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Finding Small Stories in the Midst of a Book
on May 20, 2009
He's sitting in a hut with mysterious men and I wonder if his throat is about to be slit. One rainy night in West Java, counterinsurgency specialist Dave Kilcullen meets a pair of possible Al-Qaida agents. As he writes, "I never discovered who the two Arabs were... Perhaps they were just students--students who travel by night, with long knives, dropping in uninvited on foreign researchers to quiz them on Arab-Israeli politics..."
So opens Kilcullen's *The Accidental Guerilla*. Fresh from his stint as "the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq", the Australia veteran gives us his theory of counterinsurgency.
You're not-so-humble narrator is a military veteran too. I served four years on an amphibious warfare ship, occasionally supporting counterterror ops. In the aftermath of 9/11, I served Navy Security Force, assisting various people in counterinsurgency training, when I wasn't protecting assets bound for Afghanistan.
*The Accidental Guerilla* is better sourced, and includes more believable anecdotes, than past military science books I've read. So Kilcullen's arguments appeal to me--and probably a lot of other people. Both Afghanistan and Iraq started out so swell--like a Sir Ridley Scott or William Wallace movie. But neither Al-Qaida, the Taliban, or the Ba'athists had been defeated--they simply stepped aside of our juggernaut, then punched it in the side of the head. With this embarrassment, Westerners seem interested in other approaches.
Granted, there's plenty of folk who still like Sheriff Bush and his hang-`em-high approach to counterinsurgency. Kilcullen's approach is not a field manual for soldiers. Kilcullen's solutions aren't sexy. They don't offer lucrative nation-building contracts. You can't make a funbudumb video game out of this book (a game that's fun, but dumb). Finally, the crusaders amongst us believe that the best way to battle terrorists is to become them.
Ya gotta talk in their terms, to their needs. Kilcullen fails this in three ways.
First, the audience for this book is not clear. Too dense for lay readers, too light for academic readers, and too short overall. As other reviewers have pointed out, *The Accidental Guerilla* reads more like an abstract for executives who don't want to plow through a phone book report--such as a Commander-in-Chief, a Secretary of Defense, or a Director of Central Intelligence. Yet it lacks the graphs, charts, transcripts, and references to unclassified or redacted sources of a serious G-man report. Likewise, it contains way more jargon and assumptions of familiarity than a pop military reader will need or want.
That last bit was the killer for me. Like Darwin's *On the Origins of Species*, this is a concise and beautifully written work. And like *Origins*, few people will be able to actually read through it. Kilcullen writes in a dry and semi-complex grammatical structure; chock full of ACRONYMS, abbv, and institutional terminology; meandering along conceptual asides dotted with footnotes (and often ending or interrupted by parenthetical elaborations). Hulk no like!
I understand every word he's saying, but I gotta be honest, I can't get past his four models of the modern threat environment without falling asleep in the bathtub. And that stuff is just in the first 26 pages. Equally irritating is that Kilcullen clearly has a personal language for his subject, but he doesn't consistently define his own terms. While he illustrates the "takfiri" movement throughout the book, I had to go all the way to the endnotes just to get an approximation of a complete definition. Takfiri is a core concept to be denoted in body text--not notes. So Kilcullen's second failure is paucity of engaging prose.
Once the book breaks past the blocks of thesis, it moves swiftly in the anecdotes. One of the big things I hammered Dave Grossman's *On Killing* about was that he kept regurgitating other people's work. Kilcullen actually provides excerpts of his own after-action diary. As he worked alongside heavyweights in Iraq, his own adventures carry weight with me.
To carry other readers, however, Kilcullen needs to address their concerns. Most of his readers already know that traditional counter-insurgency failed, alongside big field military ops. The readers he needs to persuade are the John McClanes and John Waynes who almost put John McCain in the White House (oh, and don't forget that classic asymmetrical warrior, John Rambo). These voters still treat our enemies as a homogenous horde of killbots, who need to be bombed into pieces for peace. Then there are Army vets and spouses I've met, who feel that General Petraeus's methods increased deployment turnarounds, resulting in added harm to soldiers and their families. These people may or may not believe the stress was worth the rewards.
So whether chickenhawks or the real thing, if you don't address these folks, you lose before you begin. Kilcullen's third failure is preaching to a choir.
The simplest solution to all three problems is simply to make the entire book read like his prologue and field notes. Tense, exciting, and yet smart and educated. If Kilcullen gets the chance, I recommend he write a whole new version down the line, making it read like a novel. You can give us the facts, sir, but not just the facts.