Military history



Why the British Succeeded—at Least Sometimes

DEBATE HAS RAGED ever since the end of the Malayan Emergency about whether and to what extent its lessons can be applied in other “counterinsurgencies”—a term coined in 1960.173 British veterans of Malaya such as Robert Thompson, Richard Clutterbuck, and Frank Kitson suggested that the combination of civil-action and punitive measures they had employed could be used to quell other uprisings. Skeptics pointed to the demographic and geographic advantages enjoyed by the counterinsurgents in Malaya that did not necessarily exist elsewhere.

But such natural advantages can be frittered away by foolish policy choices. Ireland is an island and hence even more cut off from the outside world than Malaya. It is also much closer to Britain, and yet the British were defeated there in 1921. Cuba is also an island, yet it too would be the scene of a successful insurgency just as the Malayan Emergency was winding down. Even in Malaya the government hardly appeared predestined to succeed in the early 1950s. Only the implementation of successful counterinsurgency policies under Briggs and Templer saved the British from defeat and gave Malaya the iconic status it continues to enjoy in military circles.

The strategy that worked in Malaya was premised on close civil-military cooperation, a search for a political settlement, and the avoidance of large-scale “search and destroy” missions in favor of “clear and hold” operations designed to control the population combined with targeted raids on insurgent lairs utilizing accurate intelligence and minimal firepower. These have come to be seen as the defining features of what the historian Thomas R. Mockaitis calls a “distinctly British approach to counterinsurgency.”174 The British had arrived at this strategy after a process of trial and error in the interwar period, having seen that heavy-handed repression, such as that perpetrated by the Black and Tans in Ireland, had backfired. What might have been acceptable practice in the nineteenth century was forbidden to a liberal democracy under the evolving standards of the twentieth century.

It is fair to note, as the historian David French has done in critiquing Mockaitis’s work, that the British approach was hardly free of violence or even human-rights violations. British troops committed some abuses in all their wars and always relied on considerable coercion—“meaning,” French writes, “measures that ranged from curfews and cordon and search operations at one end of the scale of violence, through collective fines and large-scale detention without trial, and culminated in forced population resettlement and the creation of free fire zones.” Distorted British memories of their own history that exaggerated how nice British soldiers had been to the population, French suggests, led British forces astray in twenty-first-century Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were so intent on avoiding conflict that they were unable to pacify their areas of operations. His points are well-taken. Nevertheless, there was a qualitative difference between the British and the French approaches, to say nothing of the even greater differences between the British approach and that of illiberal counterinsurgents such as Nazi Germany or Nationalist China. As French concedes, “the British did not wage ‘dirty’ wars in the same systematic manner and on the scale as the French did in Algeria.” “Most members of the [British] security forces, most of the time, did operate within the law,” French concludes, albeit within a law constructed to give them considerable latitude to maintain security.175

The British approach was hardly unique (similar methods were employed, for instance, in Morocco and the Philippines), but it was effective. The British prevailed not only in Malaya but also, to one degree or another, in Kenya between 1952 and 1960 against the Mau Mau movement;176 in Cyprus between 1955 and 1959 against EOKA, the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, a terrorist group seeking Enosis (union) with Greece;177 in Oman between 1962 and 1975 against separatists fighting for independence for the province of Dhofar;178 and in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998 against the Provisional IRA seeking its own version of Enosis—unification with the Republic of Ireland.179 When the British deviated from their minimal-force strategy, it usually came back to haunt them, the classic example being the second Bloody Sunday, when on January 30, 1972, the Parachute Regiment killed thirteen unarmed Catholic protesters in Londenderry, thereby making the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland much worse. The one exception was Kenya, where the British were more brutal than usual (they interned 70,000 suspects and killed at least 12,000) but got away with it because the Mau Mau rebels belonged to a minority tribe, the Kikuyu, and lacked “a clearly defined nationalist ideology” that could appeal to the African majority. Even the most prominent Kikuyu politician, Jomo Kenyatta, opposed the rebellion, although this did not stop the British from locking him up for eight years.

The British, needless to say, did not win everywhere. Their empire was, after all, on the way to dissolution. We have already noted their failure to suppress Jewish terrorism in Palestine after World War II. They were equally unsuccessful in Aden and its associated territories, which they left in 1967, allowing the Marxist National Liberation Front to take over what would become known as South Yemen. But it was hardly Arab terrorism that chased the British out; almost all of the violence in Aden occurred after the British decision to leave had been announced in 1966 as part of a general retrenchment “East of Suez.” At most the insurgency slightly accelerated the timetable for withdrawal.180

In Cyprus, meanwhile, the British hardly won an unqualified victory, but neither did EOKA achieve its objective of Enosis. Like many insurgencies, this one petered out in an unsatisfying compromise, with Cyprus gaining its independence but no union with Greece and Britain retaining two military bases.

The Irish Troubles also ended with a negotiated settlement, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which set up a power-sharing arrangement between the Unionists and Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, but kept Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. The fundamental reason why the IRA failed to achieve its ultimate objective is the same reason why the Malayan Races Liberation Army, the Mau Mau, and the Dhofar separatists also failed: They were fighting on behalf of an aggrieved minority, while the majority was on the government’s side. (Protestants made up 53 percent of Northern Ireland’s population, Catholics 44 percent.)181 It is much harder for a counterinsurgent to win when the bulk of the population is sympathetic to the insurgent cause—as in Algeria and Indochina.

The Algerian and Indochinese wars were much larger than any of Britain’s conflicts. The French confronted enemy forces numbering in the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands, whereas most of the guerrilla or terrorist groups Britain faced numbered only in the hundreds. This produced a startling disparity in casualties, with French forces losing more than 17,000 dead in Algeria and 92,000 in Indochina while the British had fewer than 2,000 soldiers and police killed in Malaya, 62 in Kenya, 156 in Cyprus, 35 in Oman, 200 in Aden, and 729 in Northern Ireland. In the 1959 Emergency in Nyasaland, today’s Malawi, the British lost not a single member of the security forces.182 In large part, of course, the relatively low losses were due to the weakness of the opposition the British faced. It is nevertheless telling that they had more success with their minimal-force approach than the French did with maximal force.

In no small part this was because the British paid greater attention to the political side of the business. Prior to the twentieth century and stretching back to the days of ancient Mesopotamia, colonial powers usually had enough legitimacy to suppress revolts on their own with scant regard for the sensitivities of “the natives” except for a few elites who could be co-opted with generous financial incentives. The British recognized that with the spread of new ideologies (liberalism, nationalism, socialism) and new forms of communication (newspapers, radio, television), this was no longer the case. In the modern world for a regime to be considered legitimate it had to be homegrown and preferably democratic. As Lewis Clark, the American consul general in Algiers, wrote in 1955, “No people will accept permanently a secondary status in a political community of today.”

The French were slow to come to this realization—they lived for too long in what Clark aptly called “a dream world.”183 The Vietminh and the NLF might never have grown as powerful as they did if the French had been more willing to make political concessions early on, namely, to promise an end to colonial rule as the British did in Malaya. The need to wage counterinsurgency warfare on the political as well as the military level is one of the enduring lessons of the decolonization era—and one of the stark contrasts with an earlier epoch of imperial “small wars.”

The same principle applied to insurgents. Mao Zedong and, following him, Ho Chi Minh, emphasized the need for political action combined with military measures as opposed to the sort of apolitical raiding tactics that had been common since the days of prehistory. It is no coincidence that they will be remembered as two of the most successful insurgent leaders of the twentieth century. A similar lesson was learned by the Zionists and other groups struggling for their own nation-states. Their victories showed that, although counterinsurgents still held the advantage in the 1950s, the odds of success for any broad-based revolt, especially one that could tap into nationalist sentiment, had increased dramatically since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to say nothing of earlier times. In the American West, the Colt revolver was dubbed “the Equalizer” because it allowed even those who were physically weak to kill the strong. In the same way, in the post–World War II era, the growth in influence of public opinion, both foreign and domestic, was the great equalizer that increasingly allowed the militarily weak to best the strong. The potency of this one-two punch, political and military, would be demonstrated anew not only in the second Vietnam War but also in countries as far-flung as Cuba and Israel.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!