Studies in war and warfare do not usually receive much attention in courses of international relations, particularly not in my home country, where anyone who deals with military affairs is often suspected of being a militarist. That is a sad state of affairs and in some cases the results are predictably terrifying. When, for instance, the pros and cons of intervention in Syria are being debated, not that many people pay attention to what is militarily feasible. My point is this: For a lively debate on war and warfare one always has to turn to the United States and the United Kingdom and it is there that the more interesting books are being published. It is against this background that I am reviewing David French's history of the British armed forces following the end of World War II, published under the somewhat academic title Army, Empire and Cold War. The British Army and Military Police, 1945-1971.
David French, this much can be said up-front, has written a remarkably fascinating history of the British Armed Forces, unusually well researched and argued in the best fashion of British academia. That is saying something since the subject does not give itself lightly to any author trying to penetrate it. Armies have always exhibited a disconcerting love for acronyms and the British is no different. The first chapters are therefore a little nauseating, particularly when it comes to the back and forth in Whitehall. But French manages not to get tangled up in the dealings between No. 10, Whitehall and the FCO and instead focuses on the way the British armed forces prepared for the conflicts they expected to be embroiled in.
Bernard Porter argued that throughout the era of imperialism and colonialism the British empire rested on a huge bluff, which made people believe that the United Kingdom was one of, if not the greatest military power. Though it is true that the British navy was perhaps the most powerful sailing the waters of the 19th century, the British possessions had nonetheless overextended the British empire. Yet, London could hold on to its empire largely because people believed that Britain had the military power to enforce its territorial claims even in places as far from the British Islands as South East Asia. That the British empire existed well into the 20th century had more to do with the reluctant way in which the colonies were calling Britain's bluff rather than with the military power the United Kingdom had at its disposal.
Following the end of World War II the United Kingdom drew down its forces and de-mobilised many of its divisions, which was, to put in the highest praise a British bureaucrat can muster, only sound. But it also meant that the British soon found themselves stretched extremely thin. The United Kingdom still had a huge empire and even though it was willing to accept independence as inevitable, reducing the resulting global responsibilities was not exactly easy. At the same time, Britain's capabilities always seemed to be shrinking faster than its global responsibilities were decreasing. The result being that the British armed forces were always testing the limits of their operational capabilities. French masters a wonderful description of this peculiar situation. And he is not afraid of drawing provoking conclusions. When it comes to counterinsurgency, French points out that attrition and coercion are more important in British overseas operations than hitherto recognised. In the same vein, French re-evaluates huge parts of the history of de-colonisation. All of which make this book a pleasure to read.
In 1967 the British government realised that its position had become untenable and that it needed to limit its operations outside NATO. The Wilson government announced that it would withdraw from what it called the area east of Suez. Not only had the economic difficulties already led to an overextension of British responsibilities, the independence of more and more colonies made it harder to maintain the basing and overflight rights necessary to sustain forces on the other half of the globe. The British government also realised that its global commitments were coming with a huge price tag in its relations vis-à-vis NATO. The United Kingdom had stationed a huge number of forces in Western Europe as part of the NATO deterrent against a potential aggression by the Warsaw Pact. But it also did so to ensure that Washington would maintain an interest in its special relationship with London. But the global commitments put a burden on the British ability to sustain a credible deterrent in Western Europe. It simply could no longer do both: Deterring the Soviet Union while at the same time committing itself to what Montgomery had dubbed 'village cricket'. Two decades into the Cold War, no one needed to call the British imperial bluff, history had moved on. Perhaps more importantly, however, there was now an acute awareness that independence for most colonies was inevitable and too drastic a measure against insurgencies always carried the risk that when a country would eventually gain its independence it might turn to the Soviet Union more readily. All of that came against the background of changing domestic and international conditions. The British public grew more sceptical on interventions and the Suez crisis had demonstrated the costs of acting without backing of the United Nations or the United States. And it is with regard to the latter that a word of criticism on French's account must be voiced: The (special) relationship with the United States is repeatedly mentioned, but not really explored. Other than that: Army, Empire and Cold War is hugely recommendable.