From the Colonial War Handbooks

cover of book, Small Wars, Their Principles & Practice by Col. C.E. Callwell
cover, Small Wars, Their Principles & Practice by Col. C.E. Callwell

In his 1906 Handbook for Small Wars, Colonel Sir Charles Callwell advised his fellow British officers that colonial operations would likely involve confiscating cattle and burning villages, ‘an aspect that may shock the humanitarian.’ He continues:

 The most satisfactory way of bringing such [native] foes to reason is by the rifle and the sward, for they understand this mode of warfare and respect it. Sometimes, however, the circumstances do not admit of it, and then their villages must be demolished and their crops and granaries destroyed.

Callwell also emphasized what he called the ‘moral’ aspect of warfare, by which he meant demoralizing the enemy by destroying their most prized cultural or religious items.

Callwell’s practices were implemented across the empire. In 1951, Sir Harold Briggs, director of ‘anti-bandit activities’ in Malaya, launched ‘Operation Starvation’. The Briggs plan, including rigorous control of all food items and the forced relocation of villagers, is still hailed by British and American security analysts as a model of successful counter-insurgency.

In 1964, Colonel Roger Trinquier, advisor to the French war efforts in Vietnam and Algeria, published his book Modern Warfare. He wrote that it was necessary for the colonial power to ‘make the ground unsuitable’ for the anti-colonial guerrilla:

Anything that could facilitate the existence of the guerillas in any way, or which could conceivably be used by them – depots, shelters, caches, food crops, houses, etc. – must be systematically destroyed or brought in. All inhabitants and livestock must be evacuated from the [guerrillas’] refuge area. When they leave, the intervention troops must not only have destroyed the [guerrilla] bands, but must leave behind them an area empty of all resources and absolutely uninhabitable.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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