David A. Charters, Whose Mission, Whose Orders?  British Civil-Military Command and Control in Northern Ireland, 1968-1974 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

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David A. Charters, a retired professor of military history at the University of New Brunswick, has written extensively on British counterinsurgency. Whose Mission, Whose Orders?, his latest volume, continues the strong work he has delivered in this area. Charters’ goal in this book is to explore the civil-military relationship (CMR) – command and control at the highest level – between British political authorities and the British military in the early days of the Irish Troubles to determine whether theories of CMR could be used to explain these interactions. Charters concludes that these theories do not usefully explain what happened and uses case studies to explore the mechanisms that were used. He contends that though extremely complex, and at times strained, civil-military relations never failed in the first four years of the Troubles (1969 – 1974).  Charters fully achieves his aim of trialing the explanatory power of the theories and revealing what actually occurred.

Charters arguments are well-structured and well-presented. He starts by emphasizing the critical importance of studying CMR by exploring the underlying theories, and then by explaining that none of the extant theories are sufficient to model what occurred in Ireland. Charters uses six case studies to detail how civil-military relationships unfolded in this conflict: the major deployment of troops in August 1969; the internment operation of August 1971; the Bloody Sunday massacre in January 1972; the imposition of direct rule in March 1972; Operation Motorman in August 1972; and the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of May 1974. For each case study, Charters first presents an overview, then the contextual background, and finally the intricacies of how CMR unfolded in the specific instance.

There are many strengths in this work. Charters’ extensive research and mastery of this subject is evident in the flowing narrative. Each case study is a cogent and succinct examination of the events that occurred and their influence and implications for British CMR. Charters frequently provides analysis and comments that demonstrate his understanding of the complexities of the issues under consideration.  Where necessary he salts the narrative with important comparisons drawn from the long British experience with insurgencies, whether Malaya, Kenya, Palestine, or elsewhere. For instance, he compares the planning for internment with similar operations in Jerusalem and Nairobi. Charters also displays a thorough understanding of the mechanics of “the minimum use of force,” a concept that is frequently muddled in modern scholarship. He rightly observes that what a military officer considers the minimum force sufficient to perform a task may seem well in excess of that necessary to those subjected to it. Additionally, he reminds us that frequently a military officer’s stark choices are to risk being vilified for using too much force or court-martialed for using too little – the typical no-win position of military leadership in domestic disturbances that make it such a thankless task. Of course, his apt description of the fundamentals of aid to the civil power (ACP) is core to following the trials and tribulations of this shared Irish-British experience. Charters ably describes the origins of the concept of ACP, and the obligation, which cannot be refused, of the military to respond once civilian authorities request assistance. With the ultimate responsibility for British military action resting with the British government, the inherent problems involved with military commanders potentially reporting to Stormont, the Northern Ireland administration, set the stage for much of the intergovernmental negotiation in the early days of the Troubles.

There are perhaps only two tiny flaws in this work. A table of abbreviations and glossary are more than necessary in a work such as this and a chart of the major players – ministers, military and bureaucrats –across the period would have been helpful too. The role and importance of Sir Arthur Young as head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary may also have been understated.

This is an important contribution to the study of civil-military relationships for several reasons. First, as Charters’ case studies demonstrate – theories can point the way but are often incapable of explaining messy reality. Second, he refutes and revises much of the conventional wisdom concerning the early days of the Troubles. This approach was especially interesting when he set out to explain how it became received wisdom that a crisis in British CMR had occurred during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. Third, Charters importantly demonstrates how there is no easy template or strategy to address this kind of conflict. While both the British civilian and military institutions relied on their cultural norms and practices for some of the answers, the frequently changing nature of the conflict and the shifting political priorities demanded frequent re-examination of policies, orders and instructions. Thus, constant negotiation and consultation between the key civilian and military actors was necessary to afford any progress on the ground. While military planning frequently preceded political decision, clearly military strategy and actions remained subservient to civil authority (as it should be). Finally, Charters highlights that beyond the broad and necessary partnership required between actors, close and continual attention needs to be invested in negotiating workable civil-military solutions with the appropriate civil authorities with whom the final decision rests.

This book should prove useful to a wide audience. For the layman, the narrative is a highly readable outline of the early key events of the Troubles and a good starting point to conduct further research into its specific aspects. For military professionals and defence bureaucrats, this volume is unique in the detailed coverage it gives to command and control issues at the national strategic level. It also highlights many of the complications associated with aid to the civil power in general and many of the difficulties of conducting operations in highly charged political environments. This is more than evident here as he notes how many seemingly mundane actions can have significant political consequences.  In addition, this volume points to the requirement for more study and consideration of basic control measures in counterinsurgency. Many of the common techniques remain as poorly understood today as they were then. For instance, internment (Operation Demetrius) failed as a “decapitation” operation (an operation to eliminate the key leadership of the opposition) due to weak and questionable intelligence. For politicians and senior government officials, this volume reinforces the requirements to have the proper mechanisms in place at the highest levels to thoroughly consult and plan for the use of force, and while advice needs to be drawn from appropriate and responsible security officials, the ultimate responsibility rests with the civilian authorities.

Whose Mission, Whose Orders? merits even more attention as it addresses command and control issues in a counterinsurgency environment. These issues are often by-passed in counterinsurgency histories with a nod to the example of General Gerald Templer as supremo in Malaya and little else. In fact, even the importance of emergency regulations, a critical governmental tool in counterinsurgencies, has only been recently mentioned in David French’s book, The British Way in Counter-Insurgency, 1945-1967(OUP: 2011). One could hope that this excellent study by David Charters will prompt further detailed command and control studies of other campaigns.


Dr. Richard Roy received his PhD in military history from Queen’s University. He served for over 35 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, including tours in Cyprus, the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, and with the African Union. His research interests include land mine warfare, peacekeeping operations, counterinsurgency and Canadian military history.

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