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.
Excellent review of a must-read book. To think that there are still genuine republicans terrified to look at the truth and expose it, is a wonder and bafflement in itself. John Crawley is to be applauded for wiping away the rose from those tinted glasses many of us wore.ReplyDelete
Excellent review of a must-read bookDelete
It cannot be summed up any better than that.
Thanks to The Fenian Way for putting it on TPQ
There are so many good lines in this review that the reader is spoiled for choice. But this one has to stand out the then Chief of Staff finally conceded that there was no military strategy, nor any appetite to formulate one.ReplyDelete
Small wonder that the career cabal does not want people like John Crawley laying it out in plain language. The Brits effectively moulded a leadership which even surprised them with just how little the moulded men were prepared to settle for, as pointed out by Jonathan Powell.
To think that so many volunteers killed and died while the royal rim lickers never once fell off the gravy train.
What a tragic waste of life, both sustained and inflicted because of such people.
I hope this book leads to many questions and reflections such as offered in the above review.
"What a tragic waste of life, both sustained and inflicted because of such people"Delete
Maybe I'm just getting aul' but I can't help but be full of sorrow for the families of young people sent out by those older to kill or end up killed themselves. There's just no good in it from any angle.
Causing life to be lost on whatever side for such shallow reasons and base motivation - as you say Steve, no good reason.Delete
Matt Treacy commentsReplyDelete
The most ironic aspect of the response - and it is fairly muted in comparison to what others evoked including threats and actual violence from what another "dissident" described as a "Milice" - is the usual "oh, this is like touting." Or, "everyone else kept their mouth shut."
Neglecting of course the careers that have been built on certain other people's stories - some less mythical than others, some plainly nothing more than merchandising.
What makes John's book more difficult for them to dismiss or denigrate is that unlike others - certainly myself - he had a clear understanding of the military as opposed to the political aspects of what was going on.
It takes the ground completely from under the whole "undefeated army" nonsense. Or as John quotes a certain other chap as claiming that they were "running rings around the Brits." Well. I think we all realise who was being circumnavigated by cunning ring runners.
Anyone who does not - or who claims not to - is either as thick as the proverbial, or one of the cynics who knew well either at the time, or as it dropped slower in some cases including my own, that the outcome was not worth one life on any side.
And if this book constitutes "touting" John is in good company with the Tom Barrys and Dan Breens and Ernie O'Malleys of an earlier time. And far more honest about the fighting part truth be told.
Matt - two brain cells to rub together will quickly debunk the undefeated army guff. I think what John does and what The Fenian Way follows up on is how the defeat was brought about. Nobody but themselves alone is going to pay the slightest heed to the warped dismissal that it is touting. Bear in mind that they all belong to a party that is publicly calling for prosecutions where there is evidence - which means they are prepared to have IRA volunteers jailed by the British for their role in the war. Oddly enough, they were singing a different tune when Adams was arrested.Delete
I have met John a few times and found him to be very astute and civil. I just watched his interview with Patricia Devlin regards the book and there was a lot there I can relate to.ReplyDelete
I too spent time in the US military, although the army not the marines and the M-16 rifle I trained on was the A2 variant rather than the A1 John would have been issued. Various modifications had been made to correct design flaws but most significantly there was no longer an automatic setting as it had proven detrimental to accuracy and ammunition control in Vietnam.
I also spent time in South Boston where I worked as a bartender and met former associates of Jim Bulger and family members of his victims around the time the bodies were recovered at Neponset Beach.
I read Ed Moloney's A Secret History Of The IRA in Mosul Iraq in 2003 or 4. John's interview would make me believe his book could well shed more light than Moloney's in regard to compromised weapon shipments and the phased degradation of the IRA from within. Ironically I gave Moloney's book to a nephew of Pat Doherty's who was a Captain in my Battalion. The body armour he and I wore owed much to research lessons in Britain's conflict management lab and I could see their fingerprints all over the sectarianisation of Iraq and the effect it had firstly on Iraqi resistance and ultimately the stability of the entire region.
Similarly an IRA Volunteer, arrested with a significant cache of weapons outside Ireland, told me the logistical operation made no sense to him or his cohort but was done in response to orders.
I can't speak from any personal IRA operational experience but I would agree with the argument that they never got the opportunity to operate to their potential and nowhere is that more apparent as in the way their hands were tied in regard to countering the state-sponsored, loyalist terror campaign.
I don't know if John deals with this in his book but the above review doesn't mention what I believe was a significant tactic in Britain's campaign to prepare the ground for the 'peace process'.
The Chief Of Staff in question was held in high regard around here, his birthplace but John's book, above reviews and other opinions heard in more recent years would suggest his position owed more to his 'safe pair of hands' than his strategic capabilities.
I well remember how the England campaign paralysed Britain's commuter networks and cost them millions, perhaps billions in trade and industrial revenue. The strategic collateral gained as a result was utterly squandered in whatever capacity republicans participated in the GFA process. That being said I have no reason to doubt John's assertion as to the minimal nature of said participation.
Just bought the Kindle version so time to get reading.
John's is superb but a different sort of book from Ed's and focuses on a more narrow bandwidth. I still think the best insight we have on the IRA comes from A Secret History.Delete
Haven't read John's book just yet but like Gavin I have watched his interview with PD. When he mentioned meet-up with MMG in JJMG's and heard the mission he was given, to return to the US and buy weapons in gun stores one at time, the amber warning light began flashing. Why in the name of goodness was a man with such military training & experience behind him dispatched to carry out an operation that could have been handled competently by countless others. Did McGuinness want him side-lined?ReplyDelete
In the interview, John comes across as an intelligent and articulate guy. Indeed, he stuck me and struck me very much so, as a person of some integrity.
Another for the reading list.
"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."ReplyDelete
Makes it much more likely to catch someone though, if they had to put it back in a cache. Around Crossmaglen and South Armagh it seemed odd that the Barrett wasn't used against heli's. One round would have done catastrophic damage even at distance. I've seen a rudimentary schematic from Belfast were they are clearly trying to work out a way to fire a single .50 round horizontally at land rovers so the power of the weapon wasn't lost on them.
In Oppenheimer's book he also pointed out that the Spooks were left baffled at times by the IRA's occasional 'corporate amnesia', when bloody effective equipment was cast aside for worse. Still, they weren't complaining.
What's this 'Oppenheimer' book?
Anthony if you don't want to post this on the thread can you please flick it to Mick via email? Cheers.
It is not normal to get such interest in a book review. The page views on this one are going up constantly. The author of the book and the reviewer have both punched through the bull.ReplyDelete
The book is excellent, best I have read for a while. Like many others I found it impossible to reconcile what I was hearing with what I was seeing. I particularly recall listening to Brian Keenan at Cullyhanna when he told the assembled that while Ireland remained partitioned not one bullet, not one ounce would be given up. Now either he lied straight to everyone's faces or someone was lying to him. I hope John writes much more!ReplyDelete
I remember Brian Keenan in Cappagh in 2007 saying 'the IRA did their best' but John Crawley's integrity and experiences would suggest Brian Keenan was either lying or misled on that occasion also.Delete
Great piece and a book I cannot wait to read. I have known of the surprise the Brits had how little the IRA or their political representatives were demanding. Why were their demands so low? How coukd tge British offer so little and it be accepted? The British offered something very similar back in the late seventies. They, the republican negotiators, did not, as I have made clear myself on numerous occassions, ask for clarity on many ambiguoius issues. This is well documented as coming as a surprise to the British side.ReplyDelete
All that fighting, loss of life to achieve so little! I firmly believe no self respecting shop steward would have signed an agreement which conceded so little. I know I wouldn't. A little like the NUM leadership agreeing, after a years strike, to 99 healthy pits closed instead of 100, when the demand was no healthy pits with coal reserves be closed.
I look forward to reading this book with anticipation.
Mick Hall commentsReplyDelete
As other reviewers have written this is a very fine book but it is more than that - it’s almost a love story. And I don’t mean that negativity, between John Crawley and the Irish Republic which was created in 1916. It’s a cracking read - there is no doubt about that - as someone else has already said it’s a page turner. There is also a podcast interview which gives you a feeling about the man.
John Crawley was a soldier by profession and a very good one by all accounts. He joined the US Marines aged 18 and honed his craft during the next four years. Having been taught all the tricks of his trade in an elite organisation he left the marines as a sergeant in 1979 and was on a plane to Ireland the same day. His plan, he would join the PIRA and help end partition and re-establish the Irish Republic.
After he joined the IRA he found out “it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” the training of volunteers was rudimentary at best, especially on the use of weaponry, nevertheless by 1984 Crawley was firmly embedded into the IRA. He knew given a chance he could help to iron out these problems as many of them were the type of things a US Marine learned in basic training.
He made a plan to improve the standards of training and submitted it to senior volunteers and Northern Command then headed by Martin McGuinness, who told him he would look at it and get back to him. When he did Crowley was flabbergasted when McGuinness said forget that I have something else for you, go back to the US on a shopping spree across the country buying weapon’s in gun shops.
This is where it gets very murky to say the least why anyone in a leading position in the IRA would pass up the opportunity to use the military skills and expertise of a man like Crowley who only a few years earlier had been a meritorious US Marine beggars believe.
* John Crowley’s book The Yank can be brought on Amazon and all good bookstores.
Mick Hall refers to the elite nature of John's US Marine Corps service and it's something I should have mentioned in my own review. Marine Corps recon is as good as it gets from a Special Forces perspective. Nobody earns that distinction without elite physical and mental fortitude, single-minded motivation and complete commitment. Not only did John achieve the distinction in one of the most demanding military programs in the world but he was also appointed as an instructor of recon candidates. As such he was undoubtedly an absolutely elite soldier. I can only imagine his shock at the contrast he discovered in Ireland.Delete
There was an interesting observation Crawley made on Patricia Devlin's podcast in where he makes no bones about the new young generation of Shinners being almost brainwashed by a false narrative of what went before. "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is the term he used and the older among us knows were exactly that terminology springs from. Have to ask, have you Anthony, Matt or any other ex-combatant reached a similar conclusion? Anything that really concerns you about the NextGen Shinner?ReplyDelete
It's the perpetuation of the same myths that created the notion of 'the undefeated army'. The next generation of SF are equally rabid toward those who question their 'reality' - to hold even a balanced discussion is considered heretical.Delete
I recall readung a book about the psychological differences between citizen and combatant during ww2.
Part of the conclusion was that the extreme sentiment toward perceived 'enemies' became amplified the further away from the actual conflict you got.
fundamentalists, across locations and across time, have queued up for their 'Kool Aid'. Such events were inevitable and propensity for continuance remains unfettered. It's how it was and how it will be, forever & ever Amen.
Like I have asked Matt, do you think there are careerist Shinners who are supplying the Kool-Aid but privately hold a different opinion?
Henry JoY commentsDelete
Steve, there are careerists in all parties, leaders who don't swallow whole the messaging they spout to their followers. An ability to speak from both sides of the mouth is in fact almost a prerequisite. When you think about it, It's a pretty dirty business all round.
(I don't know if you've ever come across Robert Harris's 'Cicero Trilogy'. It's an entertaining read which through the historical lens explores and pokes fun at political machinations).
Thanks Matt, do you think there are any Shinners of our vintage who still push this myth but in private hold different opinions? For careerist reasons?ReplyDelete
Having read the book, The Yank, I found it a hypnotic read. It raises many quesions both politically and millitarily. John speaks in his book of a "national republic" which is not the same, politically speaking, as a "socialist republic" which, at the time, was suppossed to be the Provisional movements goal. That aside it surprised and annoyed me that so little was known of the weaponry used by dedicated volunteers. For example the lack of knowledge how to "zero" the sights, not because the volunteers did not want to know, they had never being advised on the need to know.ReplyDelete
Then we come to the IRA having a genious, an encyclopedia of knowledge, on some of the most advanced weapon systems in the world. Should that knowledge not have been put to better use than risk a burial at sea on a vessel barely seaworthy? Then, having completed this voyage the "free state" navy were waiting for the shipment. Who was the man insistant that John went to the US on this mission? The same man who disregarded any serious suggestion from a man who knew what he was talking about on the use of weapons, how to use them, in what situations, and to secure maximum effectiveness. The same man who, the British reportedly said, should have attended "Sandhurst" so good was this mans knowledge of military strategy. Later to become Deputy First Minister, this man, according to Johns book, countered every single possitive military operation, no wonder he should have gone to "Sandhurst".
The operation in London could only have been bubbled by somebody within. The District Line and Wimbledon Park were well chosen, the avoidance of attention carried out perfectly in fact everything was. Yet, the British Special Branch, it appears, were on to the unit from the off. Massive question, an obvious one, who told them?
A well written book John, I understand why you would not question a senior officer. In the USMC the thought of such questioning was drumed out of you. Well worth a read an honest assesment from a man at the "cutting edge".
Caoimhin - John, from what I gather, is not opposed to socialism per se. He believes in social justice but has not been convinced by those advocating socialism that they have the ability to deliver on either a national republic or a socialist one. I think he feels they are top heavy on slogans and lightweight on strategy. Imagine this scenario: I try to convince John on the merits of a socialist economy but I have not even a junior cert in either economics or maths. What way is an intelligent guy like him expected to respond?Delete
Hypnotic read - that is a description he will certainly be pleased by. Crisp, clear writing that makes for compulsive reading.
Perhaps I wrote that bit about the "socialist republic" a little misleadingly Anthony. I was not suggesting he is oppossed to socialism but merely trying to highlight the confusion in the camp from top to bottom politically. Confusions which have come home to roost as now, from Sinn Fein, we hear of neither the "socialist republic" or the "national republic". I see his point about those who preach about socialism having the "ability" to deliver. Having been a member of the SWP, Red Action (who in fairness never pretended to be the party) and for most of my time till 2010 the erps. I too am not convinced about deliverance. I am no longer sure a party is essential, as workers councils, soviets, from the proletariat could provide a lead. A further developed shop stewards committees, having sat on the London joint shop stewards committee representing local authority workers. This is just one possible model.ReplyDelete
As for economics, start with the main three variants, the free market, the mixed and the planned, the latter essential to socialism. The post war consensus in Britain, now gone, practiced a mixed economy which gave birth to the welfare state, NHS and a commitment to full employment. As in hindsight should have been expected this dual power in the economy could not last indefinately and in 1979 Thatcher finally broke the consensus and keynesian mixed economics which the consensus was built on. She reontroduced a new laissez faire and free market friedmanite economics. That leaves us with the planned economy which is complex in itself, I tried to explain in a limited form in my politics degree which incorporated economics as a component part.
Back to the book, "hypnotic" was how I found it and few books, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists excempt, do that for me. Having read the book it is now a must buy for my own library.