Keenie Meenie (book review)

Like most of my readers I have had a hard time these past few weeks to stay focused enough to read longer texts so it took a bit longer to read Phil Miller’s excellent Keenie Meenie-The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes.

But Miller’s meticulously researched and sourced book about a relatively small British private security company that was active in some of the usual and less usual hot spots in the 1970s and 1980s is an important exploration into the capillary system of power, British foreign policy and ultimately into unpacking how the company’s mercenaries got involved in war crimes in Sri Lanka at the end of the 1980s.

Keenie Meenie Services (KMS) with its unclear origins of the name, staffed with predominantly former British SAS elite soldiers and excellent contacts within the establishments at home and abroad was a different outfit than today’s global private military security companies.
But it was the right set-up for the ‘old boy network’ days of foreign policy-making, especially for engagements outside major news stories, for example in Oman, providing bodyguards to British diplomats in Lebanon and working on the thin line between training and operational support for the Sri Lankan army.

Like the socialist of the 1970s, who threatened to ban KMS, the free market ideologues of the 1980s were lacklustre in their attempts to nationalise the nascent private security industry. The matter was pushed to one side and someone else was asked to look into it. After all, KMS occupied an important grey area, between public and private, that was rather convenient to preserve (p.52).
An investigative journey into the British establishment on the verge of Thatcherism
From my academic perspective what I found most fascinating is how Phil Miller uses archival material and investigative journalistic tools to bring the story to live.
Whether it is recently declassified notes from the foreign office, reports from embassies of the countries where KMS operated, interviews with some of the key protagonist or secondary sources (apparently there is a quite a vibrant market for SAS soldier memoirs), a very nuanced picture emerges about how ‘the system’ works. Carefully crafted notes that acknowledge KMS activities, but keep room for deniability, a group of men from the establishment who move ‘in the right circles’ and unaccountable financial resources from the Sultan of Oman to Oliver North’ Iran-Contra affair create a vivid picture about private military operations beyond ‘traditional’ African mercenary coups or the multi-billion dollar industry of today’s Afghanistan or Iraq.
This imperial image of well-trained British soldiers and clever diplomats in Whitehall working ‘behind the scenes’ for the greater good of the nation without pesky public or parliamentary scrutiny last well into the 1980s. Do not get me wrong: Miller certainly leaves no space for any nostalgia in his book and his writing helps to get a better understanding of the early days of ‘neoliberalism’ under Thatcher.

Keenie Meenie’s operations in Sri Lanka are interesting in many ways, not least from a peace and conflict studies perspective when assessing how military operations unfold and how there are always individual responsibilities when war crimes happen, armies fight insurgent groups and the ‘international community’ stands undecided on the side line. 

The charge sheet against KMS contains a mixture of moral, ethical and legal violations (p.189)
Miller’s expose deserves a lot of praise for the level of detail to pin down individual KMS army trainers who participated in helicopter operations on specific days and in specific locations where unarmed civilians were killed. Putting names next to the incidents, avoiding generalizations about ‘the British Embassy doing this’ or ‘KMS decided to do that’, provides the material for the damming indictment of some of the company’s personnel and leadership. Perhaps less surprising, the reactions of the diplomatic establishment to reports of KMS (co-)pilots crossing the line with helicopter attacks in Northern Sri Lanka were indicative of the informality and unaccountability with which KMS had always been met in Whitehall:

Almost instinctively, Whitehall preferred to use the old boy network rather than the criminal justice system to exert pressure on the company. (…) This subtle intervention was typical of the chaotic response inside Whitehall as to how to handle the company, with influential diplomatic, military and political figures (…) almost always giving KMS the benefit of the doubt.
(Lieutenant Colonel Richard) Holworthy’s (British defence attaché from 1985-1987) praise for the company had a profound effect on Whitehall, and showed that even within large bureaucracies a handful of determined actors can have a decisive impact (pp.205-206)
In Miller’s conclusion KMS’ long-term involvement in military training, strategic advice and operational support of the Sri Lankan army had a profound impact on the conflict dynamics:
KMS shifted the war in two key ways: by allowing the introduction of STF (Special Task Force) commandos in the east, who decisively turned the Muslim community against the other Tamil-speaking groups in the region; and by giving the Sri Lankan forces the ability to project power from the skies, raining deaths on Tamil fights and civilians alike (p.276).
All in all, Miller’s book is a stellar example of using investigative journalism to uncover important aspects of British foreign policy during a period of imperial and colonial decline and the ascent of the ‘neoliberal state’ (which reminded me of Tom Mills’ book The BBC-Myth of a Public Service), even if he had to wait thirty years for documents to be declassified.

I can only recommend the book highly and it deserves a broad readership beyond those who are interested in international politics and the political economy of private security companies.
Keenie Meenie
should be added to reading lists for peace, conflict and development studies courses because it provides such a wealth of practical, on-the-ground insights into abstract concepts such as ‘imperialism’ or ‘war crimes’!

Miller, Phil:
Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes. ISBN
978-0-7453-4079-1, 334pp, 12.99 GBP, London: Pluto Press, 2020.


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