on 15 July 2014
Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. In this useful book, he focuses on the British state’s wars in Palestine, Malaya and Kenya in the 1940s and 1950s, while also noting similar events in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden.
He describes how “the British government crafted an imperial strategy that was designed to guide much of the formal empire into the British Commonwealth and, as such, into the British and American sphere of influence during the Cold War. … That is not to say, of course, that these counterinsurgency campaigns were clean, for they were not. … For as has always been the case with liberal imperialism, illiberal measures are required to protect it. These dirty wars of empire were Britain’s imperial endgame.”
In Palestine, “Its counterinsurgency efforts had failed spectacularly.”
The head of the Colonial Office’s Eastern Department, J. D. Higham, noted in November 1948, “It has been decided that the criminal elements engaged in acts of violence in Malaya should be referred to as ‘bandits’. On no account should the term ‘insurgent’, which might suggest a genuine popular uprising, be used.”
On 17 May 1952, the Executive Council in Malaya noted that there was “no official designation of the Communist Guerilla [sic] Forces and various terms have been in use in English such as ‘bandits’, ‘terrorists’, etc. Furthermore, in referring to the component units of the Communist Forces, it has been customary to employ the title which they have given themselves for the armed units in the jungle, i.e., the Malayan Races Liberation Army, and the Min Yuen for the supporting organisation.” The Council proposed that henceforth “the term ‘Communist Terrorist’ will be the general designation for all members of these organisations, and in the particular context ‘Communist Terrorist Army’ for the words ‘Malayan Races Liberation Army’, ‘Communist Terrorist Organisation’ for the ‘Min Yuen’. The designation ‘bandit’ will not be used in future in official reports and Press releases emanating from the government.”
British forces practised collective punishments, reprisals, and massacres of innocent civilians. They used chemicals to destroy food crops and roadside vegetation. In 1955 alone, the RAF dropped 5,089 1000-pound bombs, 5,712 500-pound bombs, 2,660 20-pound fragmentation bombs, and 3,096 rocket projectiles.
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on 14 June 2013
It is high fashion within historical circles to view the demise of the British Empire as an unmitigated catastrophe both for those in Whitehall and for those who served abroad in imperial outposts. As it was once popular to view the acquisition of the Empire as having occurred in a `fit of absence of mind', so too have historians of Britain's decolonization characterized its closing acts.
Contrary to the bold assertions of men like Harold Macmillan who infamously heralded the `Winds of Change' that swept across Africa in the 1960s as the culmination--rather than the failure--of Britain's civilizing mission, recent scholars (as well as international media and activist groups) have not been kind to the leaders of empire, nor have they looked with favor on the legacies that empire left behind. Moreover, the story--as it has thus far been told--leaves little doubt that the twilight years of the British Empire were chaotic, labyrinthine, unnecessarily messy, and nothing short of a disaster for all those territories once painted red on the map, not least for the British, themselves. True to form, the contention has remained that the approach of Britain's post-war leaders proved to be ad hoc, at best.
Enter Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon.
Grob-Fitzgibbon offers a wholesale reassessment of British decolonization and asks some necessary--if uncomfortable--questions. What emerges is a lucid and hard-hitting account of Britain's so-called `Dirty Wars' of Empire. Quite rapidly, it becomes clear that the British did not shamefully abandon their empire in a cowardly spirit of flippancy or irreverence; rather, a succession of British Governments from 1948 to 1960 formulated and adhered to a concerted policy for dealing with the onset of colonial nationalism. Only by ensuring that decolonization occurred on its own terms could the British Government guarantee the completion of its liberal imperial mission and secure the continued dominance of western values in the increasingly bi-polar world which came to define the Cold War era.
Far from lauding British actions, however, Grob-Fitzgibbon's account is not for the faint of heart as it acknowledges, in great detail, precisely the kinds of heavy-handed, illiberal measures (most notably in Kenya) employed across the Empire. Officials in London decided quite early on that such actions were unavoidable if they were to guide colonial peoples to independence and responsible self-government. Though, in the words of Grob-Fitzgibbon, questions of morality are best left to "philosophers and kings."
Expertly written, masterfully researched, Grob-Fitzgibbon's appraisal makes for necessary reading for anyone interested in post-war British history. It provides global context to the Cold War, proving that East-West considerations cannot be separated from decolonization; it demonstrates the drastic steps the British Government was willing to take to ensure it had its say in the framing of the post-war world; it displays an erudite discussion of British counter-insurgency techniques; and it raises a number of pertinent questions that might reasonably be applied to American experiences in dealing with its own empire.