Small Wars Journal

Military History and the London Riots

Tue, 03/26/2013 - 2:20am

In general I deplore attempts to make parallels to war; let’s be clear at the outset, I am quite certain that neither [American] football nor business are “just like” it. However, in the case of the August 2011 riots in London the points of correspondence are adequately similar to justify the comparison. This is the first piece in a series on the process of examining the riots as military history. [1] I expect, as I am crossing intellectual boundaries by applying military history to domestic law enforcement, and blurring functionalities by comparing police work with military operations that some will balk. Therefore, in this one I intend to explore the conceptual basis which sustains my view that the disorders which rocked London (in spirit if not in fact) over four days deserve analysis as if they were a piece of military history, while also assuaging concerns that such an effort will muddy scholarly or professional waters.

Circling the potential terms of chaos and war in urban terrain has been part of working out the relevance of this subject to war and military history. [2] Contemplating the urban environment as a malignantly fertile context for conflict in the future begins to answer the question of why the subject of the disorders deserves attention from this quarter. If I have made a decent case regarding urban mayhem, then as a view to a possible iteration of future warfare this event and others like it have security implications beyond the world of public order policing. Taken from the alternative perspective, if at least part of warfare is changing, then it is worth shaking up the work of military history as well.

As a piece of military history the disorders work particularly well. Collected together and cast as a unified event – a battle – the issues and events which are of concern read remarkably consistent with the typical material. From the various formal reviews, 08/11 was shaped by matters of: command and control; tactics; terrain; doctrine and training; logistics; communications; intelligence; personnel mobilisation. This is the rogue’s gallery of issues which confound planners and commanders and shape war. More to the point, they are the military historian’s bread and butter. Add the conditions imposed by the context and it is not difficult to see these events as urban warfare.

There is not yet a thesis for this study. Not only is that not a problem but it would be inappropriate at this juncture. However, the beauty of history is that it provides a basic thesis starting point by asking three essential questions of the events: what happened, why, and so what. From here, further questions emerge from the research. By asking new questions of the materials and the events they portray different conclusions will emerge. Whereas history is bounded only by the curiosity of the investigator, this analytical approach diverges from those used in the various official reviews. Each has its defined remit and, no criticism intended, bureaucratic-cultural bias. I have no such constraints, and so am inspired by the new analytical space that is possible. [3]

For many reasons I am taking law enforcement as the primary perspective for now. For the most part it is simply the case that I began by reading the materials related to this side of the narrative first. Of course, I must admit that they also remind me of standard military documents, which provides yet another connection with military history. Although it leaves a gap in the story, approaching such an event from the perspective of one party is not uncommon in military history. [4]

A focus on law enforcement means we are concerned with institutions, bound by laws and conventions, guided by doctrines, and informed by customs, culture and traditions. Keeping this in mind is critical to the analysis. First and foremost is that the role that the UK police are meant to play in public protest imposes a critical boundary. Based upon their duty to serve the law, it falls to the police to sustain the right to free expression and facilitate protest. This is in addition to their policing model which relies upon public consent. [5] And it is not my wish to suggest or imply the need to change this, and neither do I think that their proper role is to oppose or confront or fight protestors. I think the role of the police as protector of such activities is a stance to be respected and furthered. I like it philosophically as well as tactically, especially as it fits with my general views on COIN in a people-centric conflict.

And let us be clear, putting these events into the terms of warfare – and from there to be analyzed as a piece of military history – is not to mistake the fundamental differences between war and public order. Whereas war, battle, combat tend to rely upon it, in this case we must be very clear that violence or force are not necessarily to answer in such events. Neither do I mean to suggest the rioters or looters be viewed as an “enemy” in the sense which is normally used in war. While it is clear that they did play the role of opposing combatant at time, and at certain points in the analysis will be discussed as such, this is not asserted as a value judgement.

The historical importance – to London, the UK, to ethnic, cultural, and social issues – will have to await future consideration. Scholars of generations hence will have to decide that. However, as the city is becoming the critical locus of societies and humanity, how well we can understand these events on their own is increasingly more important to future security. Military history provides an excellent for vehicle to further that understanding.


[1] These pieces will be posted to both the Kings of War and Small Wars Journal blogs. Each have different audiences, both of which I am interested to reach.

[2] Robert Killebrew’s piece on the future of the US Army in the aftermath of a decade of war sustains the basic thesis I was heading towards. First, he argues that armies no longer have a monopoly on the use of force or war, and that new actors will blur lines between crime and war. Second, he notes that there is serious tension between authority and the forces of chaos, especially with respect to who controls critical terrain. (“Rebuilding the Army – Again: Lessons and Warnings from the Post-Vietnam Era,” Armed Forces Journal, March 2013.)

[3] I also wonder at how the events are understood. The popular conception has been informed and formed by the video imagery and news coverage at that time. The glut of visual information available these days gives the false impression of knowledge, but in this particular case the pictures not only did not tell the full story, they often told an incorrect one. On the other, the official reviews do offer more accurate information, but they do not provide a narrative that a wide audience (even within the law enforcement and defence communities) will follow.

[4] And the best military history recognizes these gaps. A one-sided approach may result from not having the luxury of equal knowledge of both sides or for the purpose of simplification of the narrative. In this particular instance, pulling together the right quality materials to tell story of the other side (the rioters and the looters) requires more time. In any case, I am not concerned for the research at the moment.

[5] The HMIC reviews of policing and the G20 protests in April 2009 ("Adapting to Protest") and modern public order policing in the UK generally, ("Nurturing") are abundantly clear about the role of law enforcement in protest. Similarly, the HMIC review of the policing and the riots ("Rules of Engagement") has much to say on the matter of public consent for policing methods and actions.