Tag Archives: Lessons

Insurrection Reading List

‘Freeman’s Farm’ by Don Troiani

Insurrection Reading List

The British Army regards the American Revolutionary War with the same zeal as it regards our most recent escapades in southern Iraq; a campaign that is to be acknowledged grudgingly and preferably consigned to the dustbins of history. We are sore losers. That is a shame as there is a great deal to learn from both campaigns; in fact somewhat perversely there are likely to be more lessons to be learnt from those campaigns that veer between an inconclusive result and an outright defeat than there are from our better known victories.  These lessons are also more likely to be at the operational and strategic level, levels at which the current British reputation is somewhat lacklustre.  This is clearly the case for the American Revolutionary War which is highly pertinent to today.

The American Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 until 1783. It grew from a colonial rebellion to a broad conflict encompassing France, Holland and Spain.  Unlike the common misconception of British defeat being due to incompetent British officers leading the thin red line against plucky Americans unsportingly hiding behind trees (British soldiers adapted very quickly to North American requirements, petite guerre was not new, and British light companies were very good) the reality reveals campaign lessons on:

  • Logistics. Inter-Theatre the British were at the end of a 9 week supply chain from the UK to the US ( and in this in the days before refrigeration).  Intra-theatre the communications/transport system network simply was not as developed as it was in Europe and the ground posed significant challenges. This conflict more clearly than many, highlights the impact of logistics on campaigning.
  • Joint Operations.  We think of the American Revolution in terms of British joint operations, but the entry of the French fleet into the fight was a pivotal point in the war, and Franco/American joint operations in the Yorktown campaign were superb. We lose control of the sea at our peril.
  • Mass matters.  The British never had sufficient combat power to secure terrain and take the offensive. Without the ability to secure the population, Loyalists never felt secure enough to commit to the Crown. With the broadening of the conflict to include France, Spain and Holland, British commitments increased (we had to strip manpower from Theatre to meet greater priorities while the Americans received additional combat power.
  • Alliances matter. It is debatable whether the Continental Army was sufficient in itself to defeat us, it is undeniable that the alliance (America, France, Spain and Holland) did.
  • Peer Power Competition. As we move from a super-power world to a multi-power world there are lessons to be learnt for us about strategy in a multi-polar competitive system.
  • It’s all about the economy, stupid.  Wars are expensive, and we in the military tend not to look at the overall impact of their costs, but politicians (rightly) do. At the strategic level the costs of war weigh heavily.

In looking at this campaign at the operational and strategic levels I found the Ucko and  Marks framework for analysing armed threats particularly instructive.

An Integrated Framework for Analysing Armed Threats

Lastly in thinking of this campaign I was minded very much of General Sir Rupert Smith’s comment from the recent RUSI Land Warfare Conference: “You and your opponent share the objective; legitimacy, populations access to basic resources, imposing the rule of law or not. These are competitive relationships, not adversarial. A race, not a boxing match.

For those who do wish to study the campaign some more, here are my top four picks:

  1. The West Point History of the American Revolution. Probably the best single book you can buy on the American Revolution due to its combination of history, analysis, illustrations and maps. Provides an excellent oversight and grounding for further study. Reviewed here.
  2. With Zeal and Bayonets Only.  A more in depth study of British Army tactics, equipment and performance over the course of the war. The author (in his own words) aims to “show in the course of this work, the King’s troops won the vast majority of their battlefield engagements in America because they tailored their conventional tactical methods intelligently to local conditions…” The work is narrowly focused on the operational and tactical levels and is best read after gaining an understanding of the broader contours of the war. Reviewed here.
  3. A Respectable Army.  The first book I was introduced to when looking at the Revolutionary War and rightly so. It is one of the definitive accounts of the war and of the Continental Army. Reviewed here.
  4. The Men Who Lost America.  No one likes a loser, as is clearly shown by how history has treated those in charge of British efforts during the war.  As we consider our recent campaigns and some dubious decisions closer to home (I think of the outsourcing of recruiting and housing in particular) it is worth considering that we rarely select idiots as generals, now or ever (there are a few honourable exceptions). This book provides a good look at British higher command during the Revolutionary War, and should make one consider the linkages between strategy and operations. Reviewed here.

Operation Temperer and a Campaign Little Known

Operation Temperer

Operation Temperer has returned to barracks for now, but while it was deployed it brought to mind my early days soldiering on Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. The tasks were very much the same – key point defence and overt armed support to the civilian police, and to be frank the equipment did not appear to have changed all that much.

The more recent terrorist attack at London Bridge again brought to mind Operation Banner, but this time in a different guise. There were terrible comparisons to The Troubles made on social media and it highlighted the fact that to my mind Operation Banner remains more misunderstood than known, even by those who served there.

This misunderstanding was most clearly seen early on in the Iraq campaign, in the trite comparisons made between the British Army’s experience in Northern Ireland and its illusory success in Basra, and the then ongoing experiences of the mostly US forces in central Iraq.  The fact is that as a campaign Operation Banner is not well understood, and certainly not by those who would reasonably be expected to know most about it – the British military.

Operation Banner

Few serving soldiers now have any experience of serving on Operation Banner, but even those that do, none will have experience of the 1970s and few will have had experience of the covert struggle. Yet understanding the ebb and flow of the campaign in the 1970s when the hard lessons were learnt, as well as being cognisant of the covert war are essential to understanding the conflict as a whole. Most who are ready with the glib comparisons served in the 1980s onwards when the campaign was relatively mature and growing in sophistication. We remember the Techniques, Tactics and Procedures, but fail to grasp the ‘why’ of the operational approach or even the theatre lay down.

The British Army’s ‘Operation Banner: An Analysis Of Military Operations in Northern Ireland‘ published in 2006 is a remarkable piece of succinctness, capturing almost 37 years in 98 pages. The publication is not designed to be a definitive history of the campaign, not can it be considering its classification that makes it unable to touch on covert operations, and its narrow focus on the military and excluding the role of the police in detail. In fact the definitive history of the campaign has yet to be written.

The British Army’s study is however a good overview of the campaign and has some hidden gems in plain sight (Republican terrorists killed 30% more Republican terrorists than the Army (page 2-12)). This together with the following should be the starting point for those wishing to place the campaign in perspective:

To me it is remarkable how quickly Operation Banner has fallen from view, especially considering the fact the Republican terrorism remains very much active, albeit diminished.  Yesterday’s wars are it seems, largely a matter for the historians, no matter how pertinent they are to the professionals of today.

The Real Lessons of Afghanistan

A US vehicle passes a reminder of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.
A US vehicle passes a reminder of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.

Steven Metz has just published a good article in World Politics Review titled “What are the Real Lessons of the Afghanistan War?“; it is well worth a read.

For the UK the same general strategic lessons apply, but there are some additional lessons peculiar to Britain’s circumstances:

  • Being in a Coalition Obscures. The UK was a senior Coalition partner in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However Coalition strategy is by necessity a strategy of compromise between the differing constituent national interests. This means that both the ‘what’ of national interest  and the ‘how’ the strategy will achieve this may not be immediately apparent. It also means that that while failure is deniable (and in the modern political system this plausible deniability is very attractive) it is also correspondingly more difficult to take credit for when things work.
  • Influence must be resourced. The UK was the biggest of the rest in terms of military commitment both Iraq and Afghanistan. However compared to the US commitment the UK’s commitment was small. The UK never fielded a division in Iraq or Afghanistan after 2003; with less dog in the fight there was less influence (as clearly perceived by Churchill in WW2, his direction on British force ratios compared to US in the invasion of France were explicit). Influence is directly proportionate to capability delivered. As is evident from Lieutenant General Bolger’s book “Why We Lost” British military influence suffered in part from being perceived as the “poor cousins” who could perhaps talk the talk (and weren’t shy in doing so) but couldn’t walk the walk. However it must be noted that influence is not just garnered through conventional military capability, although that is the most obvious.
  • Hidden influence cannot be credited. The UK garners significant influence through its ability to wield the levers of ‘soft power’ especially Information and Diplomacy. However such influence is often understated and behind the scenes and while it may be credited behind the scenes it is hard to weave such influence into a narrative of constructive and significant British contribution at the strategic level. The image increasingly becomes one of a British poodle dancing to the Washington tune, this makes it hard to maintain domestic support.
  • Domestic political fragmentation makes enduring commitments less likely. At the strategic level the nature of war makes it difficult to disentangle the character of politics from the character of war and the character of the strategy involved. In the UK the fragmentation of the domestic political landscape (a fact mirrored across Europe) has made it increasingly difficult to maintain a consensus on military intervention. This is closely linked to the fragmentation of the news space where people actively seek out a news narrative that supports the perception they wish to hold, making building consensus and support harder. This means that unless the political landscape changes, limited interventions such as Libya and Iraq (2014 – ) will probably become the norm. Such interventions are characterised by being short in time and/or limited in means and designed to meet a simple political narrative, normally moral and emotive in nature. Long term strategy and hard headed national interests may be addressed, but not necessarily in the narrative and secondary to immediate political expediency.