12 December, 2011Issue 17.5History

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The Imperial Code

Musab Younis

BritishDavid French
The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967
Oxford University Press, 2011
304 Pages
ISBN 978-0199587964


The recent row in the London Review of Books between Pankaj Mishra and Niall Ferguson seems to indicate that, after decades of painstaking research, there is yet to emerge a consensus on British imperialism. This year saw the publication of both Ferguson’s Civilization and Jeremy Paxman’s Empire, two popular books which are far more equivocal on the topic of empire and its victims—more “perplexingly affirmative” in Edward Said’s formulation—than many might have expected this late in the game. At the same time, Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire, also published this year, is an epic work of popular history examining the resistance to empire on the part of its victims. Far from the formation of a consensus, it appears that writing on empire is as polarised as it has ever been.

Into this divided landscape steps David French, a military historian based at University College London, with his book The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-67. The conventional wisdom that French sets out to question is largely contained in Sir Robert Thompson’s book, Defeating Communist Insurgency, which was published in 1966 and is still seen by many as a counter-insurgency Bible. Thompson had argued that the British method of dealing with insurgency in the post-war period was based on a unique hearts-and-minds approach, thus introducing the rhetoric that now saturates NATO operations abroad.

In this conventional view, a number of key benchmarks are said to have marked British counter-insurgency during the decolonisation period after the Second World War. The British understood the importance of using coordinated government machinery. They knew that one had to defeat the insurgent subversion and not the insurgent per se. They only used minimum force. Their operations were intelligence-led. They knew that success is obtained only by political settlement. They learned from their mistakes, operating within a legal framework that severely restricted the action they could take against insurgents.

French marshals extensive archival research to deliver a series of blows to each of the foundations of this orthodoxy. British counter-insurgency was generally a matter of intimidating the civilian population into subjection: “On the balance, where they won they did so by being nasty, not nice, to the people.” It was often not effective even on its own terms. It was worse in some places than in others, but where it was “mild” in terms of likely casualties, the psychological effects could be horrendous. The legal restrictions placed on it were often very loose, and when it was limited this was due to outside interference more than any sense of legal obligation. “These issues are of more than just historical interest”, he writes. “They are important because much contemporary British counter-insurgency doctrine is based upon historical arguments that are at best ill-informed, and at worst almost the opposite of what actually happened.”

A number of scholars have tackled this topic before and French refers to their work. In the 1990s, John Newsigner said that “outright brutality was often a hallmark” of British counter-insurgency. He was followed by largely corroborative work from Ashley Jackson, Hew Strachan, Paul Dixon, and Alex Marshall. On Kenya, we have recently seen the large-scale revisionist work of David Anderson, Caroline Elkins, Huw Bennett, and Daniel Branch. For David French, this work has all been important in bringing out and analysing a considerable body of primary sources, but as the focus has mostly been on single campaigns, we have not yet had a comparative analysis from a historian who can refer to the primary sources from multiple campaigns.

French’s conclusions fit closely with much recent scholarship and should not really be surprising, but he gives them a bracing weight through his incisive handling of the sources. “British colonial government was a confidence trick”, he argues. There were major and regular failings in intelligence gathering. The British could be seriously misguided about the aims of their opponents, and a Manichean view of counter-insurgency was commonplace, in which the West battled multiple eruptions of a Soviet-led plot for world domination. In fact, direct communist involvement was virtually absent from every counter-insurgency except Malaya. A large part of the traditional myth is that the British understood their opponents and were adept at political settlement. French shows that they could almost never accept that their indigenous opponents in the colonies might have legitimate grievances or an understandable desire for independence. They “explained this otherwise inexplicable phenomenon by marginalizing and criminalizing their opponents. They were ‘thugs’, ‘bandits’, ‘gangsters’, or ‘terrorists’.”

This was backed up by a racist and self-serving paternalism—not only did the colonial administrators talk to the natives about their mission civilisatrice, it appears they actually believed it. (It gives for some amusing lines. British soldiers serving in Kenya were told: “You will find that most Africans have an innate respect for the White Man.”) This means they could never really accept the genuine support that an independence movement could gain in the local population; often they “saw their colonial subjects as an inert and amorphous mass, waiting to be controlled by either the insurgents or the administration.”

With regard to the legality of British counter-insurgency, French argues that the British rejection of martial law in the colonies post-war was not “because of some high-minded preference for preserving legal norms”, but because the 1939 Emergency Powers Order-in-Council, and the local legislation it generated, allowed them to use virtually all the coercive powers of martial law without having actually to declare it. Administrations were given the power to intimidate the civilian population, disrupt insurgents organisations and arrest suspects, limit the freedom of movement of people and goods, impose curfews, introduce compulsory identity cards, restrict the possession of foodstuffs and other articles, censor the media in various ways, ban suspect organisations, search homes without a warrant, mount cordon and search operations, and impose a variety of collective punishments.

If that wasn’t enough—and it seems that it often wasn’t—there were also “counter-terrorist” regulations which allowed the government to detain suspects without trial, deport non-citizens, enforce wholesale population resettlements, and create free-fire zones where the security forces could engage “suspected insurgents” with lethal force. Kenya, in part because the anti-colonial resistance was isolated from foreign aid and there was a vehement European settler population, became the laboratory for some of the worst instances of British violence. By the end of May 1954, around half of the entire Kikuyu population in Nairobi was detained without trial. From 1954-55, over one million Kenyans (69% of the Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu groups) were forcibly moved to new villages.

Counter-insurgency “resettlement”, as Elkins and Anderson have previously shown, was not like moving social housing tenants to another part of the city. It involved the removal of whole communities to camps, surrounded by barbed wire and policed by watch towers, in which the full set of emergency regulations could be stringently and often brutally enforced. In the “punitive” villages in Kenya, designed for those considered Mau Mau sympathisers, trade and movement between villages was prohibited, and all food destroyed except the minimum necessary for local consumption.

French compares this with Malaya, where almost exactly half the entire Chinese population was forcibly resettled, numbering around one million people. There was also an extensive air-bombing campaign in Radfan, part of modern Yemen, where according to intelligence reports, well and water courses were destroyed and an indeterminate number of people were killed. People were told to leave designated villages, and if they stayed they could be legally shot. By February 1959, villagers were facing imminent famine. The only difference between this and the Kenya and Malaya cases, states French, was that in Radfan the refugees—having been bombed out of their villages—were not resettled.

This is a careful, often riveting book that has been constructed on the basis of rigorous archival research. French takes on a major task, insisting on a sweep of place and time that must have demanded he tackle an intimidating quantity of archival material, and the results are frequently a testament to modern historical scholarship. He has a good eye for readability, with the welcome result that a potentially enormous book comes in at just over 300 pages, including notes. Yet at times, a disconcerting desire for relevance amongst military practitioners seeps in. There is some uncritical discussion of notions like “efficiency” and “effectiveness”. And in the concluding section French says that there “may be kind and gentle ways of doing [counter-insurgency]…and there is every reason for today’s practitioners to seek them out.” At points like these one is reminded of Ranajit Guha’s discussion of writing on this topic, in which “even the more liberal type of secondary discourse is unable thus to extricate itself from the code of counter-insurgency.”

Musab Younis is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at Wadham College, Oxford, and is the deputy editor of Ceasefire magazine.