David French, The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967 (Oxford University Press, 2011). 304 pages.

Reviewed by David Charters (University of New Brunswick)

The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967 by Professor David French is the most important book on the subject since Tom Mockaitis’ British Counterinsurgency 1919-1960, published more than twenty years ago. Based on unparalleled research into official documents on nine campaigns it is likely to be the authoritative work on the subject for years to come. French’s goal is ambitious. He sets out to challenge the ‘counter-insurgency canon’: the ‘Templer-Malaya’ (T/M) model which suggests that counter-insurgency campaigns can not only be successful, but can be conducted in a manner consistent with the principles of liberal democracy. At the heart of the canon/ model is the notion of ‘winning hearts and minds’, which puts a humane gloss on what was and is, in fact, a pretty rough form of warfare. It is fair to say that, from this reviewer’s perspective, French has achieved his goal in persuasive fashion.

Professor French is concerned that the current doctrines of counter-insurgency, driven by the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have adopted the T/M model uncritically. He attributes the predominance of that model to the influence of one of its chief proponents, Sir Robert Thompson, who served in the Malayan government during the Emergency. His book, Defeating Communist Insurgency, first published in 1966, and in print continuously since, articulated the basic principles and practices which have informed counter-insurgency doctrine up to the present. But, French says, by relying on Thompson’s perspective doctrine writers have been building on a less than solid historical foundation, and poor history is likely to lead to poor doctrine and practice. The devil is in the details, and the details French lays out tell a more complex, challenging, and not always successful story of the British ‘way’ in counter-insurgency. His central thesis is that the British way relied heavily on coercion rather than persuasion. For anyone who has worked in this field this does not come as a shock or even a surprise. What French’s book does is to prove beyond reasonable doubt what many of us suspected all along: that the ‘hearts and minds’ concept did not tell the whole story, and that the British practice of counter-insurgency was not antiseptic, even if it was not as rough as that of some other countries. But counter-insurgency is war, after all, and war – like history itself – is never neat and tidy.

The book explores a series of themes set out in chapters, using historical cases to illustrate and prove the key points. He opens with an analysis of the colonial state – the theatre in which these campaigns were fought. He asserts that these were ‘fragile’ states: under-funded and understaffed, with few police and other security forces. Their capacity to govern and protect their subjects was limited. When trouble broke out, they were poorly informed about the threat, misunderstood it, and thus tended to over-react.

Sir Robert Thompson’s work emphasized the need for the security forces to act within the law. But in his chapter on the legal context French points out that this was not a big challenge, since the colonies had various kinds of laws and regulations that gave the local government and the security forces all the powers they needed to suppress rebellion and to control the population without resorting to martial law, which was used rarely. Central to operating within the law was the concept of ‘minimum force’, but as French points out, no one – not even the Manual of Military Law – knew what the phrase meant. Soldiers and police were left to decide for themselves what was appropriate in the circumstances, and that could entail applying a lot of lethal force. In most campaigns the death penalty was used sparingly, but in Kenya 1,068 Mau Mau members were executed.

In the absence of martial law, under which the military would have run everything, committees were devised to coordinate civilian, police and military activity. They were needed because the three sides often disagreed on how to run an emergency. Only in Malaya and Borneo did the committee system work well, and only in Malaya did the British combine civil and security authority in one person (Field Marshal Templer), and there only for two years. In French’s view what was important about Templer was not just what he did, but how he did it. He was the right man in the right place at the right time who put his personal stamp on the campaign, inspiring and driving his subordinates. His significant impact was never replicated elsewhere. The ‘take away’ point here is that people, personalities, and character matter in the making of history.

French’s chapter on ‘Varieties of Coercion’ makes several key points. First, he says that the British used a variety of coercive tools, such as lethal force, searches, curfews, mass arrests, detention without trial, and collective punishments not just to harass and degrade the insurgents, but to intimidate the population into helping the security forces – by making the cost of helping the insurgents too high. Second, population control (re-settlement) was used in Malaya and Kenya to break the link between the population and the insurgents, but elsewhere it was used little or not at all, for practical, financial or political reasons. Finally, he shows that – contrary to the standard narrative – air power was used more extensively than previously thought, particularly in Oman (1958) and in the Radfan campaign in South Arabia (1964).

French demonstrates convincingly that in spite of the emphasis on coercion and the permissive legal environment the British never resorted to any systematic, sanctioned ‘dirty war’ in its post-1945 campaigns. That said, British and locally raised security forces ‘sailed close to the wind’. Unofficial reprisals occurred in several campaigns. The Farran case in Palestine exposed an undercover unit operating close to the margins of being a ‘death squad’ (the unit leader, Major Roy Farran, did kill a Stern Gang courier). Farran’s trial, in which he was acquitted, smacked of an elaborate ‘cover-up’. In the first year of the Kenya Emergency 430 people were shot “while attempting to escape.” Likewise, the detention camps in Kenya were notorious for their brutal living conditions. In fact, it was only in Kenya where, like the pieds noirs of Algeria the settler population hated the insurgents and carried some political weight, that British counter-insurgency shared some of the ugly features of the Algerian war. Elsewhere, French feels that the low-intensity scale of the fighting probably limited the scale of extra-judicial violence.

Professor French reserves his strongest critique for the concept of “winning hearts and minds.” However catchy a phrase it was in theory it was an almost impossible goal and task in practice, because the vast majority of the colonial populations did not want to be ruled by the British. The best they could hope for – and got – in most cases, was a sullen, resentful acceptance. Short of outright independence, there was little the British could offer the indigenous populations. Although officials in London recognized that development programs that generated social and economic benefits were the best weapon against the insurgents, they couldn’t afford them. Both Britain and its colonies were poor. Development worked in Malaya only because of a Cold War coincidence; the Korean War provided a temporary boom in demand for Malayan tin and rubber. Even so, many of the ‘new villages’ where the Chinese were resettled remained under-resourced for years. Security sector reform worked well in Malaya and Borneo, but had mixed results elsewhere. Similarly, psychological operations worked (best in Malaya) where they were paired with other inducements and coercion. Here again, French’s thesis and analysis cautions us against drawing sweeping ‘lessons’ from the results of a single campaign. The conditions and context in which each campaign was fought were important; these limited the relevance of Britain’s counter-insurgency ‘toolbox’ and thus shaped the outcome; having a ‘proven’ doctrine alone was not enough.

In any case, he argues that in spite of a considerable effort to develop and revise their doctrine the British were slow to learn lessons and to share them between theatres. He writes that there was a big shift in thinking in which the army gradually came to realize that counter-insurgency involved more than just using troops to replace the police in maintaining order. But the ‘learning curve’ was steep because of the high turnover of troops, the administrative burdens of national service, the need to train for conventional war, and the varied quality of unit preparation, which depended on leadership. That said the army’s learning process was light years ahead of that in the colonial service.

Finally, there was the problem of sustainability. Success in counter-insurgency depended on out-lasting insurgents, which required financial means and political will. Both were in short supply after the Second World War. French uses the contrasting outcomes of two campaigns (success in Borneo and failure in Aden/South Arabia) to show that by the end of the 1960s Britain could still win in counter-insurgency, but that the outcomes were increasingly shaped by circumstances largely beyond their control.

The past decade has seen the opening of a wide range of British records on the post-1945 conflicts, including Northern Ireland, and a parallel (and hardly coincidental) emergence of a new generation of young scholars (and a smaller number of established scholars like Professor French) applying themselves to those campaigns. Given his exhaustive mining of the archives and his careful marshalling of evidence and argument it is hard to find fault with either his method or his conclusions. My one quibble is that I would like to have seen in his introduction more of his own views on the earlier scholarly literature in the field (he relies on John Newsinger to, in effect, dismiss it). But that is a very minor criticism of what is otherwise a masterful work. Indeed, Professor French has set the bar very high, and that can only be a good thing for the rest of us who yet labour in these contested trenches.