Best Defense

Many questions about COIN (VII): The lessons of history can be uncomfortable

Many questions about COIN (VII): The lessons of history can be uncomfortable

By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen’s Royal Hussars

Best Defense guest columnist

Question Set Seven — What lessons can we learn from the way the British administered their empire?

If we accept the idea that the wars we have been fighting recently are less pure counterinsurgencies and more wars of imperial aggression or punitive raids writ large, then what can the ultimate imperial force teach us? The historical record suggests that it is an uncomfortable lesson. For all its veneer of civilization and its ability to co-opt local elites, the British Empire was fundamentally an institution that rested on a contradiction between its stated domestic values and its overseas actions.

The paper that was used to cover this divide was military force, and it was tremendously effective at doing so. Perhaps we need to look at how the British ended the threat of a violent uprising in the Punjab almost overnight in 1919? I suspect that we might find that the use of force as a blunt instrument of repression had something to do with it. Or the way that Jock Burnett-Stuart put down the Moplah revolt in 1921? If we were to do so, we might find a method which contrasts very significantly from our own, and which achieved far greater success than is generally acknowledged.

The standard counter to this is that the British way of empire was the use of very few troops, the use of local recruits and rule through local governance, and co-opting native elites (e.g. the Raj). The question is to what extent is this merely our narrative? And even if this was the British way of empire, shouldn’t it interest us that the British felt no compunction at all about choosing a side when occupying a country and backing it to the hilt? Do we do this? Torture doesn’t work and is counterproductive; it is certainly, definitively, morally reprehensible. But have we examined in sufficient depth the utility of violence within an imperial construct — put brutally, does torture help keep people down even if it doesn’t provide actionable intelligence? And if so, what does it say for the practicality of our current and future overseas escapades?