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The Myth of British Counterinsurgency?

This SSI monograph by Dr. Andrew Mumford should stir some robust debate in the COIN community:

Puncturing the Counterinsurgency Myth: Britain and Irregular Warfare in the Past, Present, and Future

Most of Mumford’s points are valid criticisms but I need to quibble with Myth # 1 The British Military is an Effective Learning Institution:


According to John Nagl, the British succeeded in Malaya-in contrast to the American failure in Vietnam-because the British army had an organizational culture akin to a so-called “learning institution,” whereby the army quickly adapted to COIN conditions and changed tactics accordingly.2 The array of operational activity, ranging from limited to total war, that the British army has experienced has arguably led to a greater degree of pragmatism in its military outlook. A dogmatic adherence to rigid military doctrine has been absent, which, when compared to the generation-long postmortem on the failure of U.S. strategy in Vietnam, perhaps explains more than most other factors why an almost mythic reputation has descended upon the British. However, this does not explain, nor should it obscure, the languid application of appropriate irregular warfare tactics and the absence of swift strategic design. When it comes to COIN, the British are slow learners.

The early phases of nearly every campaign in the classical era were marred by stagnancy, mismanagement, and confusion. The military was 2 years into the Malayan Emergency before it conceived of a cohesive civil-military strategy in the form of the Briggs Plan. The crucial early years of the troubles in Northern Ireland were marked by displays of indiscriminate force and an inability to modulate the response.3

The Director of the United Kingdom (UK) Defence Academy also concedes that, in relation to Northern Ireland, “[I]t is easy in the light of the later success . . . to forget the early mistakes and the time it took to rectify them.”4 As Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely rightly observes, the Malayan Emergency was, “a much lauded counterinsurgency campaign, but often overlooked is the fact that in the early years . . . the British Army achieved very little success.” In COIN terms, therefore, the British have been consistently slow to implement an effective strategy and achieve operational success. Moreover, the vast body of campaign experience has not translated into a cogent COIN lesson-learning process within the British military. The very need to re-learn COIN in the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) conflict environment has undermined assertions as to the British military’s being an effective learning institution. Such amnesia has created an imperative for the armed forces now to hone their lesson-learning abilities while simultaneously adapting to the intricate challenges of sub-state and transnational post-Maoist insurgent violence in the third millennium.

What sort of time frame is reasonable for “organizational learning” – that is, transforming a large, hierarchical, bureaucratic entity’s conceptualization and understanding of a situation and reforming and adapting it’s practices in light of experience? How fast can this really happen? An org is not an individual, two years while under fire does not seem slow to me. Am I missing something in Mumford’s argument?

Furthermore, I infer from the third paragraph that Mumford expects evidence of learning were for the Brits to have arrived in Basra good-to-go on COIN doctrine. Learning, whether in a person or org, is not represented by doctrine (lessons frozen in time) but rather a capacity to adapt to new circumstances. Mumford is on firmer ground criticizing British general officers for their blind assumption that they had all the answers on counterinsurgency  while the ragtag Mahdi Army bullied and ran circles around British units.

A monograph worth reading.

Hat tip to Lexington Green and SWJ Blog)

3 Responses to “The Myth of British Counterinsurgency?”

  1. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    In the cspan2 “book” broadcast yesterday of Lewis Sorley,

    he made comment that US has learned during the course of conflict … frequently replacing officers that had achieved their position thru politics … with those that had experience … he cited examples in the recent conflicts … and also the point of his book … Westmoreland … who he characterized as staff/political officer and w/o experience with Abrams. This thread in linkedin Boyd

    also gives example of Abrams having successful strategy in Vietnam. Sorley’s position seemed to be less on learning and experience … and more regarding the type of officer … in peace time becoming extremely top-heavy with staff officers with little/no field experience … and during the course of conflict replacing them with aptitude for conflict

  2. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Book cites Marines as major pocket of anti-attritionists during Vietnam (as a result they drew lots of criticism from westmoreland). one wonders if Marines were then punished afterwards; trying to only promote attritionists to upper ranks

  3. zen Says:

    hi Lynn,
    I think the spirit of that last comment gets to the most recent incident with General Fuller and the competing obligations to support policy but provide objective and candid tactical and strategic assessments even when those clash with the former. There’s a lot of officers who strongly believe that Fuller was way out of his lane, but he was being asked a question that related to his lane – training and advising Afghan forces – with a dynamic that made mission success impossible at any reasonable cost.

    Truth-telling seems to be a high-risk endeavor

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