Julian Thompson commanded 3rd Commando Brigade in the Falklands and subsequently became an author, BBC presenter and visiting professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College. These are good credentials to edit the Imperial War Museum Book of Modern Warfare, a look at a selection of conflicts fought by Britain between August 1945 and 2000, when the book went to print.
This is the latest in a series of excellent books from the IWM stable to be reviewed on these pages. In fact, the reviewer does not recall a single book in this range that is less than outstanding.
Thompson writes that although 1968 “is often cited by the experts as the one year since 1945 in which there were no British soldiers on active service, they are wrong.” He reports British forces on loan to the Sultan of Oman fought in the Dhofar that year.
“With about two exceptions every single campaign, or even minor incident, involving British [troops] between 1945 and 2000 was unforeseen and took the British government of the day by surprise,” Thompson says. “That is not to say that some ‘expert` commentator or academic beavering away in obscurity was not able to say ‘I told you so`… The point is that the unexpected always happens, a lesson that still seems unlearned in some quarters today , despite the evidence of some 55 years or more.”
This is food for thought, also for South Africa, which intends becoming an expeditionary power to better pursue its foreign policy. This and other excellent kernels of wisdom are to be found in an introductory chapter entitled “The view from May 2001”, written by Thompson. His take on the merits of airpower and the “Revolution in Military Affairs”, also discussed in the chapter have been confirmed by events since publication, especially the ill-fated Anglo-American adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thompson also discusses the state of Europe`s armed forces, noting most of that continent`s armies are low quality “military youth movements”, which helps explains her leaders` reluctance to place troops anywhere near harm`s way. He fears that bad advice, generals lacking moral courage, politicians lacking military experience, political correctness and social engineering are conspiring to reduce the British military to the same level. He questions how long Her Majesty`s armed forces will still be fit to fight. “Fitness to fight carries with it the requirement to kill and be prepared to be killed. For if anything destroys and undermines this fitness, it will be political correctness. … The nature of battle will not be changed, despite the demand by a British Sunday newspaper that we ‘ban those boy`s toys – a modern army doesn`t need guns and knives` in the context of making training standards more female-friendly.”
Eminently entertaining and well worth the read.
Spatial requirements saw Thompson choose 15 conflicts in the period under discussion. Among them is the little-known British “non-combatant evacuation operation” to rescue Allied prisoners-of-war and civilian internees from Indonesian insurgents in the months after the end of World War Two and the equally difficult peacekeeping operation in Palestine from 1946 to 1948. other campaigns covered include Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Suez, Cyprus, the Indonesian “confrontation” (1962-6), Northern Ireland, the Falklands as well as Bosnia and Kosovo. All are good introductions to their subjects, making for a book well worth owning.
Major General Julian Thompson, Royal Marines (Retd)
The Imperial War Museum Book of Modern Warfare