Reviewed by: Andrea Varsori
Rupert Wieloch, Belfast to Benghazi: Untold challenges of war, (Cirencester: Mereo Books), 2016; ISBN-13: 978-1861515667
War is a notoriously complex event. It impacts the life of thousands of individuals, each of which with her own different perspective on the conflict. For this reason, personal records are invaluable in helping to grasp the multifaceted reality of war. Rupert Wieloch’s book, Belfast to Benghazi, is important in this respect. It is an account of contemporary conflict through the eyes of a British officer. The author aims at telling his experience, as he hopes that “this book [may open] eyes on some unheralded escapades”, as well as adding “colour to some historical events”. Thus, the book eschews the theoretical debates of academia as well as the short-term attitude of the daily news cycle. The book is a detailed account of Wieloch’s experiences. During his military career, he took part in some of the most important deployments of the British Army in the last thirty years.
Each of the six chapters focuses on a particular operation and, more briefly, on the years in-between. The first chapter relates Wieloch’s activity as a Rifle Platoon Commander in Belfast in 1981. The second deals with his deployment in Cyprus in 1989 and his involvement in the Gulf War, dealing with the logistical effort as well as with the actions of his men in Kuwait. The third chapter reports his squadron’s deployment in Maglaj, Bosnia, in 1995. The second half of the book is instead devoted to the post-9/11 world. Wieloch details his contribution in shaping the United Kingdom’s response to 9/11, in the frantic last months of 2001, as a member of the “concept team” that operated between Shrivenham and Whitehall for Operation Veritas. After experiencing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he volunteered for the role of Commander of the British contingent and Chief of Staff of the NATO Mission in Baghdad, serving in the place for six months in 2008. In his last role, he acted as Senior British Military Commander in Libya, starting some days before the death of Gheddafi until April 2012.
Throughout the book, Wieloch consistently delivers a detailed report of the events in which he was involved. However, care in relating his activity may at times seem excessive, as the author is keen on including several small, isolated episodes in his narration. These episodes are sometimes hardly necessary, other than for completeness’ sake. Yet, those who are interested in the campaigns in which Wieloch was involved will surely be drawn to understanding how his regiment contributed to each particular operation. For instance, with regard to Northern Ireland, the account covers such important aspects as the organisation of patrols in West Belfast, the importance of collecting intelligence from the population, and the reaction to terrorist attacks. Besides the less important anecdotes, a positive aspect of the book lies in avoiding becoming a romanticised autobiography or an overly ambitious reflection on abstract concepts. Opting instead for sharing with the reader the real tasks and options for a British officer in conflict.
The completeness of Weiloch’s account includes not only the facts, but also a heathy degree of criticism, whose object changes depending on the areas and activities narrated. In chapter 3, he reveals the corruption and vanity of Bosnian politicians; in the chapter on the post-9/11, he notes the reluctance of British policymakers in accepting changes to potentially wrong decisions on which their minds are already set (for instance, the importance of capturing Osama Bin Laden). The overwhelming influence of the United States on Whitehall’s stance since late October 2001 is also duly noted. In the chapter on Iraq, the inadequacies in managing post-conflict reconstruction take centre stage. While Wieloch underlines the positive results in providing military training to Iraqi security forces, he also consistently points out the inefficiency and setbacks of the British presence in Basra. Finally, in the chapter on Libya, the author explains how the government’s choice of not recognising the presence of British troops on the ground (choice on which the author does not express any judgement) nonetheless meant that the British contingent was formally without budget or mail deliveries.
Weiloch maintains a clear, coherent writing style with a critical drive. Despite covering a varied range of activities, such as managing humanitarian operations, shaping policy response, or coordinating entire military missions. As a result, the book equally reveals a view from the inside of policy-making and military management. The attempt to translate policy or mission objectives into a set of actions and practices clashes often with the reality on the ground. Wieloch has thus to face the need to take into account local powerbrokers (as in Bosnia), to request vital new equipment for his soldiers (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), or to consider the role of culture and religion in engaging with the local elites and population (as in Libya).
This last point is particularly emblematic. In the chapter on Libya, the author underlines how essential for him was the familiarity with local culture, religion, and political practices. In this way, Wieloch effectively conveys the fundamental importance of knowing the people that are involved in conflict. The book emphasises this stance and supports it with real examples, leading us to forgive its several small digressions. By doing this, Wieloch also gives an advice that will be helpful for many commanders in the wars to come. As for the book on its whole, another aspect of its importance lies in the disclosure of the complex work of those who operate between politically-dictated strategy and action on the ground. As the wide range of operations of the British Army goes often unrecognised, Belfast to Benghazi may raise the public’s awareness of the difficult work of officers and of the multifaceted role of the armed forces in the world today.
Andrea is an MPhil candidate at the Department of War Studies. His research project focuses on security issues in mega-cities of the Global South: in particular, he is interested in understanding the role of the urban environment in shaping organized political violence. Andrea holds an MA in International and Diplomatic Sciences from the University of Bologna; he is also an alumnus from the Institute of Advanced Studies at the same university. His main interests include the evolution of insurgency, urban riots, the crisis of classic state sovereignty, civil wars and, generally, all forms of global mayhem.
 R. Wieloch, Belfast to Benghazi. Untold challenges of war, Cirencester, Mereo Books, 2016, IV-V.
 Ibid. pp. 6-8, 11-12.
 Ibid. pp. 9-10. Interestingly, a similar point is raised later in the chapter on Bosnia. Talking profusely with the local population is presented as paramount in securing the inhabitants’ respect and ensuring the regiment’s freedom of movement. ibid. p. 109.
 Ibid. pp. 18-23.
 Ibid. pp. 95, 103, 118.
 Ibid. p. 151.
 Ibid. p. 159.
 Ibid. p. 194.
 Ibid. pp. 198-199, 207-208. A point emphasised by Wieloch in these pages is the effect of the high turnout of soldiers in the city, which “prevented the British forces from developing the meaningful relationships” that would have avoided a hike in insecurity and insurgent attacks.
 Ibid. pp. 99-100, 104-105, 107.
 Ibid. pp. 199-200.
 Ibid. pp. 203-205.
 Ibid. pp. 247, 249-250, 288-89.
Image Credit: US Army Europe (2014), Available from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyeurope_images/14445596924 (Accessed Oct 10 2016)
Andrea is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Strife Journal and Blog. His research focuses on urban armed groups in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In particular, he seeks to explain their resilience through an evolutionary/ecological lens, by analysing the history of their internal changes. Andrea holds an MA in International and Diplomatic Sciences from the University of Bologna. You can follow him on Twitter @Andrea_Varsori.