The Counterinsurgency Laboratory: Psychological Warfare in the Postwar British Empire

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 9:10 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Erik Linstrum, University of Michigan
Thanks in part to Frantz Fanon’s influential critique of colonial psychiatry, the use of mental science in French counterinsurgency has been extensively investigated by historians.  By contrast — and in accord with a longstanding tendency to overlook the violence of British decolonization — the equivalent of action psychologique in the postwar British empire has remained largely obscure.  Although some prominent figures, such as J.C. Carothers of Kenya, famously portrayed anticolonial uprisings as symptoms of pathology, we know little about the practical influence of “mind experts” on official policy and military action.

Drawing in part on the recently discovered Colonial Office archive at Hanslope Park, this paper argues that psychology mattered to counterinsurgency less as a tool of technical sophistication than as a language appropriated by non-experts.  In Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya, psychologists sometimes offered advice on combating insurgencies and even carried out research in the field.  Because many professional researchers held ambivalent or critical attitudes toward British imperialism, however, the work of designing propaganda campaigns, personality profiles, and interrogation techniques usually fell to military men with little psychological training.  Although the informal knowledge they applied on the battlefield achieved few apparent successes, the alluring certainties of behavioral science encouraged British officials to believe that control over restive populations could be maintained at a reasonable cost.  Talk of “hearts and minds” — a legacy of the counterinsurgency in Malaya — was not a cynical cover for brutal violence, but the expression of a genuine belief that anticolonial resistance could be defeated through persuasion as well as force.

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