Q&A: Journalist Simon Akam’s tough fight to publish a book on the British Army

The Globe and Mail spoke to Simon Akam, a British journalist based in London. A contributing writer for The Economist’s 1843 magazine, his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, GQ, Outside, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He spent a year in the military at the age of 18 and returned a decade later to see how the institution had changed. He also co-hosts the writing podcast Always take notes.

In excerpts adapted from his new book, The changing of the guard: the British army since September 11, he writes in The Globe about how the British Army claims to learn from its setbacks – and branded itself as such, under the slogan Fail, Learn, Win – but did not learn important lessons from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How did the idea for this book come about?

In 2003, I joined the British Army under a program called the Gap Year Commission, which allowed some young people to do an internship in the military before college. I joined a cavalry regiment that had just returned from Iraq. Subsequently, I studied English at Oxford and journalism at Columbia in New York. I worked at the New York Times, freelance for Reuters and The Economist in Africa, and I worked for Newsweek in London. A decade after leaving the army, I returned to investigate the institution I had seen as a teenager, to find out what 10 years of war had done to the army and what it said about the Great. -Brittany. I visited Afghanistan in 2014, as British operations in Helmand were drawing to a close. In 2015, five London publishers bid on the book. After that, however, things got complicated.

Tell me about these complications.

The changing of the guard was commissioned in 2015 by Penguin Random House. I spent three years writing, alongside my magazine work. I had a visiting grant to an organization in Oxford called the Changing Character of War Center. The book was due for publication in March 2019. Shortly before that, the director of the CCW – which has close ties with the British military – wrote to PRH and told them they should expect prosecution. . In a series of events unlike anything I had experienced in my previous journalistic career, PRH requested “copy approval,” with sources agreeing in writing to what was said about them and submission of the manuscript to the UK Ministry of Defense for their “amendments”. “

When I pushed back, PRH canceled my contract, demanded that I pay back all the money I had received, and also that I pay half of their legal fees. Eight press freedom organizations, led by the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, including Reporters Without Borders and Index on Censorship, wrote to PRH to complain. It didn’t change their position so I alerted The Guardian, who covered the situation. Subsequently, Scribe, an Australian publisher, wanted to take over the book. However, PRH refused to release the copyright unless I signed a nondisclosure agreement, which I was unwilling to do. I had to buy back the rights to my own book. Scribe’s entire advance went to PRH. However, when the book was released in February, it received full coverage in the UK and sparked widespread debate. Likewise, no one lodged a complaint.

Have you ever thought ‘that’s too much’ or maybe the story was so complex that it would be almost impossible to try to find a narrative?

During the battle to get the book published, as I was sued for large sums of money and received further threats, the only way out seemed to continue. Previously there were also structural challenges. These wars were not linear; other writers have imposed themselves by trying to write a complete chronology, rotation of troops after rotation of troops. Instead, I focused on five separate stories, involving discrete numbers, so that I could create a character-driven narrative.

What lessons do you hope readers will take away from it? And in light of the recent multiple departures of military leaders to Canada, what advice would they give to those seeking to reform or rethink the military?

The main lesson is that when the going gets tough, there has to be accountability. I have explored how the British Army has developed a ‘brant et void’ in this area – a blizzard of new investigations, some but not all vexatious, into junior misdeeds coupled with an almost total lack of accountability for decision-making. high-level military or political. In Canada and the UK, we should figure out what to expect from our senior military leaders – including telling politicians the truth – and then hold them to those standards: fairly, compassionately, if need be harshly.

Explain to me your writing process and how you check and verify a book like this?

I interviewed 260 people – from junior soldiers to senior generals, but also their families, local Iraqis, coalition allies, politicians, even sex workers who slept with soldiers. I produced a loose first draft. After discussion with my editor, I reduced this to a more accurate and verified account. I went back to the sources – “is this an accurate account of your recollections of the events?” “” Source X’s account contradicts yours; Can you clarify? ”I also confirmed more mundane details – for example“ what the inside of your tank’s turret looked like ”(“ a little worn, with a red oxide primer starting to show up as places “). It took time and was often upset. However, it gave the book rigor. There are almost 90 pages of endnotes, references and alternate viewpoints. People respect that.

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About Cody E. Vaughn

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