John Newsinger. British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. x + 221 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-333-79385-5.
Reviewed by Jonathan Colman (Department of Historical and Critical Studies, University of Central Lancashire, England )
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2002)
Shattering Myths about British Counterinsurgency
Shattering Myths about British Counterinsurgency
Since 1945 Britain has found itself involved in major counterinsurgency campaigns in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, South Yemen, Dhofar and Northern Ireland. The literature on these campaigns has tended to be somewhat celebratory in tone, giving the impression that Britain has enjoyed considerable success in the conduct of its counterinsurgency campaigns. This success is contrasted starkly with the experiences of the French in Indochina and Algeria, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan. As Newsinger points out, this triumphalist approach is "a distortion of the facts," because the British "record includes significant defeats in Palestine and South Yemen and the failure, despite overwhelming numerical and material superiority, to destroy their opponents in Cyprus and Northern Ireland" (p. 1). From the 1945-51 Labour governments onwards, the British favoured withdrawal rather than attempting to combat an uprising in any major Imperial territory. "The decision to withdraw from India and Burma" in 1947 "saved the British Empire from its Vietnam, from its Afghanistan," Newsinger argues (p. 1). Using secondary sources, he attempts a study of Britain's chief counterinsurgency campaigns in the postwar era, and contends that "British success, whether complete or partial, was dependent not on any supposed military process, but on the ability to establish a large enough political base among sections of the local inhabitants prepared to support and assist in the defeat of the insurgents" (p. 2).
However, the book opens not with success but with failure: the counterinsurgency campaign in the British mandate of Palestine immediately after the Second World War. British forces, though freshly victorious over Germany and Japan, found themselves beleaguered by a challenge from the Yishuv, the small Zionist settlement in Palestine. The Yishuv rebellion, "tacitly supported by the United States, was to compromise the British Empire's overall position in the Middle East and thereby begin the process of dissolution in the region" (p. 3). Britain's failure to neutralize the Zionist revolt--including by means of repression--was "one of the most humiliating episodes in immediate postwar British history" (p. 3). It was "a major factor in Britain's political defeat at the hands of the Jewish Agency and its supporters in the United States," and it "contributed to Britain's eviction from a territory that the Chiefs of Staff regarded as essential for the security of the Empire" (p. 29). London found itself "trapped between the Zionists and the Palestinian Arabs, unable, because of external circumstances and considerations, to enlist the support of either group in the maintenance of British rule in the mandate" (p. 30). The result was the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948.
The chapter on the "Mau Mau" or Kikuyu revolt in Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s, "an almost forgotten incident in British colonial history" (p. 60), is especially interesting because this gruesome edisode has indeed received relatively little coverage. The uprising was at the time portrayed as a "barbaric tribal response to the pressures of modernization, as a reversion to primitive superstition and blood-crazed savagery caused by the inability of Africa to cope with the modern world" (p. 60). This was of course merely a "racist caricature of a revolt against oppression, exploitation and injustice that was to be crushed with incredible brutality and ruthlessness" (p. 60). By 1948, as a result of European settlement, the 1.25 million Kikuyu people found themselves confined to a mere 2,000 square miles of tribal land, while the 30,000 white settlers occupied some 12,000 square miles. The Kikuyu faced "widespread poverty, unemployment and underemployment, and chronic overpopulation" (p. 61). The British overlords were less than understanding, and their repression of the Kikuyu was in its intensity "unprecedented in the history of British postwar governments" (p. 60). Newsinger points out that "within six months of the declaration of the Emergency" in 1952 "an incredible 430 men had been officially shot dead while trying to escape" (p. 68). By 1954 there were 77,000 of the Kikuyu in detention. "Beating, torture, mutilation and the shooting of prisoners out of hand were everyday occurrences" (p. 77). London granted Kenya its independence in 1963, although not from enlightened concerns about the plight of the indigenous population but because the "British and foreign companies" who were the chief investors in Kenya were willing "to accommodate themselves to Africans" (p. 83). The white settlers who had resisted Kenyan independence so vigorously were merely an "epiphenomenon" (p. 83). Although they wielded political power within Kenya, they lacked the economic clout that was more critical in the context of British rule.
The coverage of "The Unknown Wars: Oman and Dhofar" indicates above all that the British--like most states--are not always choosy when it comes to friends and allies. Although these two wars "fought on behalf of the Sultans of Oman, Said bin Taimur and his son, Qaboos, were both small affairs that involved only small numbers of British personnel" (p. 132), they were significant in that they helped to maintain "a British presence and British influence in the Middle East" (p. 132). Since the 1870s the Sultanate of Oman had been a British protectorate "ruled by the Sultan but under the effective control of his British advisers" (p. 132). The Sultan and his backers ruled "a backward poverty- and disease-ridden society where the infant mortality rate was 75 percent and the literacy rate was 5 percent" (p. 133). Here "slavery was still practised quite openly," and "mistreatment, mutilation and torture were routinely used to intimidate the population into quiescence and passivity" (p. 133). Although some of the British backers of Said's regime had their reservations, according to Newsinger most regarded "royal autocracy as a perfectly legitimate form of government with which they felt completely at home" (p. 133). They expressed few, if any, ethical concerns about serving a "medieval tyranny" (p. 132). British backing "for this despotism continued under successive governments, both Conservative and Labour" (p. 135). Without this backing the Omani regime could not have survived, giving rise to "one of the most unsavory episodes in postwar British foreign policy" (pp. 136). After victory against the tribes of the interior in the Jebel Akhdar campaign in 1959, the British and Omani forces faced a more protracted campaign in Dhofar, an Omani colony. Victory was finally secured by the mid-1970s. This success was by no means impressive, though, as the Dhofar war was "a very small scale conflict" in which Britain was able to bring "overwhelming force" to bear on the insurgents (p. 150). Dhofar was "certainly a British victory," but it was achieved only "in the most favourable circumstances" (p. 150).
Other chapters of British Counterinsurgency address the British efforts in Malaya, Cyprus, South Yemen, and--obviously--Northern Ireland. These chapters all make compelling reading, and all-in-all Newsinger's book is a provocative, lucid and sensibly organized work which strikes a good balance between the military and the political elements of the subject matter. There are relatively few books about British counterinsurgency campaigns, and the author has illuminated a number of conflicts that have tended to receive only a scant or a self-serving coverage in much of the existing literature. This literature tends in any case to focus mainly on the military side of events.
Newsinger is at his best when he attempts to strip away layers of myth and distortion. For instance, he comments that the battle of Mirbat in Dhofar in 1971 has, without justification, been depicted in some of the literature as "a celebration of the British soldier hero" in which "the romance of Empire is combined with the excitement of a heroic stand against the menace of communism" (p. 147). Newsinger's work would have been still more useful if the author had brought his critical skills to bear on primary as well as secondary source material. There is also scope for more coverage of the influence of the wider international environment upon Britain's conduct of its counterinsurgency campaigns. In the light of the close diplomatic ties between Britain and the United States, this could include more on American attitudes, although this dimension receives good coverage in the chapter on Palestine. Newsinger's arguments are not kind to any British government, Labour or Conservative, as most of their policies emerge as reactionary and benighted. Yet the fact remains that Britain did avoid an Algeria or a Vietnam.
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Jonathan Colman. Review of Newsinger, John, British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland.
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