Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency

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Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency. By Huw Bennett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2013. xii + 307 pp. ISBN: 978-1-107-65624-6.
Britain’s suppression of the Mau Mau insurgency in colonial Kenya in the 1950s is topical and emotive – the subject of ground-breaking books by David Anderson (Histories of the Hanged, 2005) and Caroline Elkins (Britain’s Gulag, 2005), and of a recent UK High Court reparation case launched by Kenyans alleging gross abuse at the hands of the security forces, settled in 2013 as this book went to press. As Huw Bennett served alongside Anderson and Elkins as an expert witness at the court case, he is well placed to write a military history of the counter-insurgency in Kenya, evidence from his court-room witness statements appearing as footnotes to the book under review, based on the recently unearthed ‘lost’ British colonial archive found at Hanslope Park near Milton Keynes. Government files from the National Archives at Kew alongside Kenyan records and accounts from soldiers supplement the Hanslope material for Bennett’s book, as well as a wealth of secondary material.
Bennett’s focus is the British Army – including regiments such as the white settler Kenya Regiment and the white-led King’s African Rifles – and his argument is that far from being a moderating force that employed a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy in counter-insurgency, the Army used considerable violence to defeat Mau Mau, including torture, extra-judicial killings and rape. This thesis is not new – articulated most recently by David French, as the author recognises – but Bennett brings to the table new archival evidence to show how the Army operated in Kenya and he provides expert insight into the Army as an institution that is missing from, say, Anderson’s or Elkins’ accounts of Mau Mau. Bennett’s work is part of the critical turn in writing on British counter-insurgency, eschewing the triumphalist narrative of British legality, success, moderation (‘minimum force’) and exceptionalism when fighting colonial insurgences, right up to Basra and Helmand province today. Instead, as Bennett shows, Britain’s defeat of Mau Mau required military force, and lots of it. Rather than being removed from the racist violence of the Kenyan white settlers, the Army came to Kenya to work alongside and coordinate the settlers and the colonial state. The Army had a long tradition of ‘pacification’ stretching back to India, South Africa, Ireland and the Middle East, tough policies directed at civilians and easily used in the context of Kenya where the Mau Mau insurgents’ atavistic oaths and rituals confirmed racial stereotypes about black Africans. Kenya was an ‘Emergency’ state and in a useful chapter, Bennett details the legal foundations for counter-insurgency. In effect, lawlessness was the law, draconian legislation allowing for state-sanctioned punitive acts that would otherwise be illegal and intuitively immoral. Bennett traces the national and international law that bounded British soldiers, showing that it counted for very little, more especially among soldiers whose duty was to obey orders rather than follow nebulous laws (many established in the late 1940s) that they had barely learnt at cadet or staff college and which had never been effectively enshrined as doctrine anyway. (The view seems to have been that men who had fought the Nazis would never do anything bad.) On diffuse operations in the field, abuses were not so much condoned as they were impossible to stop – ‘shot trying to escape’ was the much-used excuse.
Paradoxically, what followed was not brutal, exemplary force targeting whole populations but a hybrid of minimal and maximal force co-existing at different times and in different places. Bennett is at his best in revealing the texture of the Army’s use of force, presenting to the reader an institution that was not comfortable with what it and others did in Kenya, pulled in opposite directions, tensed between instinctive urges to behave properly while having to use or condone force as the only practicable way of defeating Mau Mau. Senior commanders such as General Sir George Erskine tried to keep a lid on the violence, with some success, calibrating the force and violence used, preventing soldiers from running amok, and stopping short of the genocide that Elkins suggests in her study. Tight discipline existed uneasily alongside rules that gave soldiers great leeway in terms of who they could shoot, some offenders being punished – lightly, admittedly – for killing innocent Kenyans. This was an opaque war, soldiers unlikely to record what really went on, but Bennett details some especially brutal case studies of executions by King’s African Regiment white officers, bringing to life in a horrible way what ‘counter-insurgency’ meant in practice for local black Kenyans. (Individual officer’s characters came into play here with some King’s African Regiment officers, like Lieutenant William Calley at My Lai in Vietnam later on, not up to the job, resulting in their leading torture and abuse.) The establishment of legally defined ‘free-fire’ zones was a way in which the Army tried to differentiate between legal and illegal violence, echoes here, again, of later wars such as the one in Vietnam. Much of what the Army did was coercive rather than violent: enforcing food control, resettlement, villagization, passes, etc – Karl Hack is good in showing how this worked in Malaya. In the end, local acts of gross abuse were not as important for success as the mass control of the sections of the Kenyan population – notably but not exclusively the Kikuyu – in a colonial state that stopped short of terminal violence.
Bennett is to be congratulated for an exciting, lively, readable, informed and scholarly study of Mau Mau that both supplements and complements the growing corpus on British counter-insurgency. The debates raised and issues discussed on the use of the military are ones that resonate with other counter-insurgencies, the Army emerging as heavily complicit in what happened in Kenya. While there are rather too many acronyms in the book under review and the threads of the arguments are not always easy to follow, these are minor criticisms in an otherwise excellent book that is sure to be well received.
Brunel University MATTHEW HUGHES

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