Maurice Hayes looks at two military history books that give us a fascinating insight into our Defence Forces, which served us herocially when duty called in 1961.
Between them, in their very different ways, these two books provide an interesting insight into the challenges facing the Defence Forces in Ireland in a rapidly changing world. One is a leisurely ramble through a century and a half in Co Kildare (although sharpening up in the end to confront some fundamental and very current issues), of interest mainly to military men and those interested in military history.
The other recounts the events of five explosive days in the Congo in 1961, and the fallout for all those concerned. It has more human interest, greater appeal for the general reader, is graphic in its detail and highly charged with emotion, as well as being a more attractive read.
Harvey's book purports to be a history of the Curragh Camp from its establishment in 1854, but it is more than that - not all of which is immediately relevant. The camp itself was founded to train soldiers for the Crimean War, but this account extends to the origins of the Curragh plain itself in the moraines of the retreating Ice Age, and records its Neolithic, Bronze Age and early Christian remains. In moving from canvas tents to wooden huts to brick-built barracks, and recalling some of the characters who occupied them (and themselves) at various times in peace and war, it also becomes a handbook on musketry training and drills and a historic disquisition on the development of military tactics and training in the British army through the Victorian period.
After seeing off the British, there is a potted history of the Civil War and the Emergency (so-called), when the main strategic dilemma for a small army faced with great powers was whether to train to delay a German invasion in the south until help arrived from the British in the North, or to counter a British pre-emptive strike from the North until German help arrived. The potted history of the development of the Irish Army also takes in peacekeeping with the United Nations and aid to the civil power in countering the overspill of trouble from Northern Ireland.
All this is recounted in the bland tones of an official report and the accepted official narrative, with little reference, for example, to the casual brutalities on both sides in the Civil War. Internment, then and later, is treated as a game between tunnellers and tunnel-detectors, with little reflection of the brutalities of the Glasshouse or the harshness of the regime which drove prisoners to burn the camp, or the sad Republican refrain to "keep away from the wire or the sentry will fire" as he looked "through the wire at the Curragh tower and the Kildare steeple". However, the discursiveness is charming in its own way.
There is the odd assertion that "an army's role is to train - wars and conflicts interrupt training exercises", rather like the ideal NHS hospital in Yes Minister which is designed to operate without patients, or the bland profundity of "If you don't do foreign affairs, foreign affairs will do you".
There is the joy, however, of discovering the Curragh Wrens and the Kildare version of Monto in the wrens' nests where they plied their trade in the furze-covered hollows on the plain, that the future Edward VII was deflowered in the Curragh mess and launched his career as a grand roué, that the mercy nuns from Kinsale out-nursed Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, that the first, and two youngest recipients of the Victoria Cross were Irish, that the ritual performed at President Kennedy's burial by Irish Cadets was the Queen Anne funeral drill and that Irish soldiers consistently formed more than a third of the British armies deployed in colonial wars.
However interesting in themselves, these diversions into dead-ends too often break the narrative and the lack of focus becomes an irritant. There is also a rather Panglossian view of the Army (including the previous British incumbents) and military affairs. There is a reference to Irish soldiers on UN service in the Congo, mostly in reference to officers who held staff posts, but no reference at all to the loss of Irish lives in the Niemba ambush, which shocked the nation at the time, or to the siege and surrender of a company of 156 Irish soldiers at Jadotville which has been a source both of controversy and discreet silence over the years.
It is this second event, which is the subject of Rose Doyle's riveting study, the heroic defence of an isolated, untenable and unsupported position by company of Irish soldiers for five days until exhaustion, lack of ammunition and shortage of water, 80 miles from base and without transport and no hope of relief, forced to surrender to a force of three or four thousand gendarmerie and mercenaries.
It reads like a thriller and is a cliffhanger. A revised and updated version of a book published 10 years ago, it has the immediacy of being based on contemporary letters and diaries and on the memories and memoirs of participants, and crucially on contemporary radio logs.
The Commandant, Pat Quinlan, emerges as the inspiring leader of a band of heroes for his mastery of man-management and tactics, for calmness under pressure and for steely resolve. He faced the ethical dilemma for a soldier, whether to surrender and save the lives of his men or fight on to the last man in a hopeless cause and until hundreds of Africans were killed too.
What comes through in this analysis is eerily echoed in the Chilcot Report on Iraq half a century later - the confusion endemic in operating a multinational force where the mandate is ambiguous, where there is weak intelligence, poor communication, political interference, and where troops are sent into the field under-equipped, poorly supported and directed.
One senses here the feelings of betrayal by higher authorities, both civil and military, and by their own army. Irishmen figure in both, with Conor Cruise O'Brien a particular éminence grise. Oddly enough, O'Brien in his own classic (and definitively ex parte) account of his experiences in 'To Katanga and Back' makes only passing reference to Jadotville with the highly qualified judgment they need never have surrendered had it not been for the UN's confusion of purposes.
The bitterest betrayal, for an Irish-speaking battalion, was to have their radio traffic (which for security purposes was conducted in Irish) penetrated by the help of Irish-speaking miners from Connemara who were in the pay of the Katangans. Worse was to come, imprisoned when the terms of a truce were ignored, held as hostages, imprisoned and ultimately repatriated, they were regarded in some Irish military circles as having let the side down by not having perished. As Pat Quinlan put it: "If you have been killed you have a victory, but if you save your men and have a good defence, it is a defeat."
They were for a long time, it seems, as an embarrassment to the Army, airbrushed out of the narrative, as in Harvey's book, and whispered about in polite circles. Rose Doyle has produced their vindication in telling detail. Surely it is time to award Quinlan and his brave soldiers, even posthumously, the medals and honours they should have had at the time.
Nevertheless it is Harvey, in his penultimate chapter who raises the most important current issues, this time under the more orthodox mission statement that the core business of the Defence Forces is meeting the security needs of the state.
The more fundamental question is what are these and who is to define them? No longer, it would seem invasion by a foreign power or inter-ballistic missile, but international terrorism, infiltrating extremists, international criminal cartels and cybercriminals. What is neutrality in an interdependent world, who is the enemy and what is the proper role of an army? What numbers, resources and training are needed, how is intelligence to be gathered and managed, and how is it all to be made efficient and effective while remaining subject to democratic control.
This is the serious debate which we have not had and which is urgently required. When it comes, Col Harvey and the dead voice of Commandant Quinlan will be powerful contributors.