a warning not to dick about regarding what extra troops the UK might be able to find for AFG and raise unrealistic US expectations.”

Rachel Sylvester US doubts about UK military effectiveness 6 Jan 09.pdf

The Special Relationship Times leader 7 Jan 09.pdf

The words imply that the US-UK relationship is fraying.  This is untrue as seen from the foxholes I am constantly in.  I have embedded with numerous British units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have seen combat with all of those units.  Maybe five or so.  The units included 2 Rifles, 4 Rifles, Queen's Royal Lancers, Duke of Lancaster's, 2 Para, and I believe perhaps a couple more though there was much going on and it’s difficult to remember.
What I can say, is that the significant combat I saw with British soldiers made me respect them more with each battle.  Yes, it’s true their gear needs serious upgrading.  The British government needs to spend billions to upgrade the hardware.  But when it comes to the soldier, British soldiers are extremely well-trained, courageous and ready for a big firefight at the drop of a hat.  Our brothers and sisters are vastly outnumbered at Helmand Province in Afghanistan.  I think about them several times a day and am concerned that they might take serious losses this year.
When the question comes up about what Americans think about our closest ally, I ask MANY American soldiers what they think of the British.  There are mixed opinions of course, but the bottom line is that American combat veterans greatly respect British soldiers.  The British just need better gear.  Another well-placed British Army officer recently told me while I was in Afghanistan that the British have plenty of helicopters.  I did not respect those words, though I was told by an important American officer that this British officer is very good.  “Don’t bullshit me, sir,” I replied only in my head.  “I Don’t like BS.”  The British need more helicopters. The American and British soldiers know this.  A problem with the British soldiers is similar to a problem with our own Marines.  They refuse to complain, so they get leftovers.  A retired Australian officer of great significance asked me what I thought of British soldiers.  I said something to the effect of, “My opinion is suspect because I greatly respect British soldiers…”   If I did not respect British soldiers, I would not keep going into combat with them.
I have common access to the basement and stratosphere of our military.  Nobody wants to see the British go.  Strangely, both the British and American officers give high praise to the French.  The French actually will fight like mad dogs, they say.

It’s always easy to find a British or American soldier who will make a passing derogatory remark about someone.  If a reporter is shopping for a fight, those are easy to generate.  Yes, it’s easy to find Brits who say bad things about Americans, but definitely harder to find Americans who will say something bad about Brits.  We have some kind of strange reflex that prevents us from talking bad about Brits.  Our soldiers respect the Brits and do not talk bad about them.  But it’s easy to find British soldiers who complain about other British units, and Americans who complain about other American units.  U.S. Marines complain about U.S. Army; Army complains about Marines.  This battalion complains about that battalion.  Soldiers complain.  My ears overflow with vacuous complaints and also with real ones.  There is no real complaint against the British other than they need to field their military with better gear.  The British fight very well, but they need better gear.
This message was sent to me from a British officer:

"I know that, in the past, us Brits have rather banged on about our COIN experience and there is a natural (and not necessarily unhelpful) rivalry between US and UK forces that has existed for 70 odd years.  But there is deep respect for the US military in the British Army, but particularly the US Army and USMC with which we have more contact, especially the doctrinal transformation over the past few years.  This goes from the lowest level, for example the Scottish infantry soldiers working with the MEU in Garmsir in 2008, to the highest levels of our command.  
Let me give you just one example.  In July 2006 a Danish soldier working under UK command in Helmand was grievously wounded in a rather beleaguered (it was under repeated direct and indirect fire) outpost in Helmand – if I remember correctly it was Musa Qaleh.  The compound was too small for a Chinook to land to get the casualty out and the UK's small helicopters could not fly in the day time because of the extreme heat and altitude.  The soldier was dying and he couldn't wait. A battle-group level hasty air assault operation was planned to secure a landing zone nearby in Taleban dominated area and the intent was for the small garrison to fight its way out to get the casualty to that landing zone.  There was no doubt, not only must we expect to take further casualties, we could lose a Chinook. Then, a US Blackhawk medical helicopter swept in and then out of the compound with the casualty who I know was still alive when he later made it home to Denmark.  The whole attitude, despite the acute risk involved, was one of "no problem, anytime, just ask", as we say, "normal jogging".  Yet, no one who knew of that single event would have had anything other than the greatest admiration for those involved and the organization to which they belonged."

Our relationship with Great Britain is more than merely healthy.  It’s very strong.  The British are very close family.  We are in a serious fight in Afghanistan.  This is a team, and some members play harder than others.  The British are ready and willing to throw hard shots.  The British know the price of fighting.  And they know that the price for not fighting can be much higher.  

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