Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The military response to direct action, General Kitson’s manual

From Direct Action Station:

Tom Griffin writes:


In 1971 a counter-insurgency manual set out an operational response to non-violent direct action protest movements as well as military insurgencies like the Provision IRA in Northern Ireland, drawing on the UK’s colonial experience. Today, it holds a surprise for a new reader.


General Frank Kitson’s 1971 counter-insurgency manual Low Intensity Operations [12] has long been of interest to students of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Within months of its publication, its author was commanding 39 Brigade in Belfast where he pioneered the use of the Parachute Regiment [13] as shock troops, and of plain-clothes ‘counter-gangs’ [14] to combat paramilitary groups.


However, what struck me most when I obtained a copy recently was not the book’s obvious significance for such controversial episodes, but its striking relevance to events in Britain in recent weeks.


That’s because Kitson gives considerable attention to the question of how a government can combat a campaign of non-violent direct action. He devotes a whole chapter to the subject, despite showing considerable scepticism about the value of direct action as a tactic:

“It is rare to find large numbers of people who are so interested in a political cause that they are prepared to abandon their work and sacrifice their recreational time merely to stand around in a group being troublesome to the government on the off chance that it will make concessions in some direction which will probably bring them little personal benefit or satisfaction. In fact only the hard core organizers are likely to be sufficiently dedicated to behave in this way, and such people are normally viewed with suspicion by the normal working man or housewife and even by the majority of the student population.”
Kitson argued that to overcome this problem, the hard core organizers need to mobilise an intermediate group of ‘politically conscious idealists’ in sufficient numbers to goad the authorities into discrediting themselves by some violent action.

Kitson wrote primarily on the basis of his experiences in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus, dealing with highly centralised communist or nationalist movements, in situations where direct action was ultimately replaced by outright insurgency.


He did recognise that the students involved in the then recent events of May 1968 in France were resistant to centralised control, but he regarded this as illustrating a general weakness of direct action, its dependence on mobilising large numbers of ordinary people.


For Kitson, the workers and students of 1968 had been bought off with concessions on wages and universities, frustrating the larger socialist ambitions of the organisers. His practical recommendations are a generalisation of this model:


“In practical terms the most promising line of approach lies in separating the mass of those engaged in the campaign from the leadership by the judicious promise of concessions, at the same time imposing a period of calm by the use of government forces backed up by statements to the effect that most of the concessions can only be implemented once the life of the country returns to normal. Although with an eye to world opinion, and to the need to retain the allegiance of the people, no more force than is necessary for containing the situation should be used, conditions can be made reasonably uncomfortable for the population as a whole, in order to provide an incentive for a return to normal life and to act as a deterrent towards a resumption of the campaign.
Having once succeeded in providing a breathing space by these means, it is most important to do three further things quickly. The first is to implement the promised concessions quickly so as to avoid allegations of bad faith which may enable the subversive element to regain control over certain sections of the people. The second is to discover and neutralise the subversive element. The third is to associate as many prominent members of the population, especially those who have been engaged in non-violent action, with the government. This last technique is known in America as co-optation..”
~ more... ~


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