RUSI Journal, Apr 2012, Vol. 157, No. 2
MADAM, I am writing in response to the letter from Major General (rtd) David Thomson following my June 2011 RUSI Journal article, ‘Atrocities in Britain’s Counter-Insurgencies’. At the outset, I would like to retort his criticism of my research methods. The article was the product of my own experience of counter-insurgency between 1973 and 2009, and research on the same subject since 2003.
I agree with him that the vast majority of British forces conducted themselves honourably under the most difficult and provocative of circumstances, especially in Aden, where the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders found themselves. As a teenager I read the autobiography of the Argyll’s commanding officer in Aden, Colin Mitchell, and he was an enormous influence on my own thinking on matters military, not knowing at the time that, like him, I would go on to command an infantry battalion. For him and for me, this was the greatest privilege, with enormous responsibility for the conduct of those under my command. It is all too clear that Colin Mitchell felt the same when he arrived in Aden.
That said, Colin Mitchell, like all humans, was not perfect and I refer to Jonathan Walker’s excellent account (Aden Insurgency, 2005). Writing in an article for the Sunday Express in October 1968, Mitchell expressed his conviction that the security situation in Aden had dramatically deteriorated. As noted in his autobiography, he ‘was planning a vigorous military domination of Crater’ which he achieved with a superb military operation on 3 July. It was the folly of ‘Argyll Law’, which followed, that was to turn the tide.
Suspects were ‘challenged and then shot’. House searches were accompanied by looting. Rigorous interrogations were in force. Consequently, Major General Tower ordered Mitchell to ‘throttle back’ his efforts. Mitchell found himself with interview sans coffee with the Commander in Chief, Admiral Le Fanu, over his blatantly insubordinate Part One Order. Over some 117 incidents, the Argylls killed twenty suspected terrorists and in turn lost five killed and thirteen wounded. He departed Aden with a Mention in Despatches, whereas other Commanding Officers were awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was passed over for promotion in 1968 and resigned that year.
The historian Professor David French states, ‘By 1967, the sense that the British were behaving in ways that were morally unacceptable in Aden had become palpable’. ‘Argyll Law’ was known as very rough justice. Allegations that they were intent on killing a dozen alleged insurgents in revenge for the soldiers they had lost were later confirmed by soldiers who had served with the battalion. Another veteran added that there were other motives: ‘with bodies being stripped of money belts and valuables’. The BBC’s Empire Warriors – Aden: Mad Mitch and his Tribal Law (2004) and G Goodwin and G Burke’s ‘I Accuse the Argylls’, Sunday Mail, 26 April 1981 both present similar accounts.
MADAM, I read Colonel David Benest’s article on ‘Atrocities in Britain’s Counter Insurgencies’ (RUSI Journal 2011, Volume 3) with great interest. He makes many telling points and, perhaps more important, raises a serious topic that deserves much wider consideration and discussion.
There are a number of areas that need to be borne in mind, however. First, war among the people to capture the support, loyalty and ‘hearts and minds’ of those people (in that well-worn and hackneyed phrase) is very different to general war. Different rules, standards and even logic apply.
Second, one of the lessons we learned from our researches for Blindfold and Alone – Executions in the First World War was that it is quite wrong for modern historians to try and judge the past by the standards of today. As Professor Sir Michael Howard pointed out in his magisterial summing up at a RUSI debate in the mid-1990s, that is not only bad history but intellectually dishonest. For example, we may abhor the guillotine nowadays, while conveniently forgetting that it was invented at the time as a more humane method of execution. Autres temps, autres moeures.
Thus, when we examine some of the atrocities presented it is possible to judge them, perhaps, in a different way: the Boer War’s concentration camps were never intended as instruments of oppression or death camps; Brigadier General Dyer’s bloody massacre at Amritsar was seen by many at the time as having saved lives by preventing a second Indian Mutiny; and Britain’s savage handling of the original IRA in the early 1920s can be seen as a response to the brutal atrocities committed by the Irish terrorists of the day.
This is not to excuse what happened; for example, of all Colonel Benest’s cases the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners in particular cannot be forgiven. However, when weighed against the bestial atrocities of the Mau Mau gangs themselves, it can at least be understood in the context of the place and the events of the time. Although lawyers tend to overlook the fact, soldiers and policemen are human beings too, and are driven by the same impulses as others. Sometimes discipline and the law seem out of touch with bloody military reality on the ground; we should never forget that.
Moreover, we must remember that the terrorist in counter-insurgency is playing by very different rules. Never was the phrase ‘asymmetric warfare’ more apt. So it can be argued that ‘Argyll Law’ in Aden’s Crater district was nothing more that the firm re-imposition of law and order, and was well understood as such by all concerned at the time. To equate it, for example, with the French army’s disgraceful behaviour in the Algerian Casbah would be a gross slur on both the Argylls and British soldiers.
And we must also never forget that ruthless insurgents know only too well how to play the system. For every Provisional IRA prisoner treated harshly by the RUC in Castlereagh there were dozens who harmed themselves or lied about their treatment in order to avoid the none too delicate attentions of PIRA’s notorious ‘debriefing teams’, who routinely interrogated their own members once released by the security forces. The PIRA’s brutal thugs were not bound by the delicate legal constraints demanded by lawyers and human rights activists. This is not to say that we should adopt their methods; but it is folly to pretend that any war can be won only by humane methods and the rule of peacetime law.
Insurgencies are wars – not just crime waves. While the end cannot always justify the means, assuming that the politicians who send our soldiers to fight on their behalf want to win their wars, we ignore that at our peril. Is being beastly to terrorists and rebels somehow more morally reprehensible than unleashing atom bombs on thousands of unsuspecting, helpless women and children?
I congratulate Colonel Benest on sparking what is an important moral – and practical – debate.
Author, with Cathryn Corns, of Blindfold and Alone
MADAM, I refer to the article ‘An Unmanned Future for Naval Aviation’ in your December 2011 issue. While the authors are to be commended for bringing this important topic into an open forum, there are certain major points which are raised that must be challenged.
Firstly, the new Royal Navy CVFs (HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales) are not super-carriers – a description used mostly online – but are mid-way between the US’s Nimitz class of 100,000 ton and the French 43,000 ton Charles de Gaulle, whose complements are 6,000 (ship plus air group) and 2,000 respectively; whereas the HMS Queen Elizabeth will have 600 crew and 500 air group or Royal Marines depending which task is being undertaken. HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will have a speed of 25 knots whereas Nimitz-class carriers, which are nuclear powered, can exceed 30 knots and of course have an unlimited range.
In many ways the Royal Navy CVFs will reflect the light fleet carriers of the late 1940s, the Ocean class, which had the same speed and complement as the new CVFs despite being smaller in size. They were considered to have the finest carrier designs and performed admirably in the Korean War where the RAF could not feature due to lack of shore bases. In short, the new CVFs will maintain the tradition of being lean and cost effective aircraft carriers with three times the capability of HMS Invincible.
What is more serious is that this paper does not reflect the current thinking of the US Navy, given that only a passing reference to the Unmanned Combat Air System Vehicles (UCAVs) is made. UCAVs suggest a new possibility because of their inherently long endurance, enabling carriers to effectively act as rear bases from which strikes can be mounted quickly. UCAV designs focus not upon individual aircraft capabilities but on a swarm of vehicles that create a new kind of air weapon control between the assets themselves and their bases.
It is axiomatic that for a CVF to be effective it must be part of a balanced support group. Here lies an opportunity for the Royal Navy to resume the role of policing, which according to Martin N Murphy the US Navy has abdicated. CVFs acting as a floating base for a swarm of UCAVs, policing the Gulf of Aden or Arabian Sea, would alleviate what Murphy suggests is the biggest single maritime threat since the Second World War.
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