I recently visited Beverley Minster, where I found tucked in a corner of the South Transept, three small chapels dedicated to the East Yorkshire Regiment. Wandering amongst the memorial tablets bearing the names of those young men killed in two World Wars, my attention was drawn to one plaque by the altar.
The plaque bore the names of local soldiers who had died during the counter-insurgency campaign against Communist guerrillas in colonial Malaya between 1948 and 1960. This inconspicuous memorial served as a quiet reminder as to the sacrifices made by our armed forces in conflicts against ‘unconventional’ enemies. Campaigns undertaken against insurgents have been a frequent occurrence in the British experience, particularly after World War Two, largely due to the needs of decolonisation. The sun may have set on the Empire, yet the instigation of what is generally called the ‘War on Terror’ in the wake of 9/11 has unexpectedly rekindled the utility of counter-insurgency warfare of the kind evident in 1950s Malaysia. As we now mark the tenth year of British operations in Afghanistan, seeing this plaque got me thinking as to, not just how Britain memorialises its war dead, but more specifically how Britons interpret the sacrifices our government asks of the military in so-called ‘irregular wars’ against violent non-state actors.
British combat troops withdrew from Iraq in May 2009 having suffered 179 fatalities. Currently, in Helmand Province, British soldiers are engaged in fierce operations against the Taliban, which have seen 383 military personnel lose their lives. As Remembrance Day approaches, my mind turns back to that plaque in Beverley Minster. For counter-insurgency campaigns, from Malaya through to Afghanistan, represent something unique in the military mind. Such conflicts are fought against enemies who blend in with local populations, who play upon common grievances, and try to exploit the vulnerabilities of their regular army opponents. Conceptions of ‘victory’ in counter-insurgency campaigns are notoriously nebulous, with history demonstrating that compromise and deal-making is usually a precursor to walking away with what is practically attainable rather than witnessing the tangible ‘defeat’ of the enemy. Counter-insurgency campaigns are therefore not merely ‘half a war’ but should be seen as a very different and complex form of warfare in its own right. My own research has attempted to explore how the weight of historical experience has impacted upon recent British military performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Arguably, the frequent inadequacies of the political management of such campaigns have placed military personnel under greater risk.
As we gather in silence to remember those who fought in wars associated with a just cause and an identifiable enemy, the current deployment of troops serves as a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by soldiers in so-called ‘irregular wars’, where the very purpose of the conflict is frequently questioned. The strategic purpose of counter-insurgency campaigns is often difficult to communicate to the public, especially when the ‘threat’ to Britain posed by bands of seemingly ill-equipped fighters thousands of miles away may seem obscure. Yet it can only be hoped that the waning public support for operations in Afghanistan, and the legal and ethical controversies surrounding the invasion of Iraq, will not prevent us from adequately honouring the lives of those who have fallen.
Since World War Two, the military has undertaken prolonged counter-insurgency campaigns in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Yemen, Oman, Borneo, and of course Northern Ireland. Like their contemporaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers fighting in these conflicts were faced with restricted resources, political meddling and controversy about their mission. Yet the contested nature of these conflicts should not stop us from marking the unquestioning way in which these soldiers gave what Abraham Lincoln called in his Gettysburg Address “the last full measure of devotion” to their country.
The emotional tributes paid to fallen service personnel whose bodies have been repatriated through Wotton Bassett has been a stirring, albeit temporary, act of remembrance to Britain’s recent war dead. Likewise, the fundraising efforts of organisations such as Help for Heroes provide only short-term solutions to aiding injured personnel or the families of dead soldiers. A more lasting legacy to their sacrifices needs to be enshrined. To this end, it would be fitting to see memorials commemorating the ‘War on Terror’ fallen in churches, cathedrals and on town square cenotaphs across the country.
Such memorials will serve not only as a way of remembering the past but also, perhaps, as a warning to our political leaders in the future as to the dangers of entangling Britain in complex ‘irregular’ wars.