DSD Summer Reading #8

My reading this summer included Edward Burke’s recent book on the British Army in Northern Ireland, An Army of Tribes, which has already been discussed by the author in a Defence in Depth post. Burke provides a detailed examination of two battalions committed to Operation Banner (the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards, and the 1st Battalion the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) in 1972, the worst year of the ‘troubles’. He does not shy away from describing the controversies of this conflict, which includes a disturbing chapter on the involvement of soldiers from D Company, the Argylls, in the ‘Pitchfork Murders’ in Fermanagh.

With a blend of history and sociology Burke provides an incisive portrait of the British Army, emphasising (correctly, in my view) the importance of sub-unit identities and loyalties at Company and Platoon level. He also describes the fraught relationship between the Guards and the Argylls with the Catholic communities, although in the process he challenges several myths, including the allegation that the Army’s Scottish infantry battalions were institutionally sectarian. Burke’s findings may well discomfort some Banner veterans, but they are also likely to annoy Irish Republicans and their sympathisers too. My only minor criticism of this book is its subtitle – British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland – which might give the misleading impression that it is an anti-military rant. On the contrary, this is arguably one of the best recent works on the British Army’s operations in Northern Ireland, and is both dispassionate and authoritative in its conclusions.

I also re-read John Bew’s biography of Attlee, Citizen Clem, an engrossing and thoroughly-researched account of the life and career of Clement Attlee. Bew’s book summarises the core principles of the beliefs that guided Attlee’s politics, and which he sought to put into practice as Prime Minister from July 1945 to October 1951. The first of these was to atone for Britain’s failure after World War I to build a nation and society that justified the sacrifices made by its citizen armed forces (a particular concern for the former Major Attlee). The second was to link rights with duties, connecting the welfare state his government built with a wider concept of citizenship. The third was to transform empire into Commonwealth, and to oversee the transition towards independence of Britain’s colonies, although critics could argue that the self-determination granted to the Indian Raj in 1947 was denied to Malaya and other overseas imperial possessions.

Finally, Attlee’s idealism was grounded in practicality, and from his social work in the East End in pre-WWI London to his role as deputy Prime Minister in World War Two and subsequently his premiership there was a consistent emphasis on the practicalities of governance and reform rather than grandstanding utopianism. Bew notes that the more he studied Attlee the more he admired him, and this is a view which I subscribe to fully, particularly compared to the utterly wretched state of the current Labour leadership.

I also had the opportunity to catch up with some long overdue reading with the two-volume edition of edited essays Britain in Global Politics published by Palgrave in 2013. Volume I (edited by Christopher Baxter, Michael Dockrill and Keith Hamilton) contains essays on British foreign and defence policy from the Victorian era to World War II, while Volume II (edited by John Young, Effie Pedaliu and Michael Kandiah) provides a companion study for the Cold War to the ‘War on Terror’.

Britain in Global Politics was published as a tribute to Saki Dockrill, an outstanding scholar of post-1945 international history and a dedicated teacher. I should declare a personal interest here as Saki was my PhD supervisor, and also became a mentor and a friend to me. Her death in August 2009 robbed British academia of one of its finest historians, and KCL’s Department of War Studies of an exemplary scholar and tutor. Sadly, her husband Michael passed away this August, and he too was an eminent international historian, an inspirational teacher and a larger-than-life character who will be fondly remembered by those he taught and worked with. These volumes are a wonderful and fitting tribute to their memories, and I strongly recommend them.

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