The Imperial War Museum Book of Modern Warfare: British and Commonwealth Forces at War, 1945-2000 Edited by Julian Thompson, Macmillan, £8.99
Whether Borneo in the Sixties or Bosnia in the Nineties, the British army has always been engaged in “small wars” around the globe. Especially after the Soviet collapse, it emerged as one of the chief components of NATO that tried to establish the new order propounded by the Oval Office, Washington DC. The book attempts to analyse these wars from the immediate aftermath of World War II till the new millennium.
Julian Thompson looks at the shift in strategic doctrine that was necessitated by the end of the Cold War. To counter the Soviet threat, the West followed what could be termed as the “lean-counting” strategic approach. It meant counting missiles and tanks of both the NATO and the Warsaw Pact alliance for a military balance. However, the need to launch “bush-fire wars” against local powers along the peripheries of Eurasia resulted in the rejection of the above mentioned approach. Actions against rogue states like Iraq and Afghanistan require manpower. And the British army excel in such campaigns because of a solid historical tradition.
The Indian army was Britain’s fire brigade. It was used to police the overseas territories. Peter Dennis shows that between 1945-47, Gurkha and Punjabi units were used to police Dutch Indonesia. The Indonesian police sided with the nationalists and the British troops were evacuated for redeployment in Europe. The Indian units were the imperialist’s last hope. After 1947, the unwelcome commitment of the Indian units in the Indonesian archipelago came to an end.
The British returned to Indonesia in 1962. This time the objective was to protect the conservative and reactionary sultanate of Brunei from President Sukarno. The sultanate’s oil revenue was used for paying for the British troop deployment. Though the British had lost control over the Indian army, London had access to the Gurkhas. Thanks to the treaty signed between India, Nepal and Britain, London possessed the right to enlist Gurkhas in its Gurkha Brigade.
Walter Walker’s essay examines British deployment in Brunei and Borneo between 1962 to 1966. Walker was the director of military operations in Borneo. His expeditions with the Gurkhas against Sukarno’s guerrillas paid off. Walker himself commanded Gurkha units in Burma during World War II. There he perfected techniques which were employed while fighting the Malayan guerrillas in the late Forties.
Michael Dewar argues that in northern Ireland, the British army had however failed to curb insurgency. This was because the military crackdown was unaccompanied by positive political programme. By contrast, in Malaysia in 1948-60, the British army was successful in destroying the communist insurgency. This was possible, writes Jeffrey Grey, because military operations were backed by welfare measures.
This collection of essays by soldiers, historians and journalists makes an important intervention in the history of low-intensity warfare. The central message of this book is that counter-insurgency requires non-military schemes coupled with military action. And that the infantry still reigns on the battlefield.