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Customer Review

115 of 136 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed messages, January 5, 2013
This review is from: The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (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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Comments

Tracked by 5 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 22 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 18, 2013 11:39:17 AM PST
A reviewer with a brain and a knowledge of the facts.

It seems 98% of citizens, generals and politicians don't have a clue.
We should return to some form of isolationism to keep the all these dim bulbs from getting us into trouble.

Posted on Feb 4, 2013 8:12:40 AM PST
mikamoto says:
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."

How can you say that about Syria? Granted you wrote this on Jan 5, and we've just seen Israeli intervention, but even then you had to realize that there's a lot of baseball left to be played. The idea that you can intervene in a country, destroy the government and institutions of civil society, leave, and then expect no blowback is pretty shaky.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 4, 2013 12:07:18 PM PST
Mark bennett says:
"How can you say that about Syria? Granted you wrote this on Jan 5, and we've just seen Israeli intervention, but even then you had to realize that there's a lot of baseball left to be played."

The Israeli attack was nothing exceptional. In my opinion, it was more about the Israeli government trying to change the subject away from an election where the government did not do well. The earlier disputes with Turkey came closer to war, but its difficult to see any of Syria's neighbors actually entering the war. Anything can happen in the future and the situation can always change. But so far, doomsday has not happened.

I've never seen any evidence to suggest that "blowback" actually exists. I've never taken seriously the idea that 9/11 happened because we didn't help the Soviets and their regime in Afghanistan. I think that whatever US policy toward Iran had been, the Iranians would have installed an authoritarian regime.

Posted on Feb 10, 2013 2:13:54 PM PST
Mark, your long winded yammering on just about any subject(yes I've read some but Jesus no man has time to read anywhere near all your reviews) kinda kills your impact on any single publication. I bought it, I enjoyed it. It's one view of many but those of us who read are not scared by reading. I'll be on the lookout for your name in the future so I can discount the opinion.

Posted on Feb 23, 2013 8:17:43 PM PST
Joseph Hare says:
I plan to read the book and found Mark's comments interesting. I have read several reviews of it (NY Times, etc).
I gather certain themes are developed (maybe like: (A) the majority of the people of a country you are supposedly fighting for, or with, must want you there; (B) It is important to have a "strategy" to influence the occupied populace and win "friends" with dollars if need be so can you can leave sooner rather than later. This is out of the box thinking?

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 24, 2013 9:11:22 AM PST
Mark bennett says:
Petraeus gives his ten observations at one point in the book. Both of the ones you mention are on that list. But one of them is slightly different. The population doesn't have to love you or want you there, but rather they have to have a stake in you being there.

1) Don't try to do too much with outside forces. Even if the local forces don't do a job perfectly, use them anyway.
2) After enough time has passed, people will see an army that started as an army of liberation as an army of occupation.
3) Money is ammunition
4) Its not important that the people love the outside army, its important rather that the people have a stake in the success of what the outside army is trying to accomplish.
5) Before launching any military operation, the officer should think through if the operation will create more new insurgents than it eliminates.
6) Operations require good human intelligence. Know the door you want to kick in rather than kicking in a whole neighborhood of doors.
7) Defeating insurgents requires a political strategy to reduce the appeal of the cause of the insurgents
8) Local leaders who are seen by the population as legitimate have to be cultivated
9) soldiers down to the rank of corporal need to be educated in "strategy" and how to make strategic decisions.
10) Commanders have to set the right tone. If a commander is more enthusiastic about hunting insurgents that doing reconstruction work or negotiating with the locals, its a serious problem that needs to be fixed.

The points about the thinking through military operations and restraining the amount of force used to avoid excessive damage make sense. The political points don't make as much sense. The problem with spreading money around is that people are only bought off as long as the money flows.

The problem with "cultivating" and "funding" local leaders is that you undermine the national government. If you start providing more money and resources than the government, you *become* the government as far as the locals are concerned. They will be more loyal to you than then their government and their government will see them as an enemy. It will always end badly.

The thing about spreading money around is that human greed is unlimited. You can buy off people for a while, but they only be loyal as long as you keep paying them and their demands for money will increase over time. Spreading money around does work, but only as a short-term solution.

Posted on Sep 4, 2013 2:27:59 AM PDT
Sgt. Rock says:
Mr. Bennett you describe how those who would have advocated a COIN strategy in Vietnam were incorrect since it was a conventional north Vietnamese assault that over ran south Vietnam in 1975. But you fail to understand that it was General Abrams use of a coin strategy from 1968-73 that won the guerrilla phase of the War and left the North Vietnamese with no other options but to conquer the south through conventional means.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 4, 2013 7:53:58 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 4, 2013 7:56:06 AM PDT
Mark bennett says:
I'm aware of that point of view on the Vietnam War (as per the books of Louis Sorley for example) but I dont agree with it. I dont agree that Abrams beat the insurgency with COIN ops. The insurgency used up the better part of its strength in Tet and was never the same after.

A point to make I guess is that no matter how successful COIN ops could be in Vietnam, they could not bring the war to a successful conclusion by themselves.

Posted on Sep 9, 2013 7:19:03 PM PDT
You could have added that support for Kaplan's book by, for example, the LA Times and the NY Times, seems to present the Israel lobby's desire to learn absolutely nothing from our Global War On Terror except that anything that involves shooting at Arabs, Muslims, etc. is a good thing, and that none of it is supposed to make sense. Isn't it a soldier's first duty, the Zeroth General Order, as Isaac Asimov might have put it, to have comprehensible orders in the first place? How can you guard everything within the limits of your post if they refuse to show you the limits of your post?

Posted on Jan 6, 2014 1:38:48 PM PST
[Deleted by the author on Jan 6, 2014 1:39:35 PM PST]
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