I’ve occasionally run into the argument that once the fighting starts, cultural norms or the finer points of military ethics become less relevant. Rational calculations dictate actions on all sides, abrogated only by terror when terror rises. This may be the case in some situations, but it isn’t the case in all; indeed, I can think of an excellent example of a counter-insurgent military action that quite neatly illustrates the relationship between cultural norms and operational success.
On 5 May 1987, British special forces ambushed and killed an entire, veteran IRA cell: the eight men of the East Tyrone Brigade, as they attempted to attack the Loughgall police station. The East Tyrone Brigade was a bit special; rather than stage ambushes, snipe at police patrols, or plant bombs, they preferred more spectacular and ‘kinetic’ attacks, using construction vehicles as bomb-bearing battering rams and leaping out in full force to rake their enemies’ positions with gunfire. So removing them from the scene appealed to the security forces in Northern Ireland.
Thus, when information came from one of the many double-agents that the RUC and British intelligence services had cultivated within the IRA that the the attack on Loughgall was in the works, which would be the third such attack on an RUC station by the East Tyrone Brigade, it occurred to the people in charge that there might be a good way to prevent there from ever being a fourth. Enter the SAS.
The use of the SAS in Northern Ireland had been controversial. Earlier excess violence by the special forces unit had led to a five-year operational hiatus, while the 1985 killing of two IRA militants in Strabane had led to a public outcry after reports that SAS troopers had a delivered a coup-de-grace to each of the two men as they lay wounded and pleading for mercy. But with Loughgall, this sort of public relations problem could be averted.
Anyway, in rolls the East Tyrone Brigade, with their digger-with-a-big-bomb-in-the-bucket. They blast their way up to the police station then shoot the building up. The building is, of course empty, and nobody is about because it is the evening. Then up pops the SAS where they had been laying in wait around the site, and they do their thing, and thus ends the tale of this particular IRA cell.
The following day, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stated, when asked his view of the rather lopsided engagement (no SAS casualties), ‘I believe that the IRA volunteers would understand the risks that they were taking,’ What else could he say? The IRA’s own narrative was that they were an army fighting in a war. They could hardly complain about losing men when those men were on an operation, and had themselves set out with bombs, guns, and the intent to kill members of the security forces.
Counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency is particularly sensitive to the broader propaganda or political messaging surrounding uses of force, and the way that the Irish public reacted to British military actions had an effect upon the strategic environment. By staging a ‘counter-ambush’ of the East Tyrone Brigade instead of just picking them up (or off) in their homes – which might have been safer, from an operational perspective – the SAS avoided being labeled as excessively violent or invasive (for the most part) while removing a significant terrorist threat.