Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Four Courts Press

ISBN 9781846825231

Reviewed by
Thomas O’Loughlin

To appreciate this important book one must note the opening sentences with care:

‘This book originates in a personal memoir by Comdt. Art Magennis of his service with the 35th Irish Battalion in Organisation de Nations Unies au Congo (ONUC) in the Congolese province of Katanga. Dr Michael Kennedy developed the memoir into an entirely new text by combining Magennis’ eye-witness account with in-depth archival research.’

One reads it as a single book—it is not commentary on another text—written with the perspective of a distance of 50 years and the benefit of the release of long-closed archives (e.g. it is now clear that London was better informed about what was happening in the Congo and to the Irish troops there than was Dublin—and it is fascinating to read their assessment of Seán MacEoin or Conor Cruise O’Brien), yet having the detail, and military analysis, of a unit history. Moreover, it is not a piece of military history combined with a piece of diplomatic political history but a single, well-integrated book. And as one could not separate the military and political realities during the engagement, so one cannot separate them in this book. This makes it the best account to date.
The complexity of de-colonialisation, especially for countries such as Belgium with little or no internal desire for it, is now too easily forgotten. Few Belgians saw any problem with their possessions in Africa; they were proud of what they saw as their mission of enlightenment, and were fiercely protective of their economic assets. Any process, even one promoted by their protecting power, the United States, that challenged their grip was resisted and resented. And so the Belgian retreat from the Congo was destined to be messy.

Into this mess stepped—in a gesture whose political nobility is well documented here—the tiny forces, diplomatic and military, of Ireland, and in the process both discovered their naivety and lack of preparedness. That the small garrison army was unprepared is the stuff of military legend in Ireland: the men in ‘bull’s wool’ uniforms, with Lee-Enfield rifles and World War II-vintage ‘home-made’ armoured cars! What is less referenced, but outlined with precision and detail here, is the unpreparedness of Irish diplomats for taking a more significant international role following Ireland’s admission to the UN. This is well documented in this book: Irish diplomats at the UN acting well beyond their brief from Dublin (and frequently against Dublin’s wishes); External Affairs in Dublin having a poor grasp of the situation into which it was committing Irish troops; Frank Aiken acting naively with regard to Dag Hammarskjöld and the UN more generally; and individual diplomats such as Conor Cruise O’Brien being unaware that they were not pro-consuls but cogs in a bureaucratic machine. Few reputations come out of this book without loss of lustre. We see brave Irish soldiers being put in harm’s way with—until things went seriously wrong and the Irish body-count began to mount—their masters not only failing in the covenant that should exist in a democracy between the politicians and the armed forces but being virtually unaware of it. It was not just FN rifles and steel helmets that those junior officers, NCOs and men needed, but the political protection of the government, and its diplomats, that recognised that they were their troops, carrying out their policy abroad. Unwittingly, but movingly, the book contrasts the unthinking carelessness of the men in suits (and in the army’s upper ranks) with the attention to their duties (often with little understanding owing to poor briefing) of the battalions on the ground in Africa—and those men, alone, emerge with honour from this account.

One major source of confusion then, and in the memory of those operations and subsequent deployments on ‘peacekeeping’, concerns what was meant by that deliberately ambiguous term. For Hammarskjöld this might have meant some notion of the UN as the world’s policeman, and there is evidence amassed here of such a grandiose vision, as if he could organise a war from New York without a professional general staff and with other nations’ troops. For the Irish government and army command it meant the restoration of law and order—by analogy with ‘acting in aid of the civil power’. For others—such as Conor Cruise O’Brien—it was the implementation of legitimate government over rebels from the UN as a supra-national source of authority. Hardly anyone noticed that the real peacekeeping was not between rival groups in Africa or elsewhere but between the two superpowers. It evolved as a way to defuse potentially proxy wars so that they did not escalate into World War III. Although some glimpsed this then, few recognised that this was the primary aim; and yet it was only in the recognition of the confusing nature of the concept of ‘peacekeeping’ that a viable political and military strategy could be evolved for situations such as that confronting ONUC. This larger context of ‘peacekeeping’ is mentioned in the book but does not get the prominence it deserves—and the absence of the larger strategic analysis is a weakness.

That said, this book is important not just as a contribution to the diplomatic and military history but also as a window on the growth in the Irish state’s self-awareness and self-confidence in the early 1960s.

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.


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