The Best Defense

French’s book on British COIN: A review

By Bob Goldich

Best Defense guest book reviewer

I just finished an incredibly insightful book, David French, The British Way in Counter-Insurgency 1945-1967. French is a distinguished British historian who has produced superb books on, among other things, British Army mobilization and training in World War II, and the British regimental tradition. IMHO, Four of the many conclusions he comes to in this work are:

1. The British used a lot more coercion and force in their COIN operations than more hagiographical accounts of those operations admit or imply. This isn't new, but he gathers together information from ten post-WWII British COIN operations to make his point very meticulously.

2. Because of the gross misinterpretations regarding (1), COIN doctrines based on a supposed "hearts and minds" and humanitarian-oriented doctrine are based on a totally incorrect interpretation of history. Last line of his book, page 255: "Misleading history had contributed to producing a misleading doctrine."

3. British success in post-WWII COIN was mixed at best. Oft-cited Malaya worked very well. By any standards the British lost in Palestine, the Suez Canal prior to the late 1956 invasion, Oman, and Aden. The British suppressed the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the short run, the same in Nyasaland (Malawi), but within a few years had to grant Kenyan independence anyway. In Cyprus, the British had to grant Cypriot independence and retained only two military base areas on the island. In Oman they failed in the 1960s and had to go back and do it in the 1970s. I think this part of his analysis is very significant, because if we compare his list of successes and failures with ours, we come across as no worse or better.

4. The British were, in general, not particularly prepared in advance for COIN operations, did not adapt rapidly, and had enormous problems in transmitting sound operational analysis to the field. Interestingly, in view of our recent discussion about conscription and COIN, he cites the use of National Servicemen (two-year draftees) as a real drag on developing effective COIN units due to huge personnel turnover.

This book ain't cheap but it is well worth the dough.


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