Counterinsurgency and The Irish Revolution

Counterinsurgency and The Irish Revolution

This week Dr William Sheehan argues for the application of theories of insurgency and counterinsurgency to history of the the Irish revolution of 1916-1923.

There is no shortage of books on the conflict in Ireland from 1916 to 1923, we have in fact endless commentaries, memoirs and analysis.  Yet in the flood of ink, the voices of military historians often seem largely absent. And yet this was a war, a conflict, and we must ask what can the military historian contribute here? I would argue a great deal. And it was not simply a war; it was a specific type of war, an insurgency. The ignoring of this type of ‘small war’ is not unusual; many military historians focus on the ‘great wars’, the First and Second World Wars.  But since 1945, it is insurgency and counter-insurgency that have dominated military experience, and indeed like in the recent conflicts waged in Iraq and Afghanistan will most likely continue to be the conflict of the future.

This has in turn given rise since 1945 to a body of literature which attempts to establish a theoretical base for the understanding and analysis of insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. This new wave, of course, rests on past analyses such as works like Small Wars by Charles Callwell, on to T.E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and others. British theorists, such as Robert Thompson with Defeating Communist Insurgency and Frank Kitson with Low Intensity Operations, have of course produced books of great value. But it is perhaps the French theorists I want particularly to draw the reader’s attention to, that is the works of David Galula and Robert Trinquier. Galula’s key work is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practise, while Trinquier’s is called Modern Warfare. Both men were officers in the French Army. Trinquier served in both Vietnam and Algeria, while Galula’s key experience was framed by Algeria.

Both men have offered models for the analysis and understanding for insurgencies. The theories are too detailed to synopsis here, but we can take three points from them as examples. Both argue that a successful counterinsurgent must create compliant provisional political bodies – could we argue in Ireland that this is both Stormont and the Provisional Government? Local self defence units must be formed, the Ulster Special Constabulary and the National Army? Trinquier argues for the creation of small commando units and of course the British Army in Cork moves towards this model, as Active Service Units emerge towards the end of the campaign.

The emerging literature is not simply the development of theory, there have been some exemplary single-campaign analyses, such as David French’s Fighting EOKA or Huw Bennett’s Fighting the Mau Mau have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of British colonial warfare. These works represent a strong critique of past British operations, of the tactics employed and their impact on local populations. There are many British historians now who are unafraid to take a long critical look at the violence employed to control or stop decolonisation. 

Students of Irish history and of the War of Independence will note there are many points of comparisons. They will see similar tactics, similar descriptions of the insurgents, ‘gangster’ is always popular. All these give a context for understanding Ireland and will reduce the sense that the tactics employed in Ireland were some unique and directed with a particular vengefulness against the Irish.  Regrettably much of the methods employed were simply standard operating procedures not only for the British but also the French.

Are Irish historians able, as our British counterparts do, to take a look at the violence the creation of our state? Peter Hart’s contribution to the development of our understanding of the period from 1916-23 is of course, the subject of debate. But perhaps he brought an outsider eye to the history that was needed. If we are to continue to evolve our analysis of the conflict, we need to reach out beyond our shores, to people like Thompson, Kitson, Galula, and Trinquier to give new analytical tools to revise the campaign. And we need to look the new histories of British colonial campaigns.

If we are to return to a theme from the opening that is the lack of military understanding in much or the literature on the period of the Irish ‘Revolution’. The accessing of the theory of COIN and a placing of Ireland in a comparative framework, can give us a capacity to understand the conflict in a way beyond traditional grievances and mythologies.  Sometimes without the help of others, we cannot see our past with clarity.

The question for Ireland is, are we brave enough to truly employ all the techniques we can to look with depth and clarity into our national past?

Dr. William Sheehan is a military historian and currently works as a management consultant in the education sector. You can find him on Twitter at @wfsheehan.

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