Van Creveld’s lessons of Northern Ireland

Martin van Creveld, author of the outstanding The Transformation of War, has a new book out. Below, William Lind extracts from it van Creveld’s key lessons on what the Brits did right in Northern Ireland.

Before that, while we’re on the subject of new books, be sure to check out Global Guerrillas author John Robb’s new book Brave New War – which, if his blog is anything to go by, is certain to be one of the most cogent expositions of fourth generation warfare out there.

Back to Lind, van Creveld and what the Brits did right in Northern Ireland:

First, unlike President Bush in 2001, the British did not declare war, which would have removed a whole series of legal constraints and put the entire conflict on a new footing. Instead, from beginning to end the problem was treated as a criminal one…

Second, much of the day-to-day work was left to the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary). Its members, having been locally recruited and assigned lengthy stays at their posts, knew the area better than anyone else. Accordingly, they were often able to discriminate among the various factions inside the IRA as well as between terrorists and others…

Third, never again (after Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, when British troops fired into a crowd and killed thirteen people) did British troops fire indiscriminately into marching or rioting crowds

Fourth, and in marked contrast with most other counterinsurgents from the Germans in Yugoslavia to the Americans in Vietnam and elsewhere, not once in the entire struggle did the army bring in heavy weapons such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, or aircraft to repulse attacks and inflict retaliation…

Fifth, never once did the British inflict collective punishment such as curfews, the cutting off of electricity and water, demolishing houses, destroying entire neighborhoods. . . As far as humanly possible, the police and the army posed as the protectors of the population, not its tormentors. In this way they were able to prevent the uprising from spreading.

Sixth and most important of all, by and large both the RUC and the army stayed within the framework of the law. . .From (1972) on, the British refrained from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and illegal killings…

The most important insight of all, though, (came) over dinner in Geneva in 1995. My partner on that occasion was a British colonel, regiment of paratroopers, who had done several tours of duty in Northern Ireland. What he said can be summed up as follows: the struggle in Northern Ireland had cost the United Kingdom three thousand casualties in dead alone. Of the three thousand, about seventeen hundred were civilians….of the remaining, a thousand were British soldiers. No more than three hundred were terrorists, a ratio of three to one. Speaking very softly, he said: And that is why we are still there.