Thinking Aloud: “Small Wars, Faraway Places”

June 5, 2014 by Darius 

I recently finished Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965 by Michael Burleigh.  It is a quite comprehensive guide to largely forgotten conflicts around the world during the period of decolonization and the early Cold War.

Some of my favorite parts of Small Wars, Faraway Places were about conflicts I had never even heard of, such as the Communist insurgency in Malaya and the Huk insurgency in the Philippines.  The former featured what was in many ways a prelude to the lengthy fighting in Vietnam: Communist guerrillas hiding out in the jungles as a foreign government attempted to maintain and administrate a state.  But the Malayan conflict had a twist: nearly all the guerrillas were ethnic Chinese migrants in Malaya.  It took the British a dozen years, but they ultimately defeated the insurgency and were able to succeed in handing over power to a democratically elected Malayan government in 1957.  The British pioneered and improved many tactics used in later counterinsurgency campaigns: hearts-and-minds campaigns, maintaining control of the population through fortified strategic villages, and even vocational training of surrendered and captured guerrillas.

In the Philippines, the Huks were peasant militias who fought the Japanese occupation during World War II.  After the war, though, they transferred many of their grievances from the Japanese to the government-backed rich landowners who squeezed the peasants with enormous taxes.  Huk units began launching attacks on landowners and government targets.  The US-backed government mounted a counterinsurgency campaign, which, like the British in Malaya, was ultimately successful.  One factor working against the Huks was that they could not seek refuge and resupply from a neighboring country, as the Philippines is an archipelago.  The election of reformist Ramon Magsaysay as president in 1953, organized by the CIA, proved a turning point, as Magsaysay promised to address many of the most important Huk concerns.

The author of Small Wars, Faraway Places, Michael Burleigh, is British, and as such offers a different perspective on the world than American writers.  Burleigh is able to look at the US’s “mission” and role in the world with clear eyes.  His descriptions of Cold War politics and the people involved in Small Wars, Faraway Places are often humorous and always insightful.

Because of its length, Small Wars, Faraway Places is not for the faint of heart.  It is worth it, though: it is perhaps the best one-stop-shopping book I have come across about the wars of decolonization and the early period of the Cold War.  Small Wars, Faraway Places would appeal to anyone with an interest in world history, military history, or foreign policy.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: “Small Wars, Faraway Places”

  1. Debra Beilke says:

    Looks like an interesting book. I will put in on my “to be read” list.

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