What the British did right in Northern Ireland but are botching in Iraq…

Alex Evans at the Global Dashboard has some sharp observations to offer from Martin van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, from the Marne to Iraq. Though some detail such as, “never once did the British inflict collective punishment such as curfews” is highly questionable, there also are some interesting comparitors. Alex himself though is probably on to the most useful insight when he notes the inverted kill rate at the end:

My partner on that occasion was a British colonel, regiment of paratroopers, who had done several tours of duty in Northern Ireland. What he said can be summed up as follows: the struggle in Northern Ireland had cost the United Kingdom three thousand casualties in dead alone. Of the three thousand, about seventeen hundred were civilians….of the remaining, a thousand were British soldiers. No more than three hundred were terrorists, a ratio of three to one. Speaking very softly, he said: And that is why we are still there.


  • Yokel

    Different conflict, different rules..next.

  • David

    In Iraq it is the US that sets the agenda. Disturbingly they seem to be taking advice from the Israelis. Look at the mass arrests/punishments/imprisonment and lately wall building. It does not and will not work.
    The British army should adopt its own techniques and reject the Israeli model. Anyone who has seen the West Bank and Gaza can tell you the Israeli metheod is a recipie for eternal conflict and ultimate failure. It is also sub-human.

  • Surely SOME of the, er, credit for the bloodbath belongs to the people who kidnap and torture fellow-moslems of a different sect, or who detonate suicide bombs, or who blow up mosques? Maybe you could point the finger at politicians who cling so firmly to privilege that they cannot reach an equitable agreement with the leaders of the other communities.

    It can’t be entirely the fault of the US army’s “peace walls”.

    Here is another question. Things have been less bloody in the Kurdish area. What lessons for conflict resolution (here or globally) can we learn from that?

  • So is Alex concluding that The Army should have embarked on a full scale programme of murdering Republican volunteers? Naivety wouldnt be the word for this nonsense…

    I recall a leading Republican saying that the aftermath of the British Army killing spree on Bloody Sunday had produced as many as 200 new IRA vounteers in the City of Derry alone, plus thousands of civilians who were willing to ‘help’ the fight against the British in other ways.

    This was a war that the British could NEVER have won by military means. For every death inflicted by their forces there would always have been dozens of people waiting to replace them.

    If these obsevations from Alex are deemed to be “sharp”, it just shows the pure naivety of many of these emerging political analysts/revisionists.

  • Mick Fealty


    Correct me if I am reading this wrongly, but surely he is saying exactly the opposite? A kill rate which remains assymetrically ‘in favour’ of the insurgents indicates a successful ‘occupation’.

  • Mick,

    I have to say that I would interpret his comments differently. I have now read them back several times and there seems to be an implication from Alex when he makes reference to the Colonels comments, that the unbalanced ratio of army/”terrorist” deaths, is in fact the reason why Britain’s forces have been unable to completely withdraw.

    My interpretation of his comments are that a higher “terrorist” death rate may have precipitated a much quicker withdrawal. I could easily well be wrong in this case, but I cant quite read his comments in any other way based on that short extract.

  • Yokel

    Apparently the UK government was looking at having jet fighters over NI at one point in the early days…..

  • Jocky

    Macswiney, I’d interpret a more resigned tone to his remarks. A resignation that in an asymmetirc conflict a kill ratio of 3:1 is as good as it gets. And then where do you go? I would take it that the point he is making is you cant win by traditional reckoning?

    Therefore any military answer will be ultimately lead to the futile waste of lives. The military never like fighting a war they cant win, for them it’s a pointless excercise.

  • kensei

    “Sixth and most important of all, by and large both the RUC and the army stayed within the framework of the law. . .From (1972) on, the British refrained from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and illegal killings…”

    Really? Did someone tell everyone else?

  • Mick Fealty


    I guess that is open to interpretation. I guess it depends what you think the British aims were in Northern Ireland. Somewhere on Slugger recently, I excerpted some lines recently from an article in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that tried to lay out a comprehensive explanation of UK government policy in Northern Ireland. It may, of course, have been in part an ex post facto rationalisation of a range of government attitudes over the years, but when you look at the range of solutions that were on offer from Heath to Blair, were fairly tight and none of them offered constitutional change that would sidestep an initial democratic solution.

  • I see what you mean Jocky, although it could also be argued that he was making the point that perhaps (in this instance)that the British Military might have preferred an opportunity to try and win the war here as it is the nature of any army to do so.

    I’m not quite sure how deeply The Army ever actually got involved in the political nuances of this place. Their main reponsibility was, (and is), to carry out the instructions of the elected Government under whom they serve. In most of the documentaries covering the past 30 years, I cant recall hearing too much in-depth political analysis from any Army Brigadiers who served here.

  • Winder


    “This was a war that the British could NEVER have won by military means. For every death inflicted by their forces there would always have been dozens of people waiting to replace them.”

    It’s also a war that the IRA could NEVER have won by military means. All they could achieve would be to create a full scale Bosnia or Lebanese civil war type of scenario in Northern Ireland to grind on forever or to have blue helmets imposing some kind of stalemate. The Darfur / Holocaust option, while a theoretical possibility for complete victory of one side over the other, only works where you have either a load of armed people facing “primitive” people or there is a vast disparity in the numbers of the different groups. It would always have ended in a Bosnia type stalemate eventually.

  • the Emerald Pimpernel


    I would argue the law of unintended consequences, the war focussed the attention of London on the apartheid like conditions of northern Ireland and even though they fought it for 20 years even they were forced to address the shameful situation in northern Ireland so in many ways the IRA did win

  • Obscure Reference

    This guy is a Colonel in the British army and doesn’t understand anything about asymmetrical warfare?

    Guerillas do not aim for military victory.

    You can’t beat them by killing loads of them. They want you to do this! It’s their strategy!

    Hearts and Minds are more important than military superiority.

    Unbelievable. I mean I knew the Americans, after all their chest-beating and Hoo-ah!s, had devised a military that was much better than anyone else’s – at fighting the Second World War, and are still flummoxed by their opponent’s unsportsmanlike refusal to wear uniforms and stand in one spot in large formations.

    Now this eejit, ready in 2007 for another crack at the Mick, and all he can come up with is some inverted kill-ratio nonsense.

  • BonarLaw

    the emerald pimpernel

    “so in many ways the IRA did win”


    So the “war” aims were for the 2-i-c to be HMs’ deputy chief minister in this part of the UK?

    All that stuff about a 32 county socialist republic get lost somewhere in the victory celebrations?

  • the Emerald Pimpernel

    Bonar law

    Q. Pre 1966, how many rights did the catholic population of NI have?
    A. Fuck all (sorry dont remember sites policy on language)

    Q How many rights do the Catholic population have in 2007?
    A. All of them

    Q. How many nationalist councilors and MP’s were nationalists in 1966?
    A. Don’t know exact number but sweet fuck all comes to mind

    Q. How many nationalists are councilors, MP’s and MEP’s Now?
    A. Nearly half as represents their statistical population

    That might not have been the stated goal of the IRA but it is what they delivered to the Catholic population. Fairness and equality for the first time in 400 years, well nearly but once they clean the skunks out of PSNI it will job done

  • Marie Antoinette

    Our boys in Iraq are assault troops, not PC Plod on hte beat. Although it is true if we were running the show, we would have even MORE counter gangs blowing up mosques, stirring the sectarain brew etc, things are going jolly well enough as it is. America’s agents belw up the Shiite mosques and have more or less carved up the nation into ethnic enclaves. The destruction of Iraq and the lesson it serves to uppity natives halps Israel and tells the natives to beware the wratch of the white man. Where is the problem besides the fact we still have to convert them to Christianity?

  • abucs

    I thought secularism was the new Christianity ??

    Hope it turns out better than the Iranian backlash to American secularism in the 1970’s.

  • BonarLaw

    the emerald pimpernel

    ROTFLMAO… again!

    Keep up the good work.