Britain’s brutal battles for hearts and minds

British campaigns in Kenya, Malaya and elsewhere are often hailed as exemplars of how anti-insurgency operations should be prosecuted. But, asks Michael Burleigh, is the praise really justified?

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Military doctrine is as susceptible to fashion as any other area of life, particularly when one type of warfare displaces others. Even with a vicious insurgency raging in Iraq, until 2006 the American military’s top brass remained contemptuous of what was known as MOOTW – ‘military operations other than war’ – and were wedded to such things as airborne forces or massed tank formations.

That abruptly changed in early 2007 when the appointment of General David Petraeus as theatre commander in Iraq enabled advocates of sophisticated counter-insurgency tactics among the peoples to push army doctrine in a radically different direction. Ambitious officers suddenly started to sound like anthropologists and sociologists. Soldiers primarily trained as warriors were now expected to be what David Galula, the French theorist of revolutionary wars, had characterised as “propagandists, social workers, civil engineers, schoolteachers and nurses”. Down in the far south of Iraq, the British took to wearing soft caps and doling out sweets.

This new approach appeared to work. When 20,000 extra US troops were surged in under the mantra ‘clear, secure, hold’ – to occupy rather than visit – they created a space in which a fragile democratic era could grow in Iraq.

Yet President Obama couldn’t repeat the trick in Afghanistan. His attempts to adopt a similar ‘hearts and minds’ strategy in what was a very different arena – one featuring a powerful Taliban, a Karzhai regime widely viewed as corrupt, all without the peace-incentivising prospect of vast future oil revenues – can hardly be hailed as an unmitigated success. As a result, the pendulum has now swung again. So now we see remote drone strikes and special forces operations like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 – not to mention an early rush towards an exit marked 2014.

As the Americans turn their backs on MOOTW, we British routinely congratulate ourselves on the superior way in which we handle these things. We have confronted insurgencies many times before, of course – notably in Malaya (1948–60), Kenya (1952–60) and Northern Ireland (late 1960s–98) – and, as we like to tell ourselves, have done so successfully, without drenching the land in blood.

Yet are we really in a position to be so self-satisfied? Is our condescension towards American efforts in Afghanistan really justified? I’d argue not. For though we may dress up the ‘victories’ over the Malayan National Liberation Army, Kenyan Mau Mau and Irish republicans as triumphs for an enlightened ‘hearts and minds’ approach, when it came to the crunch, it was brute – and often brutal – military might that won the day.

British intelligence services failed to notice either the communist insurgency brewing among Malaya’s Chinese minority or the uprising associated with the predominantly Kikuyu Mau Mau. Although concerted attempts were made to squeeze the Kenyan nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta into a jacket tailored in Moscow, on the whole the Mau Mau were simply regarded as crazed black ‘savages’ whose atrocities left nothing in the telling.

Though the British may like to imagine they won the Malaya campaign by winning over the civilian population, this was, in fact, preceded by hard fighting, deportations to China, and compulsory population transfers as Chinese ‘squatters’ were corralled inside squalid New Villages.

Although few admitted it, Japanese imperialists had already employed such a strategy. “The Japs put barbed wire around Titi and Pertang, garrisoned these towns with troops and made all Chinese of the locality live within the defended area. Could we not try the same idea?” asked one British officer.

In northern China even earlier, the Japanese had also essayed a form of warfare known as minshin harku or ‘winning the people’s hearts’, to divide the population from communist insurgents. In the event, those who preferred bayonets and swords to handing out seeds and tools prevailed, so that the Japanese became virtually synonymous with military barbarism.

Although the heroic ‘man with a plan’ General Sir Gerald Templer is conventionally credited with breaking the communist insurgency in Malaya, credit should arguably be shared with police Special Branch officers (many of them ethnic Chinese) whose agents infiltrated the communist command structure as soldiers crashed around in the jungle.

RAF Gunner

Lethal force

Gradually, army tactics improved, with troops trained in jungle warfare and aided by Dayak tribesmen tracking down and killing large numbers of terrorists in dense jungle. The scale of these operations is suggested by their calling a hundred kills ‘a century’ and by the recording of monthly tallies of ‘eliminations’. As in Northern Ireland later, ‘kinetic’ (lethal) military force was the essential ingredient that slowed the enemy’s momentum and forced them into peace talks.

The British used similar tactics to defeat the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. Yet this does not generally figure in their hubristic belief in their superiority to the ‘vicious’ French in Algeria or the ‘blundering’ Americans – who, in reality, subtly destroyed the left-wing Huk insurgency in the Philippines even as the French were defeated in Indochina in the conventional battle of Dien Bien Phu.

A handful of daring false flag operations (where British forces disguised themselves as the enemy), sometimes involving white men ‘blacking up’, have been used to obscure a blatantly biased colonial judiciary which resulted in 1,068 hangings.

The insurgency also saw widespread resort to torture and murder by settler vigilantes and Kikuyu loyalist militias.

Furthermore it resulted in the confinement of up to 70,000 Mau Mau sympathisers in conditions that were so bad that successive governments hid those records that they did not destroy in a bonfire of the atrocities before Kenya gained independence. British government secrets were only divulged last year after pressure from lawyers acting for elderly Kenyan survivors of the emergency.

Over a million Kikuyu were also corralled in ‘new villages’ – as a proportion of the population, this exceeded similar measures taken by the French in Algeria and the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, colonial powers that the British affect superiority to. To their credit, a few MPs, notably Enoch Powell, denounced the ‘abuses’ of the Mau Mau emergency, which is not a part of the past the military seeks to include in its lessons.

History may well teach lessons, and all armies should undertake an institutional ‘learning curve’ based on what they got right and wrong in the past. But that should not be based on what amounts to false memory syndrome. Instead, our armed forces should truthfully recall what really contributed to the success or otherwise of a campaign – and not rely on the handful of officers prepared to criticise their seniors to do the job for them.


The Malayan Emergency  1948–60

This erupted when the Malayan National Liberation Army started attacking tin mines and rubber plantations in the then-British colony. The uprising ran out of steam in the late 1950s following a concerted British campaign to cut the insurgents off from their supporters in the local population. Britain’s handling of the emergency has often been cited as a textbook example of how an army should win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of civilians.

Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’  late 1960s–98

Over 3,500 people lost their lives in a 30-year conflict involving British security forces and republican and loyalist paramilitaries over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Troubles were officially brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – though violence does continue.

The Mau Mau Uprising 1952–60

One of the most controversial episodes in mid-20th-century British history kicked off when the Mau Mau, a Kenyan anti-colonial group, began a violent campaign against white settlers in 1952. The British eventually put down the uprising – but not before thousands of Mau Mau had been tortured and executed and many more detained in appalling conditions.

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Michael Burleigh is an author and historian whose books include Moral Combat: A History of World War II (HarperPress, 2010)