Simon Akam

Simon Akam is the author of The Changing of the Guard: The British Army since 9/11, which was discussed in the LRB by Tom Stevenson.

A Surfeit of Rank

Simon Akam, 10 March 2022

It’s hard for a civilian observer really to understand what rank means in the army. It’s an aura; you feel it in every interaction between officer and soldier. There is a lot of rank about in the British army. An institution that is heading towards a full-time strength of 73,000 still has no fewer than eighteen ranks, eleven commissioned and seven non-commissioned. In April last year there were 213 officers at brigadier level or higher, even though there were fewer than ten deployable brigades. A clear and rigid hierarchy has advantages in combat, where the system has to function reliably under pressure. But in almost any other situation a surfeit of rank is a problem. The challenge when filling a particular role is to find someone of the appropriate rank who also has the appropriate expertise. When these requirements are in conflict, the former often prevails. 

It is one thing to station military forces around the world to maintain your empire, but quite another to do so for someone else’s. It’s not a new observation that those in power in Britain have become...

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