war on the rocks

Why Did This Band of Brothers Turn to Murder?

May 7, 2018

Ed Burke, An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018).

On an autumn evening in late October 1972, Michael Naan was working on his isolated farm a few miles from the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic with Andrew Murray, a young hired laborer, when they were set upon, beaten, and stabbed to death. It was one of the most brutal attacks of the early “Troubles” and it happened in County Fermanagh, a place with a long history of sectarian conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists. The murdered men were both Catholics. As news of the killings emerged, the local Catholic community believed they had been brutally slain by Protestants out for vengeance after the fatal shooting of a part-time member of the security forces two days earlier. Fanning the flames of fear was the rumor that Naan and Murray had been killed by an assailant wielding a pitch fork, making the murders all the more macabre. Although a pathologist ultimately found that a double-edged knife had been used to stab both men multiple times in a frenzied attack, the incident has always been known as the “Pitch Fork Murders.” The Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force at the time, investigated the crime but could find no suspects. The case was closed.

Six years later, a series of similarly brutal murders of women in the north of England prompted a former soldier to come forward with information he believed connected the two cases. Although there were no direct links between the so-called “Pitch Fork” and “Yorkshire Ripper” murders, the Royal Ulster Constabulary decided to reopen the case. Their investigation was greatly aided by an eyewitness who revealed intimate details of the killings of Naan and Murray. Within a short span of time a number of men were arrested, charged, and convicted. It would soon transpire that the perpetrators had all been members of 13 Platoon, D Company, of the 1st Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, one of Britain’s most famous Scottish infantry regiments.

In his fascinating new book, An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland, Ed Burke explores why these soldiers committed the murders and what consequences their actions had for the local community. Burke places the actions of the soldiers in two overlapping contexts — the institutional framework of the British Army and the historical environment in which they found themselves deployed.

Turning to the institutional context first, the British Army has long prided itself on the sense of belonging promoted by its regimental system. Burke informs us that those who joined the Army were “offered some sense of ‘family.’” In Scottish regiments, like the Argylls, many recruits hailed from poor backgrounds where “alcohol abuse and domestic abuse were common.” They were quickly initiated into the ranks and taught to see the regiment in “quasi-religious terms” where the regimental colors (flags and emblems) were considered “sacred.” This helps us to understand the bonds that were formed between soldiers “through the job, the task and a sense of professional pride.” In short, soldiers were indoctrinated into a group mentality that furnished its adherents with a sense of comradeship and belonging in exchange for their unquestioning loyalty.

The concept of the regiment as an extended family or “tribe” is vital in explaining what motivates soldiers at home in barracks and on operations. Burke is not the first to have applied a sociological lens to understanding the dynamics behind such primary group cohesion: S.L.A. Marshall, Richard Holmes, Dave Grossman, Joanna Bourke, and Anthony King have all offered incisive reasons as to why people fight and kill in armed conflict. In his insightful book Tribe, Sebastian Junger has even gone as far as to suggest that those who find themselves tested by battlefield conditions are likely to rediscover a sense of primordial belonging forged by an all-encompassing group mentality. “Group cooperation triggers higher levels of trust and group bonding in men,” writes Junger, with both reactions imparting a “powerful sensation of well-being.” It is in circumstances like these that deviant behavior is not only possible but necessary when it comes to privileging group activity above individual freedom of thought and action. Penetrating insights into this group-reinforcing behaviour can be found in Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, Jim Frederick’s Dark Heart, and in Patrick Bury’s Callsign Hades, which deal with the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, these themes are less commonly explored in the literature on the Northern Ireland Troubles. This is surprising, especially given that British soldiers were on continuous deployment there for 38 years. Burke’s book is to be welcomed for the rare glimpse it offers into how comradeship, training, and behavior affected soldiers in this earlier armed conflict. The deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, Operation Banner, would account for the Army’s highest loss of life since the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Burke’s central argument is that “small infantry units enjoyed considerable autonomy during the early years of Operation Banner and could behave in a vengeful, highly aggressive or benign and conciliatory way as their local commanders saw fit.” Burke demonstrates this by way of examining two regiments in particular — the Scots Guards and the Argylls — in the early 1970s. The opening years of the Troubles were the most intense phase of the entire conflict. Between the beginning of 1971 and the end of 1972, 651 people lost their lives. Although around half of that number were civilians, the second highest number of deaths — 178 — were British soldiers. By 1998, over 1,000 soldiers and police officers would die in hostilities between out of total number of approximately 3,600 fatalities.

When the Army deployed to Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, it had a wealth of experience in “keeping the peace” in Britain’s colonies around the world. For instance, those soldiers belonging to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had seen action most recently in Borneo and Aden. And it was in Aden in 1967 that the regiment had made its famous no-nonsense stand against insurgents from the National Liberation Front. Interestingly, those who were later found guilty of the murders of Michael Nann and Andrew Murray in Fermanagh had seen action in Aden in the ranks of D Company, which had the philosophy of employing a “minimum use of maximum force” against its opponents, a mantra that ran counter to the British Army’s rules of engagement at the time. In Aden, as elsewhere, rules of engagement had been fashioned out of a careful reading of political considerations, as much as military ones, and they typically urged restraint during hostilities. As Burke shows, however, D Company’s “Aden tendencies” took time to eradicate. To be sure, this company or “clan” within the wider Argyll “tribe” had its own “uncompromising, unorthodox” image to project in a way that coveted its tough reputation in one of the Army’s most operationally active regiments.

Importantly, as Burke shows in his compelling and detailed book, such aggressive tactics would generate a grammar of their own when interacting with the friction thrown up by the logic of Northern Ireland’s deadly ethnic conflict. In what might be described as Burke’s written equivalent of a high definition quality picture of the “Pitch Fork” murders, the author weaves the story of D Company into the wider discourse of “intimate violence” frequently seen in other civil wars. Therefore, that makes his contribution especially useful to those interested in looking beyond the Irish case.

Burke’s book is not without its minor flaws. In the opening two chapters, he slightly overstates the originality of his own insights into Army operations in Northern Ireland. For instance, although he is perfectly entitled to register his disagreement with other authors, he should not chide them for failing to appreciate the nuances of the tactical and operational levels when much of the original archival material has only recently been released into the United Kingdom’s National Archives. Moreover, stronger inferences could have been made on what such episodes from the early troubles actually tell us in relation to Operation Banner more generally. Perhaps that is a question for the author to address in another book. As it stands, Burke’s research represents a major leap forward in the debate on the sociological understanding of military operations in complex human and physical terrain.

An Army of Tribes is a rigorous work of painstaking scholarship that places the security dimension of the Northern Irish Troubles in much greater tactical and operational context than ever before. In assessing the micro-ethics of soldiering in such a local setting, Burke also provides us with a rich glimpse into how military operations shaped strategy, and vice versa. The recent 20-year celebrations of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement peace accord are a reminder of the real dangers of misunderstanding why the ethno-national divide running through this violent conflict still renders such a deal necessary. Books like An Army of Tribes are badly needed because they sound alarm bells for those who may see force as the only way to reach a decisive end to a centuries-old dispute that has so far resisted all attempts at resolution.

 

Aaron Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He is author or editor of several books on terrorism and counter-insurgency, including UVF: Behind the Mask (Merrion Press, 2017), Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire (Transworld Books, 2015) and The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner, 1969-2007 (Osprey, 2011). He is currently working on a new book about British counter-terrorism operations in Northern Ireland.

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