2 April 2012 Edition
The ‘tiger hunt’ mindset and shoot-to-kill
THE BRITISH ARMY GOC’S OPERATIONS PAPER THE GENERAL STAFF FEARED WOULD EMBARRASS MINISTERS
‘The way that the standard units and the specialist [special forces] units should work together to get success can be compared with an old-fashioned tiger hunt’ Lieutenant-General Sir John Waters, General Officer Commanding in the North, 1989
NEW MATERIAL has become available which highlights the British military’s colonial approach to Ireland in 1969 under what it called ‘Operation Banner’.
In June 1989, Lieutenant-General Sir John Waters, who was then the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in the North, wrote a lengthy and detailed proposal to the Officer Commanding Armoured Infantry Training and Advisory Team about the preparation work that new British Army units about to be deployed in the North needed to undertake.
His ‘Concept of Operations’ paper is interesting because of the insight it gives into the mindset of the British Army general running the British Army in the North. Waters wrote:
“I have looked very carefully into the whole matter of complaints. I entirely accept that the number of cases in which soldiers offend, almost invariably under some sort of provocation, is in the circumstances amazingly low. Nevertheless . . . each ‘offence’ is one too many and entirely unhelpful. Incidents which anywhere else would be seen as an innocent soldier’s prank or just an expression of youthful high spirits can give real offence.”
Later, in a section under ‘Discipline and Propaganda’, Waters wrote: “Most of what they say about bad behaviour by soldiers is lies. But it is believed by many, particularly in the nationalist community.”
So there you have it. The truth according to Waters is that nationalists and many others around the world were all gullible. The thousands of wrecked homes, the communities oppressed by occupying British troops, the deaths of almost 400 people in disputed circumstances and over a thousand more in attacks by loyalist counter-gangs, the beatings and the terror were all just ‘youthful high spirits’ or the result of ‘some sort of provocation’ or a prank!
But the general’s denial of reality doesn’t stop there.
He describes how the RUC and the British Army consist of ‘standard units’ and ‘specialist units (Special Forces)’. He wrote: “In very general terms, the ‘standard units’ provide the constant presence on the ground to give ‘Reassurance and Deterrence’. Attrition operations are usually carried out by the specialist units - but not always.”
And then the colonial mindset kicked in. The years of acting out the role of colonial overlord in India and elsewhere found a voice. Waters reduced the killing and capture of the enemy to a tiger hunt!
“The way that the standard units and the specialist units should work together to get success can be compared with an old-fashioned tiger hunt. The most experienced hunters are placed in what is judged to be the very best position from which to get a shot. These are the specialist units. The beaters surround the area of the jungle where the tigers are expected to be and drive them on to the guns. These are the standard units. Beating requires great skill and co-ordination to prevent the tigers breaking out of the cordon, or killing some of the beaters. Frequently, the tigers break back, make a mistake and expose themselves to the beaters. This is the opportunity for the beaters, who also carry guns, to get a tiger.”
And there you have it: the disposal of unwanted members of the public - shoot-to-kill operations - were modelled on ‘tiger hunts’!
Is it any wonder that, two months later, Waters’s boss, Major General Guthrie (Assistant Chief of the General Staff), wrote to him asking that he reword his paper. While he regarded the paper as excellent, Guthrie was worried that the use of the ‘tiger hunt’ analogy would get out sooner or later and cause “you and the Army Department and ministers” embarrassment. Waters was having none of it. He refused to temper his language and stuck to his guns (pardon the pun).
There is a danger in reading Waters’s language that you almost dismiss him as a pompous, jingoistic Colonel Blimp type of character but he was the general in charge of the British Army in the North. He and those who held that post before him and others in a host of intelligence, policing and military agencies took decisions that had a profound impact on the lives of citizens in the North. And it is clear from Guthrie’s letter that he was not dissenting from the sentiment - just the use of language.
It is no accident that those places and people who were the targets of such tactics and strategies remain conflict zones to this day. The one significant exception is Ireland. And that has been achieved despite our military overlords and colonial tiger hunters.
For that we give thanks.