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Book Reviews People and Leadership Short Read

#WavellReviews When The Tempest Gathers by Andrew Milburn

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Available here from Pen and Sword

A memoire about leading US Marines and partner forces in Mogadishu, Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul, and then Special Operations Forces in the achingly complex fight against Daesh.

The title ‘When The Tempest Gathers’ is from a Josiah Holland poem ‘Give us Men!’, an un-woke title for a poem that contains great subtlety.  This captures the man, Milburn, in a nutshell.  For me he is more Prospero than Holland; complex and conflicted, a philosopher with a fixed bayonet.  British by birth and schooled in the UK, addicted to combat (my words, not his), a student of leadership in the modern age and a critical friend to the US military, his blogs and writing articulate many of the leadership issues that military culture finds hard to address.  Forthright, honest and challenging, he’s the very picture of a modern full bird Colonel. 

His memoire is more than a Boys’ Own tale of derring-do and action.  Sure, on one level it’s classic Pen And Sword material, a ripping yarn about good men fighting the bad guys, with near misses, humour, and tragedy, whilst the women stay at home.  However as the book settles in after a frantic opening, the reader becomes increasingly aware that within it lie complex and subtle matters, as the arc of Milburn’s service overlaps neatly with a period of change in the character of warfare.  Milburn writes compassionately throughout and the telling and chillingly delivered message is clear: remiss strategic thinking comes at a human cost.  The other sadness inherent in the tale is that policy makers and strategists seem set to continue to misuse the military instrument and that tactical and operational successes will not bring the desired strategic results until the two are better linked.

For that reason, I argue that this book should be taken as a serious work, and added to your ‘must have’ lists, to be read alongside McFate’s Goliath and Kilcullen’s The Dragons and The Snakes, because Milburn has lived and recorded what others only frame academically.  His combat FOMO, fuelled by joining the USMC just too late for the Gulf War in 1991, will resonate with many of those serving today and is what has driven him on a life of war and adventure.  Like lots of Western military thinking, his career begins conventionally framed; tactically he is astute, but his organisation is a behemoth, a military hammer, so every problem looks like a nail.  His troop operates adroitly in Somalia, but the US leaves strategically defeated a few years later.  In the Gulf War of 2003 Milburn is on the ground as the Western approach seems to be working, with US and UK troops steamrollering the Iraqis.  Milburn and his comrades fought bravely, and successfully, but policy makers failed to grasp that the opposition was metamorphosising into a resistance that would post a different set of problems.  Critically, what Milburn teaches us is that even with the best intentions, a large conventional force will, by its presence and nature, kill and destroy some of the people and facilities that it should protect, eroding trust and support, and therefore will eventually draw violence upon itself, until its very presence becomes its biggest problem.  In juxtaposition, Milburn then presents us with Fallujah, a brutal battle where the enduring visceral and violent nature of fighting is captured with searing honesty, as is the explicit requirement that the military must always be able to generate soldiers who will kick a door in and who are so predisposed to violence that they will kill with anything that is to hand.  There is friction between those ideas of presence being problematic, and yet needed as an ultimate guarantor of tactical success, and Milburn’s writing brings to life the evolution in thinking this tension creates.

Change comes.  In Fallujah, the US fights alone mostly, sometimes alongside Iraqis.  In Mosul, advising and assisting, alongside and often in support of Iraqis.  Against ISIS, Milburn commands a complex Special Operations Forces operation where much of the fighting on the Syrian side of the border is done by proxies, in this case the Syrian Democratic Forces; coalition troops are on the ground as much to make the stakes too high for other actors as for their military value.  As the book ends, there is a glimmer of hope that Western ways of thinking and operating could have success, or at least prevent opponents’ successes, whilst maintaining strategic goals, if only that link can be made.

Any thinking British military person should take this book and examine Milburn’s experiences and ideas.  The ideas deserve to be tried, to be tested, to be questioned and to be used as a guide as we design our future strategies, policies, and force design for conflict as it is, not as we’d like it to be.  Iraqis, Syrians, and Somalis, as well as Milburn and his tribe have paid the price for such learning.  This book makes it clear that it is beholden on the rest of us to embrace the understanding that comes from their sacrifices; if we can learn the correct lessons then perhaps, as Prospero said,  ‘At this hour, lie at my mercy all mine enemies.’

Colonel Denis James

AKA John Laurens | Website

Colonel Denis James is currently the Assistant Head of Army Communications, having recently graduated as a member of The Royal College of Defence Studies.  He is a contributor to the Wavell Room.

He has worked at the Directorate of Defence Communications, spent a year on operations in the Middle East as COS with a US SOJTF and has been a visiting fellow at Chatham House.

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