The British Army and Counterinsurgency: The Salience of Military Culture

By Cassidy, Robert M. | Military Review, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

The British Army and Counterinsurgency: The Salience of Military Culture


Cassidy, Robert M., Military Review


The British Army has excelled in small-unit, antiguerrilla warfare as they did in other aspects of counterinsurgency. History had given them an army that was relatively small and decentralized and, therefore, ideally suited to such warfare. Since Britain is an island nation, the navy and not the army has been its first line of defense. Distrusted and underfunded, the junior service was thus relatively unaffected by the revolution in size and organization experienced by continental armies during the nineteenth century.

Thomas R. Mockaitis (1)

HISTORICALLY, British Army culture has influenced its approach to counterinsurgency. The British Army's experiences in small wars and counterinsurgencies during the 19th and 20th centuries remain topical and salient. The U.S. military and its coalition partners, including Britain, are prosecuting counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. An analysis of British military cultural predilections in the context of counterinsurgency is therefore germane because the U.S. Army is transforming while in contact, and a big part of Transformation is about military cultural change.

If U.S. military culture has traditionally exhibited a preference for a big, conventional-war paradigm, and if this preference has impeded its capacity to adapt to small wars and counterinsurgencies, then there might be something to gain or learn from examining the cultural characteristics of another army with a greater propensity for counterinsurgency. In short, military culture comprises the beliefs and attitudes within a military organization that shape its collective preferences toward the use of force. These attitudes can impede or foster innovation and adaptation. Military culture sometimes exhibits preferences for either small wars or big wars. (2)

On Small Wars, Asymmetric Conflict, and Counterinsurgency

That great powers can lose small wars when their opponents refuse to fight them conventionally seems axiomatic. How then do they adapt to successfully fight counterinsurgencies and small wars? Small wars are not force-on-force, state-on-state conventional wars in which success is measurable by phase lines crossed or hills seized. Asymmetric conflict, with its associated contradictions, is not a new concept either; it dates at least as far back as the Roman occupation of Spain, but the U.S. experience in Vietnam was the genesis for the first use of the term.

Asymmetric conflict usually sees an ostensibly superior external military force confronting an ostensibly inferior state or indigenous group on the latter's territory. Counterinsurgencies and small wars are subsumed within this category, and I use these terms interchangeably in this article. (3) Asymmetry "in means" occasions insurgency and the use of hit-and-run small-unit tactics by irregular and paramilitary elements to harass, ambush, bomb, and disrupt outposts, checkpoints, or conventional formations' lines of communication. Practitioners of insurgency concentrate limited attacks against the critical vulnerabilities of regular military forces by using instrumental perfidy to undermine the overmatch of technology and the aggregate forces of their adversaries.

The Battle of Omdurman in 1898 saw both the culmination and the apotheosis of Britain's 19th-century style of colonial warfare. This battle in the Sudan witnessed a British rout of the Mahdi's indigenous army, which fought the British European-style and "fled in utter rout, pursued by the Egyptian cavalry, harried by the 21st Lancers, and leaving more than 9,700 warriors dead and even greater numbers wounded behind them." (4) The British lost only 48 men. About the Battle of Omdurman, Mao Tse-tung observed that defeat is the inevitable result when native forces fight against modernized forces on their terms. (5)

The 20th century witnessed indigenous forces adopting Fabian/Maoist strategies fueled by nationalist and communist ideologies that challenged the colonial powers' superior numbers and technology. …

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