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The Use of Minimal Force; Painful Myth or Useful Reality?
Titus van de Kerke
During the decolonization period, in which the UK gave up many of its overseas territories, the British military faced several encounters with irregular troops, engaging in counterinsurgency operations in “Palestine, Malaya, the Suez Canal Zone, Kenya, British Guiana, Cyprus, Oman, Nyasaland, Borneo, and Aden” among others.[i] Several scholars have addressed the question whether British troops developed a particular approach to fighting counterinsurgency during these engagements. This essay discusses the question to what extent British forces adhered to the use of the minimal amount of force to restore order during these campaigns, a principle which is perceived by some as one of the pivotal points of the British counterinsurgency approach.[ii]
Firstly, this essay will discuss the views of Thomas Mockaitis and Rod Thornton who believed that British counterinsurgency evolved around a set of general principles (one of which being the minimum use of force), which led to the development of a particular approach to COIN differing from the efforts made by other nations such as France and the United States. Subsequently, the essay will discuss the arguments made by Hugh Bennett, Andrew Mumford and Simeon Shoul, who perceive the principle of minimum use of force as something that may have been adhered to in theory, but was not always practiced in the field.
Thomas Mockaitis summarizes the idea that British COIN focused on the political, social and economic undercurrents of particular conflicts in his article Low-intensity conflict: The British experience. Mockaitis states that the British approached low-intensity conflict with “the vital assumption that insurgency was not primarily a military problem”.[iii] Civil unrest should not be met with violence but be “be dealt with through a combination of reform (winning "hearts and minds") and police measures”.[iv] If it was necessary to keep the peace, Mockaitis writes, soldiers would operate to support the police from within the civil structure and “would be bound, like the police themselves, to use only that degree of force "essential to restore order.”[v]
According to Mockaitis, the British army “conducted numerous campaigns against irregulars along the fringes of the empire”.[vi] During these conflicts, Mockaitis argues, British troops were “under no compunction to exercise restraint” due to Victorian racial attitudes, the dependence of war correspondents on troops for protection and the fact that “these conflicts were technically external wars”.[vii] This began to change in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when most of the encountered conflict took place in already conquered territory and could now be “considered civil unrest rather than war”, even though they occurred oversees.[viii] A factor which Mockaitis identifies as contributing to the operation of British troops inside of the civil legal framework was the changing attitude towards violence in British society, which manifested itself in public reactions to excesses committed during the South-African Boer war, the Anglo-Irish war and the Amritsar massacre in India which took place in 1919.[ix]
According to Mockaitis, the principle of minimum force, which originally would only have been applied if soldiers were aiding civil power in the case of a riot, was broadened “to cover an ever-widening variety of disturbances” and began to be implemented in war office literature, partly out of fear that soldiers would have to be deployed in the context of labour unrest arising after the First World War.[x] Starting in the 1930’s the principle began to be inserted in manuals directed at imperial policing and the principle was widened still further, it became applicable to “all cases of unrest”.[xi] While Mockaitis explains that legally, different forms of unrest would still warrant different degrees of force, he believes that the use of as little force as possible became something soldiers adhered to as a general rule, even when martial law had been imposed. Mockaitis affirms that while there could be difficulties deciding what legal classification different conflicts should be ascribed, creating the possibility of ambiguity about the acceptability of force, “soldiers avoided the legal imbroglio by applying the principle of minimum force to all cases of unrest”.[xii] Mockaitis is adamant about the importance of restraint for the success of British COIN, calling it “a principle ingredient in the British formula for success in counterinsurgency”.[xiii]
While Mockaitis explains the gradual adoption of the limited force principle trough experience and doctrinal publications, Rod Thornton explores its causes in British society. According to Thornton, the minimum use of force had been a part of the “army’s organizational culture for several decades prior to” the massacre at Amritsar.[xiv] In Thornton’s view, Amritsar was in itself a departure from accepted conduct in the case of a riot, for British soldiers who had been brought up to avoid fatalities in the execution of their duties.[xv] The minimum force principle, Thornton poses, had been implemented since the second half of the ninetieth century, after the more brutal conflicts of the empire’s early days had gone.[xvi] British troops did not restrain themselves because of “qualms about inflicting heavy casualties”, their conduct was guided by much deeper lying principles: the moral principles instilled in them by Victorian society.[xvii]
According to Thornton, the protestant religion and its focus on individuality had a deep influence on the development of British law. Instead of adopting a pre-designed constitution, Britain developed the common law, not created by the sovereign or parliament but built upon precedents which arose overtime, creating an impartial legal framework “which favored the individual” and a governmental system which held “the notion of individual liberty to be at its core”.[xviii]
Thornton maintains that British society came to accept the notion that such “an emphasis on individual acceptance” came at a price; It “meant that individuals had to be extremely mindful of their own actions vis-a`-vis the law”.[xix] Thornton explains that the same diligence was expected of British soldiers when involved in the repression of civil unrest, no matter where the happened to be. Troops had to operate within the confines of British common law which meant that “the degree of force used in any policing situation – in Britain or abroad – had to be no more and no less than the minimum necessary to restore the peace”.[xx]
Another factor which Thornton identifies as leading to British restraint in the face of civil unrest is the revival of chivalrous ideals by the “increasingly prosperous elite within eighteenth-century British society”.[xxi] A yearning for “the supposed ethics of a former halcyon age” encouraged by prominent members of society, hoping to inspire an elite which was “less inspired by personal aggrandizement and more by noble and selfless values” led to embedment of these ideals into British life in the ninetieth century.[xxii] According to Thornton, the British system of secondary education in the form of paid public schools was the main conduit of these chivalrous ideals into the mindset of the 19th century British elite. While the public school system flourished between 1840 and 1900, Thornton believes that new schools “were established with the sole aim” of “turning out alumni – the future upper-class governing elites - who would be unselfish servants of an ostentatiously Christian morality specifically designed to rule an empire”.[xxiii]
According to Thornton, the ideals disseminated through the public school system, “manliness, patriotism, chivalry, service, sacrifice, comradeship and courage” could have had an effect on Britain’s military leaders well into the 20th century.[xxiv] Mockaitis however, disputes the extent to which minimum use of force was intrinsic to the mindset of British officers, noting that they “often resented the restrictions placed on their ability to use force”.[xxv] Noting that soldiers tended to be “condemned for using either too much force or too little”, he argues that in many situations, they would have preferred the ability to nip “unrest in the bud” and save “more lives in the long run”.[xxvi]
According to Thornton, the actual implementation of minimum force philosophy largely came down to pragmatism; Britain maintained a professional army of limited scope while controlling an increasingly large part of the world. Realizing that maintaining order through the use of violence would be impossible as it would antagonize neutral or loyal civilian populations against imperial power, Britain adopted a strategy of maintaining a military presence in unruly areas but only using force when there was no other option available and with as much caution as possible.[xxvii] Thornton believes that this mindset lead the British military to develop a reluctance to adopt weapons which reduced the ability to apply force in moderation as well as a preference for mobility over protectiveness in transportation.[xxviii]
Mockaitis believes that while British troops “generally avoided serious misdeeds” during counterinsurgency campaigns, they were sometimes less successful in avoiding “the appearance of wrongdoing”.[xxix] When an excess did occur, he argues, British authorities tended to establish genuine inquiry into the incident.[xxx] Both Mockaitis and Thornton do not deny the fact that there the long history of British counterinsurgency operations is spotted with episodes involving the deployment of considerable force against irregular fighters and civilian populations. In their view however, these excesses are just that; exceptions to the rule which are “notable by their isolation” and do not diminish the idea that that British forces saw excessive force as uncivilized and counterproductive.[xxxi] “Minimum force”, Mockaitis poses, “remains a cardinal principle of British counterinsurgency”.[xxxii]
In his article The banality of brutality: British armed forces and the repression of the Arab revolt in Palestine 1936-39, Matthew Hughes asks the question whether British troops tended to “avoid what today would be called human rights abuses” during their counterinsurgency campaign in Palestine in the late 1930’s, raising points which challenge Thornton and Mockaitis views.[xxxiii] Where Mockaitis points at the principle of minimum force being spread through several military manuals for engagement in civil unrest and small wars, Hughes remarks that these same publications provide “a legal framework for shooting rioters and allowed for ‘collective punishments’ and ‘retribution ’”.[xxxiv]
Hughes continues by remarking that while legal proceedings against soldiers who had committed criminal acts against the civilian population during the conflict in Palestine were technically possible, the fact that individual soldiers (who carried no personal identification on their uniform) had to be pinpointed and the separation of the civil and military legal systems meant that such cases were unlikely to occur.[xxxv] Hughes remarks to have found only one example of a successful case, instigated not by Arabs “whose complaints never led to a prosecution” but by a number of Europeans against “four British police officers who blatantly executed an Arab prisoner in the street”.[xxxvi] Hughes continuous that Arab combatants were denied prisoner of war status, subjecting them to criminal prosecution as well as measures enabled through martial law “such as the death penalty for carrying ammunition or a firearm”, while not being protected by international law.[xxxvii]
Hughes concludes that British attempts to find a balance between what was “lawful, what was morally right, and what worked” during their COIN campaign in Palestine, led them to implement a “systematic, systemic, officially sanctioned policy of destruction, punishment, reprisal and brutality”, operating within the legal framework.[xxxviii] He does however, remark that compared to other imperial powers that fought out similar COIN campaigns, British wrongdoings in Palestine were relatively minor.[xxxix]
In the article The other side of COIN: Minimum and exemplary force in British army counterinsurgency in Kenya, Huw Bennett notes that some of the secondary literature on British COIN “assumes that the replacement for international law in restraining the military was national and organizational culture, evident in the concept of minimum force. [xl] Bennett continuous by mentioning, that scholars are “beginning to question the notion that the concept minimum force was integral to the British tradition” and the extent to which it was responsible for British COIN success.[xli] Bennett himself argues that while minimum force was “being clearly laid out in doctrine, professional journals and Staff College syllabi”, it “clashed with draconian legislation introduced when Emergencies were declared”.[xlii] The counterinsurgency campaign in Kenya, whose military stages lasted from October 1952 until November 1956, resulted in 20.000 deaths as well as 150.000 imprisonments among Kenya’s “Kikuyu, Embu and Meru populations”.[xliii]
Bennett concludes that during the campaign “the security forces, including the army, relied upon broadly indiscriminate repression to produce results” and remarks that “such an attitude was hardly unusual, nor did it demand a complicated manipulation of international law”.[xliv] In another article, in which he engaged with the criticism that Rod Thornton had formulated against his approach of the use of force during the Kenya rebellion, Bennett identified the need for British COIN research to move “beyond an obsessional impulse to prove doctrine true” because of its “ important implications for military strategy and operational efficiency”.[xlv]
Simon Shoul’s doctoral thesis on the Arab revolt, a text referred to by Hughes as an example of research challenging the British counterinsurgency myth, maintains that there is a general overreliance on the assumption that the British used force sparingly, and only limited endeavors to quantify the use of force.[xlvi] In his thesis, which tries to assess the degree of force used by British forces in India, Egypt and Palestine during the inter-bellum on “a more rigorous, statistical level than formerly attempted”, Shoul concludes that while riot suppression involved “every degree of forcible suppression from polo sticks to machine guns and aerial bombs”, using force was no the “universal first resort” of both civil and military leaders.[xlvii] According to Shoul, the fact “that British civil administrators were not keen to call the Army in, and the Army did not like to be called”, led to the deployment of a variety of “ingenious diplomatic solutions” meant to avoid the use of violence.[xlviii] While Shoul’s research produces a relatively positive look at the use of force by British troops, he does criticize the “tendency in much recent research, to take the official description of events and doctrine as the verbatim truth”.[xlix]
Another example of an author who criticizes the historical research surrounding British COIN and the use of force in particular is Andrew Mumford. Mumford maintains that the “long-standing assumption” that British COIN aimed at producing civilian goodwill “must be seen as a colonial-era myth”, if “the regularity with which insurgent suspects were brutally treated during periods of detention and interrogation” is taken into account.[l] Mumford points at the British use of questionable interrogation techniques during the conflict in Northern Ireland, noting that the use of these “revealed a dark lineage to British COIN conduct”.[li] Mumford explains that the use of “wall-standing, hooding, continuous white noise, food denial, and sleep deprivation” had been developed during “colonial counterinsurgencies in previous decades”.[lii]
This essay has shown that there is a substantial scholarly debate surrounding the question to what extent the inclusion of the use of minimum force in British counterinsurgency doctrine resulted in its actual implementation during COIN conflicts. One group of scholars, who have contributed to the idea of minimum force as something that was thoroughly induced into the mindset of the British soldier through the values of British society, has been criticized for an overreliance on the official narrative of British counterinsurgency doctrine. Other authors have tried to produce what they perceive as a more thorough presentation of British counterinsurgency. While the debate shows how different interpretations of the past create the possibility of adopting differing lessons for the future, the image provided by both currents is one of British COIN as being relatively prone to look for solutions which involved the avoidance of force. The question that rises is to what extent the portrayal of British COIN as an example for future operations is useful when the degree of historical accuracy on which its lessons are drawn is being debated.
Huw Bennett, ‘The other side of COIN: Minimum and exemplary force in British army counterinsurgency in Kenya’, Small wars & insurgencies (2007), Vol. 18, No, 4, 638-664.
David French, ‘Nasty not nice: British counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, 1945–1967’, Small wars & insurgencies, 2012, Vol. 23, No. 4-5, 744-761.
Matthew Hughes, ‘The banality of brutality: British armed forces and the repression of the Arab revolt in Palestine 1936-39’, English Historical review (2009), Vol. 124, No. 507, 313-354.
Thomas Mockaitis, British counterinsurgency 1919-60 (MacMillan Press: Hampshire, 1990).
Thomas Mockaitis, ‘Low-intensity conflict: The British experience’, Conflict quarterly (1993), Vol. 13, No. 1, 7-16.
Andrew Mumford, Puncturing the counterinsurgency myth: Britain and irregular warfare in the past, present, and future, US army war college strategic studies institute (2011).
Thomas Mockaitis, British counterinsurgency in the post-imperial era (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1995).
Simon Shoul,‘ Soldiers, riots and aid to the civil Power in India, Egypt and Palestine, 1919 – 39 ’, (University of London Ph.D. thesis, 2006).
Rod Thornton, ‘The British army and the origins of the minimum force philosophy’, Small wars & insurgencies (2004), Vol. 15, No. 1, 83-106.
[i] David French, ‘Nasty not nice: British counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, 1945–1967’, Small wars & insurgencies, 2012, Vol. 23, No. 4-5, 744.
[ii] Thomas Mockaitis, ‘Low-intensity conflict: The British experience’, Conflict quarterly (1993), Vol. 13, No. 1, 8.
[vi] Thomas Mockaitis, British counterinsurgency 1919-60 (MacMillan Press: Hampshire, 1990), 17.
[viii] Ibid, 18.
[ix] Ibid, 18-21.
[x] Ibid. 24.
[xi] Ibid, 25.
[xiv] Rod Thornton, ‘The British army and the origins of the minimum force philosophy’, Small wars & insurgencies (2004), Vol. 15, No. 1, 86.
[xv] Ibidem, 86.
[xviii] Ibid, 87.
[xxi] Ibid, 88.
[xxiii] Ibid, 89.
[xxv] Mockaitis, British counterinsurgency, 26.
[xxvii] Thornton, ‘The British army and the origins of the minimum force philosophy’, 89.
[xxviii] Ibid, 96-99.
[xxix] Mockaitis, British counterinsurgency, 38.
[xxxi] Ibid, 99-100.
[xxxii] Thomas Mockaitis, British counterinsurgency in the post-imperial era (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1995), 143.
[xxxiii] Matthew Hughes, ‘The banality of brutality: British armed forces and the repression of the Arab revolt in Palestine 1936-39’, English Historical review (2009), Vol. 124, No. 507, 314.
[xxxiv] Ibidem, 316.
[xxxv] Ibid, 317.
[xxxvi] Ibid, 318.
[xxxviii] Ibid, 353.
[xxxix] Ibid, 354.
[xl] Huw Bennett, ‘The other side of COIN: Minimum and exemplary force in British army counterinsurgency in Kenya’, Small wars & insurgencies (2007), Vol. 18, No, 4, 640.
[xli] Ibidem, 639.
[xlii] Ibid, 640.
[xliii] Ibid, 638.
[xliv] Ibid, 658.
[xlv] Huw Bennett,’Minimum force in British counterinsurgency’, Small wars & insurgencies, Vol. 21, No. 3, 469.
[xlvi] Hughes, ‘The banality of brutality’, 315-316.
[xlvii] Simon Shoul,‘ Soldiers, riots and aid to the civil Power in
India, Egypt and Palestine, 1919 – 39 ’, (Univ. of London Ph.D. thesis, 2006), 237.
[l] Andrew Mumford, Puncturing the counterinsurgency myth: Britain and irregular warfare in the past, present, and future, US army war college strategic studies institute (2011), 13.
[lii] Ibidem, 14.