(A heritage of service. A review of David Granger’s The British Guiana Volunteer Force, 1948-1966, ISBN 978-976-8178-27-5; The Guyana People’s Militia, 1976-1997, ISBN 978-976-8178-29-9; and The Guyana National Service, 1974-2000, ISBN 978-976-8178-32-9.)
Public order was essential to the existence of the colonial state, the officials of which were grossly outnumbered by their colonial subjects. Control of the masses through the use of force helped to sustain colonial rule for more than 350 years. Volunteer militias and police forces were among the principal organisations established to protect planter and imperial interests in the British West Indies.
The newly-independent states of Caribbean inherited these coercive organisations but did little to change their essential character, thereby perpetuating a model of social control designed by the colonial regimes. Some governments attempted to create their own organizations as a means of addressing the problems of chronic unemployment and defence but, often, fell into the trap of seeing their new creations mirroring the old colonial forces.
David Granger’s military trilogy – the British Guiana Volunteer Force; the Guyana People’s Militia and the Guyana National Service –examines three such organisations.
The first, the British Guiana Volunteer Force, was a colonial creature aimed at supporting the police in maintaining public order. The second and third were institutions patterned, in some measure, after European, Eastern European and Middle Eastern (possibly Israeli) models during the era of socialist experimentation.
The British Guiana Volunteer Force, which succeeded the British Guiana Militia, was established in 1948 and is considered the progenitor of the Guyana Defence Force which came into being in 1966. Some of its members were incorporated into the Defence Force. Its brief existence – a mere 18 years – is a fascinating story, especially since it encompassed one of the most tumultuous pre-Independence periods in the country’s political evolution.
Granger provides an excellent account of the establishment and experience of the Volunteer Force but, however, is restrained in his criticism. He alludes to a report which raised concerns about the Force’s operational capability and how its limitations were linked to the type of training it received but the Force had other limitations, not least of which was the lack of popular enthusiasm for volunteerism. One source, for example, pointed to how the absence of public support constrained recruitment and attendance at parades during the Force’s first three years.
The Guyana People’s Militia and the Guyana National Service, on the other hand, suffered more from the effects of political perceptions rather than from popular support for their objectives. The Militia was established in December 1976 and the National Service in October 1974. Both reflected the ideological orientation of the government of-the-day and the threat to the country’s territorial integrity posed by Venezuela.
The Militia was established primarily as a source of support for the regular Defence Force and as a means of responding to national emergencies.
The Guyana National Service emerged from a proposal by a United Nations Consultant which was intended to alleviate youth unemployment and poverty through vocational training. The need to establish such an organization was laudable enough and, at first, the Guyana Youth Corps was created for those purposes.
A visit to the Israel Defence Force by a Guyana Defence Force delegation to study the ‘Nahal’ and ‘Kibbutz’ systems of militarised border settlements, however, explains why this Service developed along paramilitary lines in order to contribute to border security.
The National Service aimed at training persons with the skills necessary for development as one of its principal objectives. It was viewed, also, as a means of accelerating hinterland development through the establishment of farms which cultivated cotton and legumes. Both organisations were burdened with undertaking social and economic objectives. They were both criticized as being used for partisan political purposes.
Kenn Danns – in his book Domination and Power in Guyana: A Study of the Police in a Third World Context – observed that while membership in the Militia was open to all, the main source of its recruitment was from the ruling People’s National Congress political party. He concluded that the People’s Militia was one and the same as the PNC militia.
Danns argued that, despite its seemingly laudable objectives, the National Service acquired a dubious reputation because the military top-management was ill-equipped by training and disposition to manage such an organisation. His assessment was that servicemen were engaged in tireless and purposeless drilling.
Granger does not shy away from the criticisms levelled against both the People’s Militia and the National Service which he acknowledges but, surprisingly, does not contradict.
The three books are smartly sectionalized along more or less similar lines. They each provide information of each Service’s origins, objectives, organization, mobilization, consolidation, training and, ultimately, their dissolution.
Granger, while not declaring explicitly who was responsible for the demise of the National Service and the People’s Militia, leaves little doubt as to the role of the post-1992 government in the dissolution of both organisations. He acknowledges, however, that both were affected by a declining economy in the 1980s. Readers will have to arrive at their own judgment as to whether these organisations would have become defunct regardless of the position adopted by the post-1992 government.
This trilogy –The British Guiana Volunteer Force, The Guyana People’s Militia and The Guyana National Service –fills a void in understanding the role of coercive organisations during the later years of the colonial regime and the early period of newly-independent statehood. The books are an invaluable source of information which ought to be preserved for posterity because of the significance of security in the country’s history. The three books are highly recommended. They represent an important addition to political studies.
Guyana still faces the challenges of fashioning mass organisations which allow for citizens’ participation in defence, development and public order. The experiences of the British Guiana Volunteer Force, the Guyana People’s Militia and the Guyana National Service are instructive about the successes, failures, costs and benefits of such organisations.
The past is a weathervane for the future. The experiences of the three services can be a kernel from which can spring new organisations geared to address the age-old problems associated with national security and national development. What cannot be disputed is that all three epitomize the country’s rich heritage of service.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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