An insurgent’s memoirs — and his observations about his British captors

An insurgent’s memoirs — and his observations about his British captors

I’ve long wanted to know more about what the Iraq war looked like from the side of the insurgents. I actually had hoped one day to write a book about this in collaboration with Anthony Shadid, but he was killed about 13 months ago while trying to cover the fighting in Syria.

But I got a bit of insight, unexpectedly, when reading Ernie O’ Malley‘s On Another Man’s Wound: A Personal History of Ireland’s War of Independence, which was recommended recently by one of this blog’s guest columnists. (I didn’t know when I learned that the book and his other memoir were the basis for the great film The Wind That Shakes the Barley.)

Here is O’Malley’s net assessment of the war. It sounds kind of familiar, no?

The enemy could have regular meals, a standard of comfort, the advantage of numbers and training, more than ample supplies of ammunition, and well-cared-for and efficient weapons, but they were…operating in a hostile countryside when they left the shelter of their barracks….The British could defeat some of our columns and round-up our men, but they could not maintain civil administration when they had lost the support of the people.

Tom again: O’Malley found that the British army, though full of veterans of World War I, was slow to adjust to the situation in the Irish fighting, where the rebels could move among the people. "Few [British] might be elastic enough for guerrilla fighting," he concluded. He detected in the British soldiers "a glum, swarthy melancholy."

As a captive, he concluded that, "Soldiers make bad gaolers," or jailers. He eventually escaped. The British never even figured out his true identity, even though they beat him and threatened to torture him with a red-hot poker, holding it close enough to his face to burn his eyebrows and singe his eyeballs. Calling Abu Ghraib!

What did victory look like? One day early in 1921, the fact that the fence-sitters were coming over to the side of the rebels made O’Malley realize he was winning: "We were becoming almost popular. Respectable people were beginning to crawl into us; neutrals and those who thought they had best come over were changing from indifference or hostility to a painful acceptance."

One important difference, though I don’t know quite what to make of it: The British soldiers and their Irish foes were much closer culturally than were the Americans and Iraqi insurgents. They could even speak to each other, which meant that O’Malley could sort of apologize to some British officers held prisoner before executing them. O’Malley’s brother had even been in the British army.