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Anniversary of an unlearned lesson: The Irish Easter Rising and current politics

Uploaded: Apr 2, 2016
Easter week 1916 was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The event was the Easter Rising in Ireland. In its political dynamic, the Rising was analogous to terrorism: The rebels were too weak to have any chance of winning, and its leaders were breathtakingly incompetent and delusional, but Britain was more than strong enough to lose. The British chose to crush the Rising in Dublin with extensive use of artillery and machine guns, resulting in civilians being the majority of those killed, with about 10% of those regarded as deliberately murdered by British troops (doesn't include "Kill anything that moves").(foot#1) That was followed by mass detentions, thousands of whom had no connection to the Rising. This not only fanned resentments, but the detention camps were massive, prolonged "networking opportunities". Add martial law, with all the accompanying other injustices and aggravations. Britain executed the leaders--probably because Protestants tend not to appreciate the power of martyrdom in other religions. The cumulative result was a massive swing in public loyalties. Before the Rising, the vast majority of Irish supported home rule within Britain; afterwards it was for an independent republic. Less that 6 years later, the republic was official.

The creation of the Irish Republic is credited with giving other colonial peoples the sense that independence was possible. The toll on Britain of two world wars--human and financial--made it far more practical.

The common portrayal of the Easter Rising is bad use of history. First, for this type of rebellion, it was an extreme outlier--in typical circumstances it would not be remembered outside footnotes in a Ph.D. thesis. Second, it should not be portrayed as a decisive event, but rather as an accelerant and the crossing of a threshold (less than a "tipping point"). Third, the focus should be on the British actions: During the Rising, many influential Irish regarded it derisively as "theatrics" (modern: performance art), not effective politics.

Reminder: History and other analogies are powerful but problematic. The latter commonly occurs when people attribute more predictive power than warranted. Properly used, analogies force you to separate the similarities from the "irrelevancies", and that process can force you into a deeper analysis.

Before I came to understand the dynamics of large organizations, the British response was perplexing because it was so counter-productive: The top levels of the British government were trying to maintain the loyalty and support of the Irish. First, there was the meat grinder of the Western Front (World War I), and many in Ireland volunteered to fight in the British army. Second, Britain needed the support of the US against Germany, and Irish-Americans were an important well-organized voting block. They could be expected to be hostile to Britain, being descended from not just the refugees of the Great Famine of 1845-1852, but an ongoing diaspora before and after.(foot#2) However, Britain reversed this with a brilliant propaganda campaign centered on German atrocities in neutral Belgium, with particular emphasis on offenses against the Roman Catholic Church, and particularly against nuns.(foot#3)

One of the ironies was that the British Army's indifference to Irish civilian casualties was a major radicalizing factor, but was in fact nothing unusual: The generals showed similar indifference to casualties among their own soldiers. In the Rising, large proportion of the total British casualties resulted from a general insisting upon repeated frontal assaults on a strong rebel position, ignoring simple alternatives.(foot#4)(foot#5)

Three years later, even worse happened in India: The Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Because a British officer arrogantly and erroneously thought religious festival goers were flaunting his orders, he ordered his troops to fire into the crowd with the intent to kill as many as possible. The toll is placed at 500-1000 killed, with many hundreds more wounded. This was a major radicalizing event for Indian independence. You can find similar events in countries around the world--but this isn't their anniversary.(foot#6)

The mistake of the British Government was not only in its response to the Rising, but in unintentionally facilitating it. Although the Liberal-led Government was pursuing home rule, it allowed the opposition Conservative Party to raise and arm militias (the Ulster Volunteers) to oppose home rule (1913). In response various Irish nationalist groups began to raise and train their own militias, and it was from these groups that the rebel leaders drew their fighters (Maxim: Think carefully about initiating violence when you are badly outnumbered.)
Note: The Irish and British politics were far more complicated than this, but this should be enough for an American reader for my purposes here.

In considering British military's mistakes, think of it as just another bureaucracy within the government. This was a bureaucracy whose specialty was the application of force, and tasked with defeating the Irish rebels, and didn't/couldn't think beyond their specialty. Bureaucracies are often resistant to the directions of policy-makers, often warp and abbreviate the directions to be what is easy for them, often prioritize their self-interest over "big picture" issues, and not infrequently pursue policies at odds with the official policy. The British have a more developed awareness of this than Americans.(foot#7) Many Americans were surprised to learn that bureaucratic rivalries between the FBI and the CIA prevented preventing the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Acidly: They prioritized protecting their bureaucratic turf over protecting the country, with most of the blame going to the publicity-hungry FBI for its long history of sabotaging other agencies' investigations).(foot#8)

For case studies of bureaucratic dynamics in large US organizations, the US military is a good choice. Its dynamics are little different that those in civilian government, corporations and similar groups, but you are likely to get a more complete and better analyzed account of what happened because the military has more people who see it as their duty to ensure that lessons-learned get documented and passed on, regardless of career-limiting results, and there is an eager audience for such lessons-learned.(foot#9)(foot#10)

If you have problems disabusing yourself of the notion that a hierarchical organization chart indicates hierarchical control, the Presidential campaigns provide examples where the actual organization is only a small part the virtual organization. For example, there are supporters who have no connection to the campaign organization, but act and speak as if they are representatives. There are volunteers who interact with the electorate, but have only limited training and supervision, and tend to skew their interactions toward why they decided to support the candidate rather than hewing to their instructions and scripts (this isn't necessarily a bad thing). Worse, there are the "purported supporters" who are using the campaign to promote themselves and their causes, and consequently don't care about any damage they inflict on the campaign. The nationalists' side of the Rising has all these aspects and more, but you need to be skeptical of the accounts of events like this because they are so corrupted by self-justification, self-interest, hero-worship ...

Political campaigns also provide useful analogies for some of the channels of information flow within more conventional organizations. For example, news and opinion articles stating what the campaign is/should be doing. Is the reporter or commentator reflecting what the campaign has fed to him? Is it a "trial balloon" from the campaign leadership? Is it from someone lower in the campaign organization or an ally trying to get visibility for that idea?

In this regard, the Bernie Sanders campaign is the most interesting. For example, there have been a spate of articles and opinion pieces about a pool of voters whose primary issues could lead them to support either Trump or Sanders, with lesser issues deciding which way they lean. I regard these articles as coming from outside the Sanders campaign because there doesn't seem to be a corresponding movement in the campaign to capture more of that pool.

Similarly, there have been a bunch of articles in the Liberal press arguing that many Trump supporters are not as they are characterized in the Liberal press.(foot#11) Although published for a general audience, the target audience seems to be writers in the Liberal press. Why? Many Trump supporters feel that they have been treated with contempt for decades by the establishment and elites of both political parties. However, when you read the Liberal press, it is replete with derision for that segment of the population. The message is that someone who wants to flee Trump will not find a "home" in the Sanders campaign. (Note: arguments about things such as the correctness of such perceptions is off-topic--the topic here is how one deals with the organizational aspects of a rebellion/revolution).

With the rise of attempted disruption of Trump (and now Clinton) campaign rallies by the Left, there have been articles telling people to "Knock it off! You are only strengthening the resolve of Trump supporters." One of Trump's big attractions is his positioning himself as standing up for people who believed they are being bullied, so (begin sarcasm) obviously bullying is the way to dissuade them from supporting Trump (end sarcasm). One of the ironies of the Trump disrupters is that they are powered by self-promotion and narcissism, which you would think would have them as admirers of Trump.
History: Similar disruptions/protests at the 1968 Democratic Nation Convention were predictably and famously counter-productive: They are regarded as a significant factor in the election of Republican Richard Nixon.

----Further Digression----
The oft-quoted "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it" should be taken up one level during a political campaign: The electorate is making decisions about who to trust to make the right decisions, that is, which candidates are more likely to have the knowledge and inclination to apply the lessons of history to current problems. Then there is a level above this: Do any of the candidates have enough of an understanding of why well-known lessons got ignored to be able to avoid yet another iteration? When you hear a candidate make a proposal, one of the first questions you might ask is "How did similar proposals work out before?"

If this were Iowa or New Hampshire, we might get an opportunity to personally ask such questions of major candidates, but unless you are willing to pay tens of thousands for even a brief "access opportunity", you have to get your answers indirectly. During a campaign, a competent candidate's statements adapt to include answers to the questions that they are being asked that they see as being important. As you listen to the candidates speeches and debate performances (future or YouTube) and aren't hearing topics important to you being addressed, you need diagnose why. Is the topic not enough of a priority for the candidate (= "unimportant")? Has he not been challenged to address it because it is unimportant to those with access to him? Are these two really effectively different? Or ... As the current Presidential primaries have shown, "echo chambers" can have very thick walls.

I got sensitized to this when I was in high school. It was during the escalation of the Vietnam War (late 1960s), so I picked Vietnam for my report for my World History class. When our national leaders made pronouncements contrary to the history, I assumed that they were lying (knowing falsehood with intent to deceive). When the Pentagon Papers came out in 1971, I discovered that I was wrong, and that it was much worse: Many of the top decision-makers hadn't thought it was important to know the actual history, and had taken the shortcut of imagining one. Reality can be so troublesome, and limiting.

1. There were also a significant number of murders by the rebels, both of civilians and police involved in non-political/non-combat activities. However, the analyses don't portray these as influencing the subsequent politics.

2. Potato Famine: The British let millions of Irish die of starvation while the major Irish estates were exporting large quantities of food. And they refused to let in relief supplies from the US--agricultural surpluses--because they saw (correctly?) it as creating an opening for imports of cheaper grain from the US.
The root cause of the famine was analogous to "income/wealth inequality". The potato monoculture of the peasantry was a result of their being forced to subsist on small plots of marginal farm land, which in turn necessitated their depending on only the most productive crop for those lands.

3. US ethnic politics of World War I: Although German-Americans were much more numerous than Irish-Americans, they weren't a significant factor in these matters because most had no affinity to the German state: Some had come here to escape the conditions there, others were too many generations removed. Personal example, one of my ancestors emigrated from Prussia as a teen in 1869 to avoid being drafted--his descendants were unlikely to be supporters of German militarism. Another Prussian ancestor was on the same ship, but his reasons--economic, religious, or political--didn't get passed down.
Aside: In the race for colonies, German Chancellor Bismarck lamented that Germany was handicapped by its emigrants preferring to go to the US rather than the colonies. (Ask yourself: Milwaukee or the deserts of Namibia?)

4. The competence and conduct of British generals in World War I was broadly criticized, reusing the phrase "Lions led by donkeys". Aside: The characterization was grievously unfair to donkeys, who are more intelligent and caring.

5. Similar incompetence and indifference by British generals in the Gallipoli Campaign (against Turkey) resulted in massive casualties among Australia and New Zealand troops, changing the politics and attitudes of those countries toward Britain.

6. In Afghanistan and especially Iraq, US generals belatedly realized that the toll of civilian casualties was affecting the war, but flunked Management 101. It is not enough to announce a policy--you have to provide tools, incentives (rewards and punishments), and methods for holding people accountable. For example, lack of training and proper management meant that checkpoints could be more akin to ambushes (no time to react before being shot). A famous example was the killing of an Italian intelligence officer leading a hostage rescue effort.

7. Policy-makers vs bureaucrats: A British situation comedy TV series "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" occasionally shows up on PBS and there are DVDs. However, I recommend the books that were derived from, and expanded upon, the scripts.

8. J. Edgar Hoover was one of America's preeminent bureaucrats (in the worse sense). A common characterization of his FBI was "It takes second and third tier accountants and lawyers and turns them into world-class public relations agents."

9. Examples of a bureaucratic maneuvers to handcuff the policy-makers:
-- After the Vietnam War, the US Army leadership decided the best way to avoid a repetition was to be so totally unprepared for counter-insurgency that the Pentagon could argue forcefully against undertaking it if asked. This is not a joke or an exaggeration: They eliminated doctrine, training, equipment ... The US Army's counter-insurgency doctrine had to be re-constructed more than 3 years after the Iraq insurgency began. Robert Gates served as Secretary of Defense in both the Bush and Obama administrations. He said that one of the biggest difficulties of that job was trying to get the military to prepare for the wars the nation needed them to fight instead of the wars that the Pentagon wanted to fight. For those who don't remember the beginning of the Iraq War, the plan was for the US military to seize the country and quickly withdraw--within 60 days--leaving the task of security to some indefinite (non-existent) other group.
-- With the advent of the all-volunteer Army after the Vietnam war, the Pentagon worried that the country would too easily enter into wars and other conflicts because those dying would be from a small, isolated portion of the population. Consequently, the Pentagon re-structured the military specialties so that the US could not undertake non-trivial military actions without calling up the Reserves. For example, will the troops need drinking water? The units that handle bulk water treatment and transport are predominantly in the Reserves.

10. The guiding principle of many government and military bureaucrats toward their "political masters" (British-ism) is "We were here when they arrived, and we will still be here after they leave."

11. Example of such articles: Opinion: Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here's why by Thomas Frank, The Guardian, 2016-03-07.


An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

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Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Apr 11, 2016 at 4:15 pm

So wot's new? Provoking a massive overreaction has been the golden tactic of insurgents everywhere forever. Nothing swells the rebel ranks like a newly pissed-off populace. The establishment reliably falls for it, especially if it contains a sizeable conservative old boy element like the Brits had in abundance in 1916.

Posted by Brit, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Apr 11, 2016 at 6:04 pm

Don't underestimate the reality of what was going on in the rest of the world in 1916. It is no coincidence that WW2 and the slaughter in France was much more important to the British government than what was happening once again in Ireland. It also has to be remembered that both the Americans and the Germans were instrumental in this uprising. Without American money and German arms the Irish "terrorists" who are now looked on as heroes, would not have had the ability to carry out the attacks.

A good movie to watch to help understand this is "Ryan's Daughter" which is available on Netflix.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@ "Brit"

WW1 was a good reason to postpone home rule -- the British government understood the difficult of the ethnic Irish (aka Catholic, although the leadership included atheists and a few Protestants) vs the Plantation population ("Protestant", Unionists,...). And the Irish nationalists grossly underestimated the difficulty (history shows the Protestants fears of a Republic dominated by the Catholic Church were with good reason).

However, the fact that the top-levels of the British government had good reasons to be distracted by WW1 is not an excuse for what the government in Ireland -- civil and military -- did. This was not a situation that needed to be micro-managed by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Nor could it be claimed that a shortage of resources caused mistakes -- British troops hugely out-numbered the rebels -- 10-20 times as many. If you consider parallels such as the cited Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 (after WW1), it is hard to see WW1 as the driving factor. Similar example, during the US Civil War, there were large draft riots in New York City (and elsewhere) that didn't result in widespread use of artillery against the city.

As to German support: Every history account I have read says that it was negligible -- because the Germans had such (well-justified) low regard for the rebels that they decided they weren't worth the effort. They made one non-trivial attempt -- a shipment of guns on the freigher Aud -- that was a fiasco because the rebels were so disorganized that they couldn't even make the arranged meeting to off-load the ship. Brit's statement that the rebellion depended on German arms is contrary to history -- the rebels had been acquiring arms before the outbreak of WW1 (in response to the arming of the Unionist militias) and the German shipment was captured by the British navy (didn't reach the rebels).

As to America support: There was definitely some before the Rising -- the Rising was poorly funded -- but it was the Rising that provoked a sharp increase in funding and political support. The difference between the Rising and the subsequent war for independence is striking.

As to the rebels being "terrorists", recognize that for marginalized groups, terrorism is often the last resort (often ranking below "fleeing"). The exceptions are cult-like extremist factions and covert agents of foreign powers (eg, Bader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany and Red Brigades in Italy).

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