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Protecting People Who Don’t Want Protection

I’m reading Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 and one thing that comes through is the extent to which the British army faced what we’d now recognize as some of the classic problems of counterinsurgency. Particularly when they decide to shift action to the southern theater where they believe there to be strong loyalists sentiments, they face a classic dilemma. To make it safe for loyalists to show themselves, they need to suppress rebel military forces. This they can manage, since the rebels aren’t actually that formidable. But the means necessary for suppression — occupying army running hither and yon — tend to feed rebellion. What’s a commander to do?

I thought of that book when I read Michael Trevett’s piece on census operations in counterinsurgency:

Mao explained that the guerrilla or insurgent swims among the sea of people. Consequently, thoroughly knowing the population is the best method of identifying, finding, and fixing the insurgent. Only after identifying the insurgent, does it become possible to isolate and kill him and protect the population. From the perspective of the counterinsurgent, these are the fundamental purposes of census operations, a subset of populace and resources control (PRC) measures, which, when attained, significantly contribute to the elimination of an insurgency and the establishment of civil governing control.

This is, of course, applicable. The British spent a lot of time making strategic decisions that were based on a kind of guesswork about the disposition of the local population. Accurate, detailed knowledge of who lives where and what they think can be a huge asset.

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But reading about George Washington, Father of His Country, First President of the United States of America, and posthumous six star general leading an insurgency makes a nice contrast with the bloodless and technocratic language used by his successors in the US military when discussing such matters. Should General Howe have listened to advice about the importance of “thoroughly knowing the population” as “the best method of identifying, finding, and fixing” American Patriots, so as to create the circumstances in which “it becomes[s] possible to isolate and kill [them] and protect the population”? Sounds odd, eh. Even though it’s quite true that Continental forces requisitioned supplies from local civilians and sometimes made themselves a nuisance, we’d generally say that the population hardly needed “protecting” from the insurgents. But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe if you went back in time with a bunch of copies of FM 3–24 and some better census it’d all have gone down differently.