1776: The Greatest Counter-Insurgency Failure Ever


Recent weeks have witnessed horrific fighting in Basra, where the British army turned over the province to the control of the Iraqi government last year. Questions are being raised as to how effective the army was in the early years of the Iraq war and whether or not it allowed Shia militias to take root and grow in southern Iraq to the point where taking action against them would have meant combat operations as bloody as the American-led offensives on Fallujah in 2004.

These questions are good ones. To a large degree, the British went into southern Iraq confident their imperial history and recent experience in Northern Ireland gave them a leg up on the U.S. army and Marine Corps -- relative neophytes to counterinsurgency warfare. But every insurgency, as Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely is right to stress [PDF], is sui generis. Going into southern Iraq and treating Basra province like an Arabic-speaking County Antrim was always going to end in heartbreak.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot learn general lessons that can be applied to most insurgencies and post-conflict environments. Recently, senior British army officers have privately expressed horror at the rapid degree to which the U.S. military has learned to wage population-centric counterinsurgency warfare effectively, in contrast to the British military, which has, in their estimation, remained intellectually rooted in its 20th-century experiences in Ireland and Malaya. Having turned down an American offer to help draft the new U.S. counterinsurgency manual issued in 2006, the British army is now scrambling to draft and publish a new manual of its own.

But maybe the British army was never that good at counterinsurgency warfare in the first place. In fact, the very existence of the United States of America points toward an 18th-century counterinsurgency failure of epic proportions. At the moment, Americans are reliving their revolutionary era through HBO's slick new mini-series on founding father John Adams. But this interest in the American Revolution surely opens the door onto an interesting thought experiment: What would have happened had the British army applied contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine against those pesky colonists in the 18th century?

This question is one currently being asked by several smart U.S. army and Marine Corps officers who have taken their experiences fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and applied them to historical analysis of other American wars. In his paper [PDF] on British counterinsurgency efforts in the American south during the revolution, U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Paul Montanus notes with incredulity that while the British army garrisoned over 15,000 troops to defend New York City, only 8,500 men were left to execute counterinsurgency operations in the south. That meant the British had a troops-to-population ratio of 2:195 -- far below what most contemporary military planners would deem necessary to fight an effective counterinsurgency campaign.

British brutality also served to alienate a population that was -- in the south, at least -- not entirely hostile to the British empire initially (although never as loyal as the British imagined). When Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton opened fire on a group of colonial militiamen attempting to surrender in 1780, the act shocked even colonists lukewarm toward the colonial rebellion. Tarleton's portrait hangs, today, in the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square -- though acts of brutality such as his did as much as anything to lose the war for hearts and minds.

Third, the British might have had more success had they employed an "oil spot" strategy used with success in counterinsurgency campaigns. By clinging onto the population centers of the north, the British army stretched its small army to the point of ineffectiveness. Had they initially concentrated in the more favorable conditions of the American south -- where 25% of the population in 1780 remained loyal to the crown -- and worked north, they might have enjoyed more success.

Even that, however, would not have been easy. As U.S. army Major Todd Johnson explains in a monograph on American insurgency efforts in the southern colonies, the rebel cause was well-served by some gifted field commanders including Nathanael Greene, Thomas Sumter and the legendary Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion. (My ancestor, Colonel Benjamin Exum, did his part fighting the British in the mountains of North Carolina.)

Finally, the greatest enemy the British faced in the American colonies might have been the arrogance for which the British -- or at least the English -- are sadly famous. (Note: for every Englishman offended by that last sentence, at least a dozen Scots, Irish, Welsh, Australian and Kiwi readers are chuckling knowingly.) Had the British swallowed their pride and worked with the colonists to address legitimate concerns about the tax acts prior to the start of hostilities, who knows what might have happened?

It's best for everyone's sake, though, that things turned out the way they did. The hostilities between the America and Great Britain did not end with the revolution. (You burned our capital in 1814; we routed you at New Orleans and shipped the body of your commander back to London in a pickle barrel. Sorry!) Today, though, Americans look to our mother country with great affection, and the relationship between the two peoples has remained strong despite the strain of Iraq. I am both a proud American and a resident of East London (though in my heart I am a citizen, not a subject).

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