The British Army and Modern Counterinsurgency

The attention given to failed efforts to contain insurgencies like Vietnam tend to drown out the cases of successful outcomes where insurgent groups were defeated. Of the successes, the one that proponents and practitioners of counterinsurgency continue to come back to is Britain’s defeat of Malayan communists between 1947 and 1960. Given the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, interest in the lessons of the Malayan Emergency is high again.

As a result, there is plenty of current literature on the topic, the best of which is probably John A. Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Contemporary accounts, on the other hand, drawn as they are from the context of the times, can often be more enlightening as they lack the additional haze that comes with the passage of time. Such an account is Riley Sunderland’s Army Operations in Malaya, 1947-1960.

Given unprecedented access to the files of the War Office in the United Kingdom, Sunderland made his study just as the U.S. was expanding its involvement in Vietnam. The intent, therefore, was to give the U.S. Army as much insight as possible into how to fight a successful counterinsurgency. The work is interesting not only because it provides some interesting perspective on what the Americans did and did not learn before escalating the Vietnam effort, but also because it informs the today’s conflicts without using Vietnam as a yardstick.

Even a superficial analysis suggests that the U.S. Army could have learned little from the Malayan experience. The British succeeded in their effort because they were able to contain the growth of the insurgency long enough to secure the countryside. By the time the U.S. showed up in Vietnam in force, not only was the guerrilla infrastructure well into its second decade of development, it had a sympathetic and supportive sovereign country next door to sustain it. Nonetheless, some of America’s more successful tactics in Vietnam (the USMC’s Combined Action Platoons, for example) were rooted in the Malayan playbook.

Sunderland’s account is a testament to the need to stop insurgencies early, and the futility of fighting them once they have reached a critical mass. For anyone interested in whether and how it is possible to quell an uprising with armed force, this book will provide much food for thought.

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