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The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
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68 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Let there be light. Fred Kaplan has turned a searchlight on the politicians and generals who have led thousands of men and women into two continuing wars. Those lucky enough to come back may wonder why they were ever there. They were following leaders who had a deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance. The names are familiar----Rumsfeld, Bremer, Wolfowitz, Negroponte. The list is long. And then there were the generals---concerned with prestige and promotion---who did not dare challenge their political masters. For those of us who have spent time over the decades in Iraq or Afghanistan, the possibilities of failure were frightening.

Into this mess came a small group of officers----The Insurgents---Dr. Kaplan so clearly discusses. These were men who knew the politicians and generals were not just fighting yesterday's wars----they seemed to be looking back at ancient battles. These Insurgents were the intellectuals of the army. And no on likes a wise ass---not in the by-the-book military system. It is a complicated story and Kaplan tells it with clarity and style.

David Petraeus is the cover boy of this book (he really is on the cover). He knew how to find the spotlight and sometimes deserved to be in it. But light fads. Counter Insurgency Warfare worked in Iraq as long a certain structure was in place. And then it wasn't.

Then there was Afghanistan where a national structure has never been in place---unless you count corruption as structure.

This book can make you angry. You should be.

A damn good read.
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106 of 127 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a book in three parts. The first part traces the post-Vietnam intellectual evolution of "counterinsurgency" (COIN) warfare thinking within the US military from several different perspectives. The second part describes the history of counterinsurgency on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq while also dealing with its politics in Washington. The final part asks some really tough questions as to what these people accomplished, what the value of the strategy is and what the future of the American military should be.

The book presents counterinsurgency strategy as something that grew out of a "social sciences" subculture at West Point in the aftermath of Vietnam. These people were academics and intellectuals. They studied non-traditional subjects and often held advanced degrees such as PhDs. At one point in the book there is a rather disturbing comment where John Nagl actually describes himself as a "social scientist" and soldier.

The first portion of the book is interesting at first but becomes rather tedious. It's interesting to know all the various people, their social networks and how they influenced change in the military. But at a certain point is a tough read and more like reference material than anything else.

The early part of the book does not challenge COIN enough. In particular, the view that COIN was the answer to victory in Vietnam is utterly foolish. The Vietnam War was not won by the Viet Cong or an insurgency. It was won by the army of North Vietnam launching a conventional invasion of the south. While the war might have been an insurgency in 1963, but 1965 it was a very conventional conflict with the Viet Cong operating in battalion sized units. The US sent the Special Forces to open jungle camps near the border at places like Lang Vei and they were overrun by heavy tanks. The views of COIN advocates on the Vietnam War are quite frankly utterly wrong. So are their views of lessons to be learned from the British in Malaya.

The book also fails to see a very obvious point. If the US has a military larger than is justified to face any possible conventional threat, that is probably an argument for a smaller US military. It should not be an argument that we should keep the same size military and find it new tasks like nation building. The idea that we have to have an army of a certain size & cost and that its size & cost provides itself the justification for doing things like Somalia or Iraq is just crazy.

The definition of COIN employed in the book by its promoters is too broad. It's used to cover both operations to prevent insurgencies and operations to fight established insurgencies. But those are in practice two very different things. The book oddly shows both being successful and both failing. The book claims that COIN was practiced by the US early on in Afghanistan with some success but that it has failed in the last few years. The opposite is true in Iraq where there was no COIN at first and then COIN was used to bring about a conclusion to the war.

The book's coverage of the war in Iraq is rather spotty and one-sided. The author accepts the Patraeus fantasy story spun to the press about his first tour in Iraq while openly insulting Tommy Franks and saying little more about events during the term of Ricardo Sanchez than to call him incompetent. The thing about after the first few months in Iraq is that all the military "superstars" seemed to go home with their combat "credibility" to write field manuals, hang out in Florida, or to do postgraduate studies. Constantly sniping after at those who ended up in Iraq in their place.

The book seems to indirectly suggest that we "won" the Iraq war when Petraeus was allowed to finally stack the promotion board in Washington and push his minions up to the top. A quote from Nagl in the book says it all: "Why haven't I been promoted. We've got idiots running this place."

The book presents a very selective picture of events in Iraq during the surge. It tends to give more credit to military COIN operations and far less credit to changes in political policy at the same time. The softening of policy toward Sunnis in particular is not presented in a comprehensive way.

The author is hostile to McCrystal in Afghanistan. As much as the book tries to make COIN look more successful than it was in Iraq, it goes out of its way to say all the things McChrystal supposedly did wrong. It's almost as if the book intended to present at one point the idea that COIN would have worked if McCrystal had only done in right. It also pushes at the crowd around McChrystal for being arrogant and insular ironically without fully seeing the arrogant/insular nature of the crowd around Petraeus. The impression is given that McChrystal was a little bit too blue collar and not enough Ivy League intellectual for the author's taste in Generals.

In the last ten or so pages of the book, the author seems to completely swing around in his opinions. He offers a rather devastating critique of COIN, COIN wars and the lasting impact of those involved. It's strange because it's so at odds with how the book builds up to that point. I completely agree with his critique to the effect that fighting these large counterinsurgency wars (Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan) is a choice the country makes and it's often the wrong choice to be making. That COIN is designed to fight wars the country should generally be avoiding in the first place. That the history of COIN wars is not necessarily all that positive a legacy. But I still find it strange that he says almost none of this until the very end of the book.

I somewhat wonder if there were changes made to the ending of the book over the last few months. That this book might have been a whole lot more positive toward its subjects originally. There is no way to really know.

My personal belief is that the sort of preventative countinsurgency strategies Petraeus used in his first tour in Iraq were good things and normal things the military should do. But his later counterinsurgency efforts convinced me once again that the tactics can't win wars, they can only create a breathing space to allow country to exit a war in a graceful manner. But what is a graceful exit really worth in terms of money and lives?

As well, the doomsday stories that were used to say that the US had no choice but to stay in Iraq have mostly been proven false now by the civil war in Syria. Syria has been able to totally self-destruct without the entire region falling into all-out war or interventions by its neighbors. Certainly the civil war in Syria is not a good thing, but it does somewhat validate a view that the US could have left an unstable Iraq much earlier without triggering doomsday.

The book is a somewhat useful reference for the rise and fall of the counterinsurgency movement within the military. It can possibly be of use in terms of understanding how a small group of intellectuals can accomplish a great deal of influence in a large organization. Its coverage of the actual wars is at best average with a tendency toward bias in any number of ways. I absolutely agree however with most of the author's conclusions at the end of the book about the usefulness and limitations of counterinsurgency warfare.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A must read for serious students of the American way of war and the evolution of military doctrine - and an enjoyable read as well. Kaplan opens by describing a tank battle from the `91 Gulf War. It wasn't much of a battle and demonstrated the folly of the American Army's ceaseless preparation for big wars. An emphasis on counterinsurgency grew out of the realization by a cadre of military thinkers that preponderance of conflicts in the future would be `small wars'. These wars would be long and messy, and the American Army was ill-prepared for them. This stood in sharp contrast to the type of conflicts that the Department of Defense was forecasting, namely network-centric warfare that could swiftly defeat threats wherever they might arise. As Iraq and Afghanistan devolved from decisive victories into protracted quagmires, translating COIN thinking into doctrine took on a sense of urgency. Its application, however, produced mixed results. The problems arose less from the doctrine itself, and more from how the very nature of counterinsurgencies contrasts with the preferred American way of war - quick and decisive. The COINdistas arguably saved the American military from failure in Iraq but the cost in blood and treasure was too high to repeat on the same scale in Afghanistan. In neither conflict was COIN able to resolve the fundamental political tensions driving the instability. As this decade of conflict draws to a close, the American military again faces a dichotomy between how it wants to fight wars and the nature of future wars.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book is excellent! No matter your background you will love this book. The book isn't just a story of the battles. It is about the war but it is about so much more. If you want to know the story behind the newspaper accounts of the war this is your book. The book is about something more. It talks about an idea and that idea's impact on a large institution and eventually a nation.

The book tells many stories. It reads extremely well. The book is a fast paced story that shows the reader how a successful idea grows from concept to reality. The special part of the book gives the story of how a large organization changes it's ideas from one extreme to the other. He uses General Petrarus's work as a case study on how to do that political game correctly to change course.

General Petrarus started a campaign to change the Army from a big war approach to a counterinsurgency approach near the on set of the Iraq war. That sounds easier than one might think. He implemented this change through a very wide array of activities from holding conferences, rewriting the Army Field Manuals, to continuing his ideas through the critical placement of the right people in the right places. What is even more interesting is to see what happens as this idea grows from one person to others. Then those people expand on it in their own respective way. Through these stories you have a new appreciation of how one person can change the world.

The stories will for sure enhance your knowledge of the war. It also will give you knowledge that might enhance your skills in the workplace. I highly recommend this for all.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Forget the subject matter. This is a must read for those who are often disappointed in recommended books.
Never once did I have a problem following the numerous characters referenced in the book. Mr. Kaplan's prose fell off my Kindle. I cannot remember enjoying an author's thought stream more. Here is a chance not only to learn about current military doctrine but to experience what is possible from a great writer.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I write to add my small voice of praise and great admiration to Fred Kaplan for The Insurgents. It is solidly researched and written with discipline over the material and absolute clarity of language. Having spent much of my various careers in the glutinous lingua franca of government policy, I long for writers who take the policy part seriously without succumbing to its opaque, vaporous language. Kaplan's fine profile of Petraeus and history of COIN reminds me of Orwell at his best (essays and letters).
Along with Tom Ricks's The Generals, The Insurgents should be read by every thinking American.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon June 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book is primarily about bureaucratic conflict. Anyone looking for a real examination of counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan, or discussion of counter-insurgency in general, is going to be disappointed by this book. Kaplan describes efforts to re-orient official Army doctrine and practice away from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency methods more appropriate for conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a detailed and well written account of bureaucratic infighting within the Army and the Pentagon. The somewhat ironically named insurgents of the title are the group of Army officers and others who led efforts to recognize the realities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, change tactics on the ground, and change official Army doctrine.

The leading figure of this group was General Petraeus but Kaplan does a good job of putting Petraeus in the general context of the contemporary American Army. Petraeus is shown to be very intelligent, a charismatic leader, and a very shrewd politician who used the patronage networks that exist in any large bureaucratic structure to great advantage. Kaplan is very good at discussing the important roles of many other individuals who were important in this story and comes up with a few surprises. One of the most impressive individuals in this book is General Raymond Odierno, a notably unsuccessful Divisional commander in Iraq but who had the intellectual capacity to recognize his mistakes and whom Kaplan shows as the operational leader of the so-called Surge in Iraq.

This is high quality journalism. Kaplan is a good writer and appears to be a thorough researcher-interviewer. As mentioned above, however, this book actually has a fairly narrow focus and to be really outstanding, Kaplan would have to cover domestic politics and analyze the effects of attempted counter-insurgency methods. This would be formidably difficult.

I suspect that Kaplan has missed an important component of the background. As is conventional, he presents the Army's resistance to counter-insurgency as traumatic repression of the memories of Vietnam. I don't doubt that this is at least partially correct. But, shortly following Vietnam was the Carter-Reagan era of considerable expansion of the armed services with an emphasis on military superiority over the Soviets, a major boost for advocates of conventional warfare. Another feature of this period was our considerable involvement in both insurgencies and counter-insurgency, though the latter was mainly through proxies. We supported insurgencies in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and southern Africa. Largely through proxies, we were engaged in counter-insurgencies in Central America, particularly El Salvador. We had "advisors" in the latter, including a couple of the individuals discussed by Kaplan in this book. As Kaplan mentions, the El Salvador civil war resulted in proportionately enormous civilian casulties. What he doesn't mention is that the great majority of these civilian casualties were essentially murders committed by our proxies in the Salvadoran Army. Approximately concurrent with the El Salvador civil war was the Guatemalan Army's successful suppression of an insurgency in that country, a success made possible by repeated massacres. Our Army wasn't involved in Guatemala but the events were well known. Intelligent Army officers surveying the world scene of conflict in the 1980s may well have repelled by the bloody, expensive, and often inconclusive mess that was insurgency and counter-insurgency.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a meticulously researched and well-written book that provides real insight into the misconduct of two wars. I have no military experience or training whatsoever, so it came as a shock to me how grossly unprepared our military was to face the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Even as Bush, Cheney and the rest of the neocon war criminals were ginning up the Iraq invasion, millions of us who opposed it were predicting it would be another quagmire like Vietnam. Hey, this old gal in her rocking chair in Ohio would have told you that once you have brought a nation to its knees you have to then help it get to its feet.

Rumsfeld and the Pentagon goons did not anticipate that, and Rumsfeld wouldn't even allow the use of the word "insurgency" when it was blatantly obvious that an insurgency had emerged very early after the fall of Baghdad. Then, a few years too late, as the book carefully chronicles, Petraeus and some other bright fellows figured out that it was indeed an insurgency and we needed counterinsurgency tactics to deal with it. They figured out that the people of those countries needed water, sewage, electricity and jobs. Wow, there's a thought! And then they realized that their brutal treatment of the populace was making more enemies than they were killing. Hey, somebody write that down!

It took these geniuses a two or three more years to get it through their heads that in supporting al Maliki and Karzai we were propping up corrupt, duplicitous governments that do not care about democracy and economic progress.

As I read, I got angrier and angrier that our military is full of such tunnel-visioned leaders without much in the way of common sense. It's a sad story, and one we should all read and learn from. Never again, I do hope, will we venture into such tragic, wasteful, stupid wars.
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21 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The title of Fred Kaplan's excellent new book, "The Insurgents," has a double meaning. It refers both to guerrilla warriors, be they revolutionaries, partisans or terrorists, and to a group of U.S. Army officers who preach the doctrine of "counterinsurgency" [or "COIN"] warfare, often against the grain of the existing military establishment. I recommend this book highly to those interested in military history and U.S. military policy. Kaplan explains the dispute between those who believe the U.S. must have the capacity to deal with "low level conflicts" such as Somalia and Afghanistan or whether the U.S. should avoid those conflicts to concentrate on traditional war fighting. Kaplan is a skilled writer who provides vivid portraits of the principal U.S. Army officers in this dispute, including the most prominent proponent of counterinsurgency theory, Gen. David Patreaus. The book is well written and a page-turner. It's "dry" only if you think that how the U.S. fights its present and future wars is a dull subject.

Kaplan illuminates a doctrinal struggle in the U.S. Army since the Vietnam war. In some ways, it's a fight for the Army's soul. Should the U.S. Army fight only in traditional"big" wars, conflicts between nation states? Should it avoid the messy, involved and seemingly endless ethnic and religious conflicts where it is necessary for the soldier to do more than fight, but in addition be a diplomat, politician and "nation builder?"

Traditionally, the Army has sought to avoid "irregular" warfare and what is called "low intensity conflict." Part of this is a legacy of the Vietnam War, where the American soldier was placed in an ambiguous, limited conflict that he could not win. The Army was severely wounded by its loss in Vietnam. The Army brass disdained the notion of counterinsurgency. The United States should only employ force on a massive basis, where its superiority in firepower and technology could guarantee victory. The Desert Storm campaign in Kuwait in 1991 restored the Army's self-confidence and seemed to vindicate this thinking.

But a core group of intellectual Army officers, tutored in large measure by the West Point's Social Studies program, realized that the "firepower" approach had great limitations for the kind of warfare the U.S. should prepare for after the fall of the Soviet Union. No longer should the U.S. focus primarily on a hypothetical great power showdown on the plains of Europe, where tanks, missiles and artillery would fight a large-scale battle. Instead, the U.S. would need to project its power in the shadowy world of terrorism, insurrection and civil war. These strategists argued that the U.S. should revive its "counterinsurgency" capabilities. The objective in counterinsurgency is to protect the local population by separating it from the insurgents. Working with the local government, the Army should see that the population's needs are met, through the development of basic services like water, power and sewage. By winning the loyalty of the populace, the insurgents would lose their support and be defeated indirectly, rather than on the battlefield. One of the requirements for COIN success is that the U.S. is seen not as an an "occupier" but as a "partner" of a credible local government.

Kaplan traces the development and promotion of counterinsurgency through the careers of a group of Army officers, most notably Gen. David Patreaus. These officers risked their careers in promoting an unpopular doctrine. Andrew Krepinevich examined the Army's failures in Vietnam in a book called The Army and Vietnam and paid for it when his career was sidetracked. Patreaus wrote his doctoral thesis on Vietnam as well, but refused to publish it for fear of retaliation. As time went on, however, the generation of officers who had seen the Army's Vietnam mistakes first-hand as lieutenants and captains became generals. They appreciated re-examining Vietnam and the lessons it provided. General H.R. McMaster wrote a study of the failure of the Joint Chiefs to stand up to Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, called Dereliction of Duty. By the time it was published, Gen. Hugh Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, not only read the book but ordered all his service chiefs and commanders to read it.

The reason the Army "insurgents" developed theories of counterinsurgency warfare is simply because they saw this was what the Army needed to fight conflicts today and in the future. We are not going to fight large tank battles on the plains of eastern Europe. Instead, we have sent troops to Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. By and large, our Army has been ill-prepared to fight these kinds of "irregular" wars. Rather than hope that these kind of engagements won't persist in the future, they argue, we should be realists. This type of low-intensity conflict is what we will be called upon to fight. We should understand it and prepare for it.

Still, the doctrine of counterinsurgency was unpopular with the more traditional Army brass, who looked askance at "low intensity conflict." They viewed soldiers as fighters. There job was to kill, not babysit the locals. Awards and promotions go to traditional fields such as gunnery and tanks. Officers who served in "low intensity" combat did not receive combat credit because they were not "real" wars.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to rebuild the Army into a fast-acting "lean" organization that could project power globally, but he was no fan of counterinsurgency. In planning for the Iraq invasion, he forced General Tommy Franks to reduce his number of troops. Rumsfeld was right in seeing that we could quickly conquer Iraq. But he was totally wrong about the aftermath. He made overly optimistic assumptions about the ability of Iraqis to create a stable situation after Saddam was overthrown. He failed to develop an after-action plan to stabilize Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He ignored the insurgency as it was developing and even criticized generals who even used the word "counterinsurgency." According to Kaplan, he got bored with Iraq and left the management of the war to underlings. The result of this willing blindness to reality and incompetence set the stage for the Sunni uprising against the Shiites now in power. Gen. Frank lacked the troops to manage the situation. The situation was made worse by Proconsul Paul Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi Army and banning Baath party members from participation in government. This created a ready reserve of armed and angry insurgents.

The highlight of the book is Gen. Patreaus's success in the Iraq war in helping quell the insurgency through the use of counterinsurgency tactics. He saw that killing insurgents with remote weapons such as Predator drones typically created more insurgents than it killed because of the resentment and hatred it bred among Iraqis. The primary tactic was to "clear, hold and build." This required more troops in "the surge," which proved a success. But it also required threats to defund President Maliki's government unless it cleaned up its act and started protecting all the people, not just his fellow Shiites. (Maliki sanctioned or at least tolerated Shiite death squads who killed Sunnis.)

Patraeus was appointed commander in Afghanistan to replicate his Iraqi success. But he was not to have it.

Afghanistan illustrates the limits of counterinsurgency and perhaps an inherent internal contradiction in its theory. Patreaus attempted to win the support of the local population by making them allies, but realized that this could only be accomplished in partnership with a credible local partner, the Afghan government. Unfortunately for Afghanistan and the U.S., Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not that partner. Corrupt and erratic, Karzai replaced respected local governors with his corrupt buddies, syphoned off U.S. aid through his brother and generally undercut the ability of NATO forces to deal either with the local populace or fight the Taliban. As Kaplan points out, Karzai didn't want strong local governors, as they might pose a danger to his central government.

President Obama gave the Army a deadline for producing stability in Afghanistan. He bet American lives and resources that Afghanistan could be stabilized sufficiently for the U.S. to withdraw to a much more limited role. The Army was betting that if it showed progress, Obama would give them more time to finish the job. As Kaplan notes, both sides lost their bets. The Army made only limited progress and the Afghan Army appears unready to take over. Obama enforced the deadline and ordered the troops withdrawn.

Kaplan says Afghanistan highlights the great dilemma of counterinsurgency strategy. If counterinsurgency requires a strong and credible local partner, why is there an insurgency in the first place? In other words, isn't the fact of an insurgency sufficient proof that the government does not represent the best interests of its people? Maybe there is a gray area, like Iraq, where the government is bad but can be coerced to reform sufficiently for the U.S. forces to succeed in their mission and then withdraw. Maybe Afghanistan is just beyond the pale. After all, Afghanistan defeated Alexander the Great, the British, the Russians, and now, it looks like, the U.S.

The book ends with an epilogue on Gen. Patreus' resignation as CIA head. Kaplan says Patreus wanted to become Army Chief of Staff but was not promoted because President Obama saw him as a future Republican Presidential candidate. He was made CIA head as a consolation prize. Patreaus had hoped to remain on as CIA chief even after the disclosure of his affair with author Paula Broadwell. Kaplan says that in the end, the long war in Afghanistan "revealed COIN as a tool, not a cure-all - and David Petraeus as a man, not an icon."

I can't help reflecting that the Army and the American public lost a great leader when President Obama accepted Patraeus' resignation because of an affair that violated no regulation (he was no longer in the Army) and involved no intelligence disclosure. No one was "hurt" by Patraeus' love affair except the individuals involved and their families. Why should this disqualify Patraeus from future service to the United States?

The list of American generals who had affairs is extensive and includes Eisenhower, MacArthur and Patton. In a meeting between Russian and American generals shortly after World War II, a Russian general is supposed to have said:

"You Americans are hypocrites. We travel with our pretty Communist girlfriends. You travel with your pretty Capitalistic `secretaries.'"

Are we, as a nation, so dumbstruck by political correctness that we fail to understand that men and women in combat might need the attention and comfort of the opposite sex? We should understand that there is a cost to such prudery. We lose leaders of the caliber of Gen. Patraeus. And by applying the same unrealistic standards to candidates for the President, we could lose future leaders of the caliber of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton. Isn't the larger lesson of the Patreaus affair that we can't afford to hold such unrealistic expectations for our leaders?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover
An opinion on Fred Kaplan's writing in "The Insurgents" will be, by definition, subjective. I had no problem with it whatsoever, but others may differ. What no one can argue, though, is the amount of research he did. We all know about Petraeus, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz; also Odierno, Bremer, and Sanchez. But Fred Kaplan has gone way deeper than that, finding and then examining the people and ideas behind the long struggle to legitimize the COIN doctrine -- counterinsurgency -- as part of official Army policy.

I came away from this book with a new respect for the innovative thinking that many in the Army and defense-related think tanks do...and despair at the know-nothingness demonstrated by the political echelon as the debacle in Iraq spun out of control. Fred Kaplan does a great job explaining why the ideological battle mattered and what its implications are today.

Kaplan was unfortunate in that the Petraeus/CIA mess erupted just as this book was going to press. He deals with it effectively in a postscript, and I did not get the feeling at all that this book was incomplete or was missing something. Buy "The Insurgents" (the title is clever, referring as it does to the terrorists in Iraq and the COIN proponents in the Army). You will be entertained, informed, and possibly enraged. What you will not be is bored or disappointed.
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