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#WavellReviews An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland by Edward Burke

Available here from Liverpool University Press

“Even the pious Scots, locked throughout history in a long, drawn-out battle with their arch-enemies the Scots, managed a few burnings to while away the long winter evenings.1

There is a dangerous tendency in military history to reduce it to plain and simple stories:  The Allies beat the Nazis and restored democracy to the West.  The Soviets were defeated by NATO out-staring them across the Great European Plain.  These are hugely powerful and emotive legends, built into British military identities and cultures; but they are not, of course, the whole account.  This is rarely more obvious than when looking at the conflict in Northern Ireland, where the narratives are so polarised, and so deeply rooted in a background of centuries of religious, ethnic, and political violence (if that isn’t a tautology), that any attempt to tell a story from that time runs into a minefield of interpretation and bias.

Yet there are stories which need to be told, and not forgotten; because to withhold them warps the wider narrative of the whole conflict, and influences both the decision-making of the future and the ongoing attempts to establish the truth about the past. Edward Burke, an Irishman from the Republic, Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Nottingham and Director of their Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism, is particularly qualified to look into this. As an academic who has also spent eighteen months attached to policing missions in Afghanistan, and who is currently researching vendetta and violence on the Eire/UK border stretching back to the 1920s, he brings an optimal mix of lived experience and professional rigour to this complex and volatile field.

Burke’s 2018 book An Army of Tribes is an apparently unique type of study – “part micro-history and part ethnography” – which maintains an admirably disciplined tight focus on two Scottish regiments during their deployments to Ulster in the early 1970s: the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Scots Guards.  This rigidly defined scope is one of the book’s strengths, as it enables Burke to capture a particularly clear snapshot of ephemeral cultural factors within these units that were largely driven by the wider dynamics of that very particular theatre.  Burke illustrates this through powerful vignettes, such as a Scots Guards piper’s very poorly judged decision to play an Orange Order anthem on the dockside in front of a crowd of Liverpool Irish.  Elsewhere, he describes how Argyll officerswere “enraged” by the controversy around the Ulster Loyalist community’s fundraising on behalf of an Argyll charged with swearing at a child while on patrol, who later turned out to be the son of a British NCO instead of an abusive junior Fenian.2

Burke is also very strong on fine details of regimental identity that would not normally be obvious to outsiders, such as the class differences in recruiting areas between the Guards and the Argylls, and how far the tendrils of each regiment’s influence could extend.  I was, for example, fascinated to read that Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell had both commanded the Argylls and later, after resigning his commission, lobbied against their dissolution from the House of Commons; while William Whitelaw had been a decorated Scots Guards officer during the Second World War and was deeply affected by his unit’s losses in Normandy.  Burke cites Whitelaw’s own memoirs, where he describes his experiences at Caumont Ridge as “[influencing] my character and thus my reactions to different events for the rest of my life”.  Although Burke goes on to stress that Whitelaw’s tenure as the first Westminster-based Northern Ireland Secretary following direct rule was in fact characterised by foresight and restraint.3 Certainly not something I would have expected from a man whose time as Home Secretary included the Brixton riots. 

None of this would seem on the face of it to be particularly sympathetic to British military interests, as Burke’s investigation is firmly centred on Army behaviour in Ulster which was most definitely beyond the pale.  His description of how British soldiers attached a blast victim’s amputated feet to the front of their vehicle, below a sign reading “This one won’t run away”, will stay with me a long time. 4 But the strength of this book lies in the depth of its enquiry, and with Burke’s constructive will “not to eulogise or demonise but to better understand” the dynamics of grievance and the cyclical nature of ever-escalating retributive violence that lie behind such shocking imagery.  Although this is a thoroughly academic text, grounded in theory and literature from Clausewitz to Weber, the reliance on soldiers’ own words, and Burke’s clear understanding of concepts such as the “hyper-investment” of troops in a particular version of military identity, creates an enthralling narrative.  Simultaneously, crucial social insights, such as the apparent lack of sectarian tension within the Argylls and Scots – both of whom contained troops recruited from historically sectarian areas of Scotland – emphasise the utility of the “Scots lens” in looking at the Troubles.5

The central events of the book, compartmentalised within this fourth and final chapter, are the 1972 murders of Michael Naan and Andrew Murray by a group of NCOs from the Argylls, and the death of Edmund Woolsey by car bomb; it was parts of Woolsey’s body which were attached to the front of a British vehicle.  The tone and focus shift here, showing Burke’s ability as a historian, and allowing many more Irish voices into a narrative that to this point comes entirely from an Army viewpoint.  This final chapter examines these incidents and the subsequent investigations in intense, almost forensic detail, which is exactly what these events deserve.  It is painful reading, particularly as Burke does not hide from the fact that the soldiers responsible were, by the standards of the time, very effective fighting troops.  The lesson he draws instead, noting that “many soldiers were hyper-vigilant after the realistic training in Lydd and Hythe”, was that they were not well equipped for a deployment which would require “the occasional need of killing people ‘between a WH Smiths and a Marks and Spencer. ’”6 In a book full of hard moments, possibly the hardest is Burke’s indirect quotation from a Scots Guards NCO that “a deviant but charismatic Sergeant could ‘ruin’ a Platoon in weeks, as young soldiers began to emulate him.”7

In sum, then, An Army of Tribes is a valuable and laudable effort to bring the examination of military culture into the academic mainstream.  Burke draws four firm lessons learned which could easily (and should, in my opinion) find their way into any military leadership programme. He has achieved a hair-fine balance between engrossing narrative and rigorous analysis that I am more than happy to rank alongside Spencer Fitz-Gibbon’s infamous Not Mentioned In Despatches, Toby Harnden’s Dead Men Risen, and Jonathan Shay’s outstanding Achilles in Vietnam.  While his position on the horrific breaches of discipline amongst the units he describes is challenging and even iconoclastic, it is coupled with an awareness that the experience of war (of any kind, at any scale) fundamentally changes all those involved in it, both then, and forever.  As a preface to his third chapter, Burke quotes a Scots Guards officer whom he interviewed in 2014: “To understand the conditions under which we made decisions you have to put yourself in the position of a young officer wearing a gas mask… trying to see shapes moving through a blackened, burning city filled with gas and smoke.   Those were the conditions.”8

Nor should that be forgotten.

Alexander Helm

Alexander Helmis currently reading for the MSc in International Security and Global Governance at Birkbeck, University of London. He has served with the British Army Reserve and London Metropolitan Police.


  1. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens (1990)
  2. Burke, Tribes, 105-107
  3. Whitelaw in Burke, Tribes, 19; also 29: “Whitelaw believed the Army was too optimistic, short-termist and prone to an overly punitive approach that would squander any political momentum.”
  4. Burke, Tribes, 184. This anecdote comes from an original interview with an Argyll veteran; I feel a need to stress that while the controversy over this death endures, it is still possible this individual was returning to check on or collect their own undetonated car bomb.
  5. Burke does go on to mention, in his conclusion, that the Army “was not completely immune from being affected by the tensions of Ulster”, and cites a couple of fascinating cases where this led to worrying conflict within regimental command: Tribes, 340.
  6. Burke, Tribes, 339-340
  7. Burke, Tribes, 339
  8. Burke, Tribes, epigraph to chapter 3, 123.

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