Dion E. Phillips, The Military of the Caribbean: A Look at the Defense Forces of The Anglo Caribbean, 1958-2022. Caribbean Chapters Publishers, 2022.
Price USD $30.00 | 554 pages
“Sometimes it seems as if small states were like small boats pushed out into a turbulent sea, free in one sense to traverse it; but, without oars or provisions, without compass or sails, free also to perish.” This statement is among the perceptive remarks made by then Commonwealth Secretary General Shridath Ramphal in addressing the inaugural meeting of the Commonwealth Experts on Small State Security in London almost four decades ago. Many small states—in and out of the Commonwealth—created armies to provide a modicum of a guarantee that they would not perish. This was even if they did not face threats to their territorial sovereignty.
This was precisely the situation in the Caribbean, as Dion Phillips shows in his magisterial book. Indeed, as he shows, in many cases the establishment of an army was a condition of independence set by the United Kingdom, the colonial power. The Barbadian-born professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of the Virgin Islands spent several decades on this work, with data collection beginning in 1988. This fruit of his labors clearly demonstrates that his time was well spent.
As is explained in the Preface, the book’s intent is to describe “the origin, structure, recruitment, training, and roles of the contemporary military organizations in the Anglo Caribbean,” with a sub-theme centering on women in the defense forces, once the preserve of men. He acknowledges the cursory treatment of some aspects, noting, “for example, I do not generally address issues of military expenditure, types of hardware in service, and civil/military relations.” Notwithstanding this qualification, Phillips fulfills his intent exceptionally. He offers a tome comprising 19 chapters organized into five parts: the West India Regiment, Bermuda, and Montserrat; Antigua-Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, and Dominica; the Grenada Quartet; Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago; and Regional Security Cooperation and Conclusion.
Clearly, then, The Military of the Caribbean extends its exploration beyond the existing defense organizations of the independent countries, discussing military formations in some of the dependent territories, such as Bermuda and Montserrat, and examining initiatives that are now defunct, such as in Dominica and Grenada. The extensive narrative description and analysis are bolstered by copious referencing and by a plethora of tables and figures—68 of the former and 18 of the latter, to be exact. The professor also provides an extensive list of the military and political officials he interviewed to source data for the study.
Readers familiar with the workings of the security sector in the Caribbean could appreciate the author’s herculean efforts in producing this book. As he explained, the view in the region is that “national security concerns dictate that the military draws a curtain of secrecy around operations.” Consequently, “this presumably calls for a clear media strategy that often translates to never speaking on or off the record to journalists, academics, and other outsiders.” A factor that accounts for this is the colonial legacy of the Official Secrets Act, called ‘the zip mouth law,’ which is still alive in many parts of the region. Thus, this book fills a lacuna in the already under-developed field of Caribbean military studies, far exceeding what Sanjay Badri-Maharaj presented in his 2021 study Armed Forces of the English-Speaking Caribbean, which discusses the Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
Yet, Dion Phillips has produced a study that goes beyond the field of military studies, extending to the areas of political sociology and security studies. He also demonstrates the futility of attempting to describe the “what,” “who,” “why,” and “how” of the region’s military establishments without understanding international security engagement, with the United States, Britain, China, Brazil, and the Soviet Union, among other countries. Indeed, cognizant of the profound influence of the United States on the nature and pursuits of the region’s security establishments, the author’s stage-setting introductory chapter examines United States security policy towards the Caribbean. Phillips divides the engagement into nine chronological phases: 1898-1930; 1930-1940; 1940-1947; 1947-1989; 1989-2001; 2001-2010; 2010-2017; 2017-2021; 2021-present. Of course, the discourse there reaches beyond the Anglophone Caribbean.
The author provides several fascinating factoids in the first chapter and concludes it with the reminder that “regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats occupy the White House, the small states of CARICOM operate within the sphere of U.S. influence guided by its national concerns.” Phillips finds a coincidence of interests between the United States and CARICOM countries but also contends that the United States has enlisted “client security” military and police forces to serve as “bulwarks of the system.” It is hoped, though, that when the second edition of the book is produced it will provide more than a superficial discussion of this important aspect of the work, where the discussion in some of the nine phases is afforded less than 12 lines.
Even before examining the dynamics of the militaries of individual countries, Phillips provides a valuable discussion of the West India Regiment, which was the military component of the West Indian Federation, the attempt by British and Caribbean leaders to fashion a regional governance mechanism. The Regiment, which was headquartered in Jamaica, operated from January 1959 to July 1962, when it was disbanded, following the Federation’s demise. Grenada entered the annals of the region’s history by becoming the place where a first-ever and never-thought-possible event in the Anglophone Caribbean occurred: a coup was prosecuted successfully; that was in March 1979. Then followed years of political upheaval and socialist experimentation that culminated in the revolution’s implosion following the massacre of the country’s top leaders in October 1983, which precipitated an invasion by the United States the same month. Thus, it is unsurprising that Grenada commands four chapters, which no other country does, that examine the dynamics of the Grenada Defense Force, the National Liberation Army, the People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, and the Revolutionary Military Council.
The author offers a valuable feature by providing a summary statement at the end of each chapter that captures interesting factoids. We learn in Chapter 3, for instance, that the Bermuda Regiment is the largest of the four existing forces among the British colonies in the region, and in Chapter 6 that the Bahamian military is the only CARICOM force to have launched an aerial drone program for surveillance, in 2022. The point is made in Chapter 9 that the Dominica Defense Force is the only establishment that was disbanded by an existing government and never revitalized, and in Chapter 14 that the Guyana Defense Force had to engage in combat action just three years after Guyana’s independence in 1966, and twice in the same year, in the Rupununi Uprising, when Venezuela instigated a break-away effort, and when Suriname attempted to occupy part of the disputed New River Triangle. We also are reminded in Chapter 16 that the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force had to suppress two coup attempts since its formation in 1962: one in 1970 by some disgruntled military officers, and the other two decades later by indigenous Muslim dissidents.
The Howard University-trained scholar discerned three paradigms to have informed the doctrines and structures of the defense forces examined: the British Army-Orientation model based on the British military template; the Naval Orientation, which the Bahamas security establishment adopted; and the Hybrid paradigm, which reflects combined British and Soviet aspects. Guyana, Grenada, and Dominica reflected this at various stages of their development. Phillips also takes the bold—and risky—step in engaging in prognostication, looking ahead five years out. He identifies nearly a dozen mostly plausible realities that will define the defense forces, their operational environments, and pursuits. These include strengthened links between military and police forces; diminished likelihood of challenges to democratic rule by military officers; reduced U.S. security assistance, which will cause forces to rely more on internal resources; and expanded Chinese military and diplomatic engagement as well as enhanced Indian involvement.
No book, especially one the size of Phillips’, is likely to be totally error-free. For instance, it is asserted erroneously on page 113 that the Royal Bahamas Dense Force (RBDF) “remains the only Commonwealth Caribbean defense force that routinely sends women to sea.” The older Jamaica Defense Force (JDF), which was created in July 1962, had been doing so long before the advent of the RBDF in March 1980. In fact, the strides there were such that in 1984, then Commander Antonette Wemyss-Gorman made history in becoming the first female commanding officer of Jamaica’s Coast Guard. She entered the history books again in 2002 when she assumed the role of commanding officer of the cutter Belmont Point, thereby becoming the first known female ship captain in the Caribbean. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that further trailblazing would be in the cards. In January 2022, she was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral and became Jamaica’s—and the Caribbean’s—first female Chief of Defense Staff.
There also is a missed opportunity in the valuable discussion on regional security cooperation and the Regional Security System (RSS). Although the author mentions the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) en passant in the chapter on U.S. Caribbean Policy, the importance of the CBSI to the pursuits of the RSS and of military, police, and criminal justice establishments in the region since 2010 when the CBSI became operational, necessitated some substantive attention to it. Interestingly, the Congressional Research Service reported in December 2022 that the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) Authorization Act passed by the House in April 2022 would have authorized $74.8 million for the CBSI for each fiscal year from FY2022 through FY2026. The legislation also would have required the State Department, USAID, and the Inter-American Foundation to submit a strategy to prioritize disaster response and resilience measures, matters to which defense (and disaster and other agencies) in the region are paying increased attention, as Phillips explains in the book.
Overall, Dion Phillips is to be commended for producing a well-organized and prodigiously-researched study that has the added feature of being jargon-free and could be easily understood by specialist and non-specialist readers alike. The Military of the Caribbean is a work of scholarly heft that is fated to become required reading at the Caribbean Military Academy in Jamaica and at military training centers across the region. Moreover, it likely will command the attention of professors and students in security studies programs at institutions outside the region, such as at the William Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, DC.
Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith is a Fellow with Global Americans and a founding member and Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His next book, Challenged Sovereignty: The Impact of Drugs, Crime, Terrorism, and Cyber Threats in the Caribbean, will be published by the University of Illinois Press.