Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review: The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerillas 1948-60

Tue, 12/08/2020 - 10:32am

SWJ Book Review: The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerillas 1948-60

Reviewed by Major John Berger

The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerillas 1948-60. By Noel Barber. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1972.

Noel Barber’s The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerillas 1948-60 is a gripping history that reads like a novel. Barber tells the story of courageous British and Malayan men and women who fought the guerillas—as well as the story of the rise and fall of communist guerilla leaders—through personal antidotes and experiences during the Malayan Emergency; details which make it a difficult book to put down. Barber’s account also appeals to the academic reader by providing a combination of historical narrative and a test-case of applied COIN theory. However, this is not another book about political and COIN analysis. Rather it is a story driven by intriguing and engaging accounts of real people who individually and collectively defeated the Chinese-backed communist insurgents, known by the British as “Communist Terrorists” or “CTs.”  

The title of the book is drawn from the pejorative term “Running Dog”: a guerrilla term for Malayans loyal to the British-backed government. Barber argues the Malayan Emergency was won through an unconventional strategy of shifting from a “military war” to a “civilian war” with civilian leadership in charge of COIN operations focusing on the civilian populace. The decisive element of the strategy was a significant increase in the size of the police force because “counter-insurgency is a matter of restoring law and order, and law and order is a matter for policemen with training and the lawful status for the task.”[i] The police were better postured to engage with civilians and to prevent escalation, as opposed to armies that could have undermined progress with a stray bullet or a stray bomb. Barber concludes that increased firepower would have only encouraged the recruitment of guerillas.

            A second tenet of this “civilian war” strategy, Barber argues, was rehabilitating communist combatants into law abiding citizens.[ii] The British Psychological Operations Teams dropped Safe Conduct Passes into the jungle which promised “good treatment, food, cigarettes, and medical attention if required,” which was an attractive offer.[iii] The fighters were so impressed with their treatment that they often became double agents, resulting in entire units of guerillas surrendering. Barber stated that “many communists could only justify their escape by being personally involved in the struggle against it.”[iv] The most effective unit was the “Special Operational Volunteer Force,” which consisted of 180 former guerillas who served as police officers and after 18 months were extended the opportunity to be released back into civil society.

            The final core tenet of the civilian-centric strategy was to incorporate the undocumented Chinese diaspora into the struggle against the Chinese-backed communist guerrillas. The Malayan government took a controversial measure by providing the Chinese diaspora with citizenship, land-rights, civil-leadership responsibilities, representation, and entitlements. This resulted in the ethnically Chinese Malaysians having a vested interest in the success of the Malayan cause and effectively cut off the guerilla’s source of food, money, fighters, and medical support. Although the program was costly, it was far less expensive than waging a full-scale military conflict.

There are, of course, some limitations to a book of this nature. Noel Barber was a British journalist and novelist. He wrote the book in a narrative style to hold the reader’s interest; consequently, it lacks an in-depth academic analysis. The main protagonists in the book are primarily British plantation owners, a focus which feeds into the British-centric history. Barber glosses over British shortcomings such as alleged human rights abuse early in the conflict.

All that being said, this book offers laymen, academics, and Special Operations Forces (SOF) a baseline of principles required for successful COIN. As the U.S. “pivots” to Great Power Competition (GPC), it is likely that the U.S. will engage in a COIN-focused proxy war with its near-peer adversaries in the future. The Malayan Emergency presents many irregular warfare tactics and vignettes that could prove helpful at the Team-level and above. Barber stated that the war “was reduced to one of individuality.”[v] These are levels where SOF can have significant impact. Today SOF can apply lessons learned from the Malayan Emergency case study. For example, Civil Affairs Teams are postured to provide a supporting role to facilitate local governance and expand community policing programs. Psychological Operations are essential to disseminate information to guerillas in remote locations encouraging defection. Special Forces and Rangers are ideally suited to interdict supply trains deep in the jungles.

The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerillas 1948-60 is an excellent introductory book to understand the core tenets of a civilian-centric strategy to defeat an insurgency. Barber's masterful storytelling familiarizes readers with the characters and the conflict as if they had experienced the emergency first-hand. Indeed, a more thorough analysis of COIN doctrine can be found elsewhere but will certainly fall short of engaging the reader with the perfect blend of anecdotes and insights. The importance of countering communist guerillas remains just as pertinent today as it was in 1948, and Barber’s work offers timeless lessons for contemporary COIN.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, Naval Postgraduate School, or the U.S. Government. 


[i] Noel Barber, The War of the Running Dogs; How Malaya Emergency Defeated Communist Guerillas 1948-60, 1st American ed. (New York, Weybright and Talley, 1972), 177.

[ii] Barber, 91.

[iii] Barber, 180.

[iv] Barber, 179.

[v] Barber, 248.

About the Author(s)

Major John Berger, U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer, and student at the Naval Postgraduate School pursuing a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis. John is a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha with Bachelor of Arts degrees in International Studies and French Language and Literature.   



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:30am

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"The title of the book is drawn from the pejorative term “Running Dog”: a guerrilla term for Malayans loyal to the British-backed government." Actually, it comes from China that used it against, primarily, the U.S. (as in imperialist running dogs). Just as the term Viet Cong was also once considered to be "pejorative" until the VC admitted they took direction from North Vietnam.

John A. Nagl's "Leaning to Eat Soup with A Knife" is a very good book about counterinsurgency lessons about Malaya and Vietnam, too.