Failure shall be the constant companion of a conventionally trained and organized army trying to fight an unconventional war. It is not enough for us just to be unconventional; we must outwit and bewilder the enemy to such an extent that he never knows in what guise we might appear next.” Lt. Col Ron Reid Daly
Counter-Insurgency. COIN. The last 13 years have passed with the finest minds of military science observing, assessing and drawing up battle appreciations for fighting and eradicating insurgencies. Yet, most would say that at best, the tide was temporarily stemmed. Conventional, set piece battle plans have been put aside to teach the most basic rifleman how to operate in a COIN environment. With the wars winding down, only time will tell if the doctrine and implementation of America’s strategies and tactics will bear any fruit.
Oddly enough, this country went through a counter insurgency war called Vietnam. No amount of ordinance could quell the enemy. He would methodically rise from the ashes and continue South. Initial concepts of cutting off the enemy from the populace in the Marine Corps CAP plan yielded little fruit against the Viet Cong. Many transformations of COIN continued on, ending with the Phoenix Program. It cut some major arteries but the beast still lived. The problem became, as with most insurgencies, that there was little way to tell friend from foe, day to day. Even with our high tech forensics and surveillance methods on today’s battlefield, Rules of Engagement and Risk Aversion allow the enemy to walk free or if captured and released, doomed to a life of recidivism.
Each war, each insurgency is unique in its characteristics. From the combatants on both sides to the terrain in which they fight. Most importantly may be the culture from which it is born and raised. It is from that which it draws its strengths, weaknesses and understanding. Too often, we westerners assume that people think like we do. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even reading a well-meaning Analyst’s rundown of cultural paradigms can lead to a false sense that we now know the enemy. We must have the knowledge of the enemy and ourselves. But is knowledge the same as wisdom?
At this juncture, we come to Tim Bax’s book, Who Will Teach the Wisdom? Timothy Bax lived at a time of great upheaval in Africa as related in his autobiography, ‘Three Sips of Gin,’ Africa was rapidly decolonizing and the forces of Communism and Autocratic Nationalism were tearing the continent apart. At the center of this ‘Chimurenga,’ or struggle for freedom, was the nation of Rhodesia, set about on literally all sides by infiltrators of Communist Terrorists seeking to oust and kill off not only the white population, but the tribes who refused to take part in their War of Terror.
Initially, the Rhodesian Military set out with shows of force hoping to scare the insurgency away. Smaller specialized units like the Combat Tracker Unit had success in the northern Zambezi Valley due to the terrain being ideal for tracking and ambush of the infiltrators. However, once inside the country it became virtually impossible to find, fix and finish their quarry due to the fact that they melted into the tribal population. On occasions, groups of terrorists would be found moving from one area to the other and eliminated by the RLI or other units. The more bold terrs would seek to engage Rhodesia’s soldiers, but it was becoming obvious that the sheer numbers were successfully making it in from surrounding countries and wreaking havoc on tribal people who refused to join their cause. Farmers were attacked and killed, women raped and babies heads bashed against walls. Make no mistake, the ‘Freedom Fighters’ did not discriminate black from white. The tribes suffered true terror in the dead of night.
A few bright officers from the Army and Special Branch realized that they needed a better way to actually find the terrorists and differentiate them from locals. Based on some preliminary experiments and lessons from Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, the Selous Scouts were born.
For the first 3 years of Bax’s service as an officer in the RLI, he patrolled the Tribal Trusts diligently. Orders came down to display that overwhelming force that the Security Services could bring down on the Terrs. A constant attempt to win hearts and minds was met with indifference. Why could they not gain the villagers trust? How could these inferior entities continue to infiltrate and spread like cancer?
Frustration set in. There were minor successes when the Troopers were able to find these hyenas of the night. The lion-like courage and vigor of young men fighting for their homeland never failed to finish a contact in full control.
All the while, the young RLI Officer searched for the answers. He knew that the answer lay within the tribes. What wisdom did these primitive men have to teach a first-rate Army how to win a war? Day after day Bax spoke with these men of the bush and began amassing pieces of a puzzle that he collected in a black notebook. As the years passed, the wisdom of the tribes filled the pages.
A turning point in the history of COIN warfare coincided with his efforts to unlock the wisdom needed to defend Rhodesia. The right men and the right knowledge began a program that burst open the backdoor of the Terrs hearts and mind, bringing down hellfire and damnation on the foe.
“Who will teach the Wisdom?” brings together the past and the present through Bax’s transition from a conventional Infantry officer who undergoes the dark phases of the Selous Scout’s training, shedding the skin of old and growing into the likeness of those evildoers that he hunted. The story stems from a need to train a Special Forces team deploying to Africa using the wisdom of the tribes to put down an insurgency. The story is carefully woven together to lead the reader from ‘Conventional COIN’ thinking to the needed Wisdom to find, fix and finish an enemy in the most difficult situations imaginable. This should be mandatory reading for anyone studying Counter-Insurgency, African conflicts (both past and present) and Warfare in general.