‘With the SAS and Other Animals; A Vet’s Experiences During the Dhofar War 1974’
Andrew Higgins, Pen & Sword Publishing, ISBN-1473843626
The Dhofar campaign is starting to filter into the wider public consciousness as time passes, and is a classic case study of a successful ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ effort using combined arms and services and close civil/military co-operation. A lot of books on the subject have tended to deal with the war’s more kinetic aspects, such as SAS involvement, the epic Battle of Mirbat and the close air support provided by the squadron of Strikemaster jets. These books have namechecked the wider elements of the campaign but their focus has firmly been elsewhere.
I got this book as a consolation prize from Auld Yin for not getting the book I was originally after, and commenced a half-hearted stab at it during leave. Within a couple of pages I was hooked. Now, the book cover features a big old SAS badge, but their part in this story is definitely on the sidelines, and this book is much richer for it.
The inclusion of a Royal Army Veterinary Corps component as part of the wider concept of operations made perfect sense. As the country bootstrapped itself out of the dark ages, large parts of its population still depended heavily on livestock for their wealth and survival in more remote areas. The more built-up areas depended in turn on the trade of these animals for their wealth. As such, a major element of the hearts and minds strategy would be provision of visible care to the animal population.
Higgins starts his story when serving with No. 1 Army Dog Unit in Northern Ireland, when he is selected for a 6 month detachment to Oman. Professionally, the wide scope of a role like this must offer a vet much wider horizons, and much greater risk… He accepts and mobilises to Oman.
From the outset, he is fully integrated into a comprehensive effort, with British advisers and expats looking to train up their Omani understudies, who are fully bought in to the whole process – hearts and minds in action. As a vet, Higgins is not on the sidelines, but is fully integrated into the effort, attending A Squadron SAS’s evening prayers on a daily basis among his other tasks.
Winning hearts and minds means giving the local population a sense that they matter, and that there are clear benefits to coming over to one’s own side. There is a powerful example of this where Higgins is tasked to treat a donkey belonging to a remote community, where the enemy adoo are still active. This requires the tasking of a Huey helicopter, an Intelligence Officer and 2 vets. The whole affair is carried out with the full consent of the local leader, whose prestige is bolstered hugely by the whole event, showing the resource he can call on. On a wider scale, the trouble which the new Sultan will go to in order to ensure that even the animals of his subjects will receive the best care possible is a strong, positive message – an example of Influence Operations at their best.
With a perceptive foreword by Richard Dannatt, this book is an instructive read as military history and as a cracking case study of how to integrate a niche skillset into a comprehensive COIN effort. 4 out of 5 anchors/mushroomheads/stars/whatever!