The book is a step in the right direction: it is so for two important reasons. Firstly, it is a credible insight into an extremely important and formative period of the republican struggle. Secondly, it sets about that insight with a proper and structured framework of reference which utilises fact, logic and experience.
Conspiracy theories and myths have no part to play, as the author soberly outlines the deeply damaging effects that military myths had on the IRA’s operational abilities and competence, and the role political myths played in establishing the cult of personality. Competence is a critical thread when examining this period as it is when analysing the political and constitutional outcomes from it.
From the outset the author was hampered by stereotyped perceptions of what an American Marine was all about. Was he all about storming the beaches and large-scale military operations, the then anathema of republican military thinking? Or was he the mental offspring of a maniacal drill sergeant, the love child of R. Lee Ermey, that mechanical marine whose exquisite insults had the sole purpose of de-humanising and de-constructing an individual to form the perfect fighting unit, a living assault rifle?
To my great relief he was neither. From his impressive position of incredible training across a wide gamut of military matters he immediately homed in on the most basic and fundamental errors which that training allowed him to quickly identify; the elementary flaws concerning assault rifles.
As he outlines in clear and succinct prose, Volunteers in the main were ignorant of the use, maintenance and capabilities of the stock tool of every army in the world. It was an extraordinary revelation.
An example of this which he relayed to me, but not mentioned in the book, was the habit of a seasoned Volunteer who would oil his rounds before inserting them into the magazine. This drew an exasperated breath, and along with other basic no-no’s, began to answer for me the obvious question, why weren’t the Libyan shipments, and in particular the AK’s - the most widely used assault rifle in the world - not being used against the occupying forces?
As frustrating as that would seem to him (and me) at the time, that frustration would exponentially grow as we attempted to do something about it from our own respective fields. Welcome to sterile leadership.
John wanted to operate. He was certainly skilled to do so. But the logical course was to use that skill set in a more over-arching role and training was the obvious choice. This is where it became problematic.
Parochial myth on operational matters was so entrenched, largely due to a sterile leadership which stood idly by and allowed it to fester, that a mindset developed which was almost impenetrable to new and correct thinking and ideas. The obvious solution was new personnel, at every level. But this was precisely what that leadership did not want, but what the IRA, as a fighting army in the field, desperately needed.
The book highlights the role of Martin McGuinness, a pivotal figure in republican circles and subsequent events, and this aspect grabbed the headlines, for obvious reasons. But in fairness to the book, and what I outlined in my opening paragraph, it addresses that role on a factual basis, as should every student of that history, and is not guided by bitter rhetoric and ill-informed hearsay.
Was Martin McGuinness militarily illiterate? Yes, he was! The book makes a clear case for this, particularly regarding the acquisition and usage of weaponry and operational tactics over a considerable period of time. But so too was the Army Council he sat on because collective leadership bears collective responsibility.
More damning was the deeply flawed policy of the de-skilling of Volunteers' operational abilities to the point where the Libyan shipments were being made obsolete. Volunteers were being led down the path of the ‘button pushing - throw away’ arsenal. The idea of having to secure and return your weapons to base was being made redundant as the British increasingly narrowed the operational parameters of the IRA.
The book, however, fails to bring this deeply flawed policy to its more damning conclusion, and its military and political consequences. It wasn’t simply the absurd tactical abandonment of the modern weapons from the shipments through incompetence; operations were now almost entirely dependent on homemade weaponry.
And whilst this weaponry delivered spectacular operations both in the theatre of the Six Counties and Britain (check the operational record) it was completely unsustainable in the long term. It doesn’t take a military or intelligence genius to figure out that if an army has been skilfully manoeuvred by its enemy into an almost complete dependence on a singular resource, the targeting of that resource makes that army operationally impotent, along with any clout to pronounce on political or constitutional matters.
Ironically, this self-imposed military restriction was one of the main planks of argument used to justify the political route that they chose to take; ‘sure what more can we do?’. The ‘yes men’ alluded to in the book, operations directors who were bankrupt of ideas, fell behind the bankrupt excuse of not having ‘proper gear’ to prosecute an effective campaign.
Confronted with the magnitude of the shipments on this unbelievable stance, they blamed the calibre of Volunteers on the ground, the same calibre they were responsible for upgrading and training but failed to do so. Letting someone else try was a heresy to those who now deemed themselves irreplaceable. Music to the ears of the occupying forces!
The book, refreshingly, takes these experiences and attitudes to the England Department, where an element of myth shielded that department from proper scrutiny into its own practices. The whole concept of one bomb in England being worth fifty in the Six Counties made the prospect of attacks there so alluring that corners would be cut to attain such an outcome.
But as in the critique of operational practices in the Six Counties, the critique of practices for ‘across the way’ gains its veracity from operational experience on the ground. What was exposed in certain parts of that department could only be described as criminal neglect. These observations cannot be dismissed as mere bitterness from the prison cell. A new voice was bringing new ideas to the table and the results were clear for all to see.
The ability to attack Downing Street whilst the British Government was on a war footing over its intervention in Iraq demonstrated clearly that there was no place for a mindset which set explosive devices in litter bins on busy shopping streets on a Saturday afternoon. The bar could, and was, being raised.
Both Derryard and Downing Street clearly demonstrated what change in personnel and thinking could accomplish, but unfortunately, the path which that leadership chose or, more accurately, was chosen for them, was well and truly set.
When the then Chief of Staff finally conceded that there was no military strategy, nor any appetite to formulate one, whilst the IRA was still at war, the concept of a ceasefire took on an almost moral imperative. The IRA was no longer a national army, it was a militia, subordinate to the electoral needs of a political party. National sovereignty was a defunct concept and certainly not a topic on any talks agenda.
The book however could have been more explicit in its conclusion and certainly should have referenced certain events which came to pass, such as the calling of conventions, which most certainly did not come from that leadership. It came from frontline Volunteers determined to uphold the republican position prior to any agreement with the British being reached.
There were those who were active in that period, and complained incessantly, about the direction the movement was taking but when afforded the opportunity to address that direction they singularly failed to do so.
Equally, it is not credible to argue that there was one or two ‘sound men’ in the leadership valiantly trying to hold the republican line but constantly being outfoxed by more politically astute colleagues. They also were afforded the opportunity for real change and also failed to avail of it.
Having established the fact of military illiteracy the natural and logical question which the book should have followed with is, was there political illiteracy also or were the Brits just better than they were? Did one automatically translate to the other?
If we accept the criterion for establishing the former, without question, the latter is equally established given what they finally settled for in their negotiations with the British. The book eloquently outlines how detached the settlement is from republican objectives and how the myth of a roadmap to unity was precisely that, a myth. These arguments were equally outlined by those who took a stand in 1997.
As Johnathon Powell observed in his memoirs, himself and Blair were astonished at how little they had to cede in return for what republicans gave up. Hopefully John’s book makes the journey to that point a bit clearer for those who simply do not want to believe it and for those who continue to deny it.
Thank you, John!
John Crawley, 2022, The Yank: My Life as a Former US Marine in the IRA. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: 978-1785374234
🕮 The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British.
🕮 The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British.