Customer Reviews: The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual
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on August 23, 2007
This book has become famous or notorious (take you pick) because it was written under the direction of Gen. David H. Petraeus, as of this review the commanding general of American forces in Iraq. I want to prescind from the Iraq question and address the book on its own merits.

First, my qualifications. I am a retired Air Force Colonel (non-flying). During the Vietnam war I was heavily involved in Operations Research on counterinsurgency. For five years I was Chairman of the Special Warfare Working Group of the Military Operations Research Society. I spent 20 months in Thailand and Vietnam, running tests on electronic equipment for use by US and allied forces battling insurgents, and gathering and analyzing data on insurgency in Vietnam and Laos.

What's in this book?

Chapter One is a historical survey of insurgency and the problems of countering it. It draws heavily from the Vietnam experience, but goes as far back as the ethnic struggles in England (Welsh, Scots, Irish) against the Crown. While the historical coverage is broad, it does not, and is not intended to, give coverage in depth.

Chapter Two discusses the need for integration of the civilian and military activities in counterinsurgency. What's new about this? Nothing. I wrote the same things (though perhaps not as well) while in Southeast Asia over forty years ago. The fact that it's not new doesn't mean it's not important. It's critical. The fact that it's now in a Field Manual is highly significant.

Chapter Three deals with intelligence gathering in counterinsurgency. While the military commander is always in need of intelligence about the enemy (who, where, what, when), the problems of gathering this intelligence for counterinsurgency are very different from those of conventional war. This chapter is heavy on the "what" of intelligence, but a bit weak on the "how." This is probably inevitable, since intelligence about insurgents depends on human sources, and the avalabiliity of these is very dependent on the nature of the society under attack by insurgents. One problem briefly mentioned in the chapter is the fact that Americans won't speak the language of the locals. The problems of linguistic support for the counterinsurgency operation are covered in an appendix. My own experience, though, is that it's difficult to work through an interpreter, and you never know if the interpreter really is working for the insurgents.

Chapter Four covers designing a counterinsurgency campaign. Again, it's strong on the "what" but weak on the "how," because this is strongly dependent on the situation.

Chapter Five covers executing counterinsurgency operations. Its main point is that "Counterinsurgency operations require synchronized application of military, paramilitary, political, economic, pshychological, and civic actions." Nothing new here. We knew that in Vietnam. The British knew it in Malaya. What's encouraging is that it's finally in a Field Manual.

Chapter Six covers developing host nation security forces (army and police). That's not easy. The British achieved it in Malaya; we didn't achieve it in Vietnam. One of the problems the Manual really slides over is that the recruits to the host nation army know the individual Americans will go home after a year, while they are in it "for the duration." This makes a big difference in the degree of aggressiveness of the host soldiers as compared with the American counterinsurgency forces.

Chapter Seven covers leadership and ethics for counterinsurgency. This is the first Field Manual I've seen that gives any attention to the Just War criteria of Discrimination and Proportion. Although these are addressed in only two pages, that's still an improvement. (Full disclosure: I teach Just War Doctrine at Yorktown University.)

Chapter Eight covers logistics for counterinsurgency. This becomes a critical issue. Ever since World War Two, the US has preferred to fight "dumb rich" wars as opposed to "smart frugal" wars. We overwhelm the opponent with materiel. Unfortunately, the host nation usually can't do this. Leaving a stable society behind when we "declare victory and go home" means the host nation has to be capable of defending itself on a much lower level of resources than we used. If we don't train them to do this, they won't last long.

One specific criticism I have of the Manual is that it tends to focus on "boots on the ground" and shortchange the role of air power. This is probably inevitable, since it's an Army manual. Nevertheless, it's a shortcoming. Despite that, I think the Manual is a big step forward in doctrine for counterinsurgency. It lays out the lessons we should have learned forty years ago.

The University of Chicago edition has an Introduction by Sarah Sewall. She makes the observation that the book was written by the wrong people. It was written by the military, not by the political branch of government. As Clausewitz wrote, "War is the continuation of policy by other means." Counterinsurgency, of all types of war, must especially be governed by political objectives and considerations. Sewall's observation is correct. In the absence of any national counterinsurgency doctrine that covers the political and economic aspects as well as the military, the Army has tried to fill the gap. For the most part, the Army did a good job. It will be unfortunate if the effect of this book is one more case of "we won the war but lost the peace."
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on July 25, 2007
This is a reprint of the Army/Marine Counter-Insurgency (COIN) manual. But this book is more then a reprint and is worth the money just for the multiple forewords and the Introduction to this edition. All were written by subject matter experts in their field. One foreword in particular is written by John Nagal author of the COIN cult "Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" re-released as "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam," what makes this so interesting is that Nagal had a hand in developing and writing the manual with a group of renowned COIN experts. I am not sure if the others helped develop this manual for the military, but their forewords are just as interesting. For the content of the manual it will soon become the bible of COIN warfare/operations, it is by far the most detailed manual on the subject. It covers theories, tactics, techniques and procedures as used by various countries from various conflicts and lays these methods out within the current U.S. military context. This book is not meant to be specific to the Iraq or Afghanistan insurgency but is meant to be a "tool bag" of methods and ideas to be adapted to various conflicts. Finally the manual was reformatted in to an oversized handbook with a laminate type card cover with rounded corners that make it perfect to slip into a kit bag or rucksack. This is a must own for all soldiers (E1 and up!), politicians and concerned citizens.
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on March 9, 2008
I actually bought this book some months back but I kept putting off picking it up because I assumed this would be a dense work filled with military jargon and more acronyms than one could shake a stick at. I assumed that it would be a tedious and difficult read so I found reasons to put it off, but when I finally forced myself to begin this book I was quite shocked. The book is very easy to read and very well written. The book has just a few acronyms that I had memorized within a couple of pages after their introduction, and the book is very well laid out with impeccable organization (as should be expected I guess). I dare say I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book on all levels. Of course the information and the knowledge to be gleaned from this work is extremely important.

I think if this book were to become required reading for students then I think we could prevent some costly misadventures in future because this book really details what an occupation requires. Everyone would understand that military action will require a deep level of commitment for the military and on all levels of civil society as well.

I also think it is the least we can do as citizens to educate ourselves on what our military men and women are doing and attempting to implement in situations where they face this type of conflict. One gets a sense of what a soldier goes through and the huge load that is put on the ordinary soldier. It is an extremely difficult task they are asked to perform in these situations, and they are asked to perform this task with honor and discretion in the face of terrible situations.

There are some good reviews here that speak more to the content of the work by people obviously more versed in the topic than myself, so I will just say that this book is very well done and an easy read. If you are like me and are putting off reading or buying this book, then let me just say go ahead. It is worth the money and the effort. I highly recommend this book.
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on December 24, 2009
The only reason I'm writing this review is because you don't have to pay for this! It was written by employees of the government (i.e. paid for by U.S. tax dollars) and is available for free.

Yes, you can get a few more words in the form of an introduction, but the field manual is an unclassified government document. It's unlimited distribution is approved and the average citizen can find a copy just by searching the internet for "FM 3-24" - FM is an acronym for Field Manual.

One source is: [...]

As far as the text, I've had the opportunity to hear both GEN Petraeus and LTC (Ret.) John Nagl, major contributors to the manual, speak on the subject of counterinsurgency. If you want to read about the ideas behind the manual, it's largely based of David Galula's work titled "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice". Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (PSI Classics of the Counterinsurgency Era) is a major reprint. If you really want to pay for a text, I'd suggest purchasing that work.

Other reviewers have already made appropriate comments on the content of the manual. I'll just add that the manual itself is meant for military practical application at the operational and strategic levels; the audience is Soldiers and Marines. As such, some of the application may be foreign to "Average Joe".

If you're interested in this manual, I'd also suggest reading FM 3-24.2, "Tactics in Counterinsurgency", which was written for practical application at the tactical level.
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on December 30, 2007
I've been studying insurgent warfare for a long time before it became a hot topic... again. I still recommend Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare and Hamilton's The Art of Insurgency which is a great book but is little referenced. There are of course books by Kitson and others. (Nagl's book which I've reviewed is a good dissertation but is limited in it scope and perception. He writes the forward to this edition.) The two volume War in the Shadows is okay background but not worth a two volume read. Which brings us to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which if you are serving and only have time to access one source, this is a dependable one.

Although the CFM is oriented more toward the current unpleasantness the principles of counterinsurgency have been carefully gleaned from the best sources and multiple situations as well as updating insurgent response for the 21st century. Keeping food deliveries out of active insurgent areas might have worked for the British in Malaya, but you could imagine the field day CNN would have with it today. Probably the best things the writers do in this manual is freely admit that the devil is in the details and that these will have to be worked out locally and supported nationally.

For those who still aren't buying into "the insurgent stuff" which unfortunately over the last 30+ years has gone under state department approved phrases like "nation building" and executive office of the President terms like "counter terrorism" you don't have to worry that the Army or Marines are going to lose their conventional edge with these approaches. The CFM makes it clear that this is only one form or warfare and that modern war can slip across the entire spectrum. What is not needed is more doctrine...what is needed is a tool box and the CFM attempts to be one of those tools.

The CFM makes many good points and I'm not going to list them all here, but the most important one I felt has to do with the assumption of more risk. Insurgent warfare requires soldiers to go out and get in the streets with people to provide the basic security for everyday activities that will lead to a legitimate government. Legitimacy cannot come from the national level down no matter what form of government people actually settle for (A basic concept found in any undergraduate PolySci 101 class which no one in the State Deptment or Congress must have taken.) The average Joe doesn't care about the grand schemes. He wants to go to work, get married, raise a family and have a shot at some level of comfort without getting killed. The key to winning against insurgents is that the most committed to providing these basic parameters for the average Joe, wins. You show your true colors and level of commitment when you have to go out and get shot at. But the alternative, which never works, and we still seem to be doing is to concentrate forces on large FOB's and separate them from the population. This has got to be one of the toughest of balancing acts to provide force protection, logistics as well as force projection and maintenance that supports an ongoing relationship with the civilian population. Fighting an insurgency is not for the faint hearted, the draftee, or those who needed to be reelected every 2 years. It takes soldiers in neighborhoods who know the people and have the power to affect their lives...albeit indirectly if possible.

I disagree with the CFM on two points. I disagree with using the idea of "counterinsurgency" for philosophical reasons. The term by its very nature places you at a disadvantage to the insurgents. I believe you fight an insurgent war and win it by being better insurgents, not by being better "counterinsurgents." But this is probably more a matter of semantics. My second area of disagreement is really the book itself. This "new" book on insurgent warfare is really a great gazette of all the current knowledge that has been around for years plus the all necessary Army doctrine, without which the lowliest private cannot have a bowel movement. The Army's "can't do it without doctrine" attitude is what made this book come out so far behind the power curve to begin with. All this information is and has been known and available but the Army couldn't "discover" it. The US has a long insurgent history that is little studied or learned from. Our nation was founded by an insurgency. We've fought insurgents throughout our history: Native Americans, especially in the West, the border struggles during the Civil War, Phillipines, Cuba, Nicuagua, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. As organizations that need to be highly adaptable, the Army and the Marines need to stop paying tuition for the same lessons over and over again. I realize that not all of this lack of organizational awareness is theirs. A great deal of the responsibility for lack of responsiveness lies at the feet of elected officials who do not do their part and provide the clarity of purpose upon which coherent military strategies are based. The mist in Congress becomes a dense fog for those who are tasked with the nation's defense.
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on March 18, 2014
This is a manual written by and for the United States armed forces on how to fight and (hopefully) win counterinsurgency (COIN) war. It was prepared while the war in Iraq was raging at its bloodiest, but it is not limited to that particular conflict. Although written with the assumption that it will be used by the American army invited by some foreign government into their country to help them fight some local insurgency, this manual can be used by any COIN force.

The manual is written in clear, plain, straight to the point language, but is not dry or boring either. If you are looking with some academic essay packed with fancy intellectual words on how to wage COIN war written by some retired general, go look elsewhere.

The manual argues that successful COIN is not a war, but half police investigation and half humanitarian relief. Fighting and killing insurgents is counterproductive. It might be necessary, but dead insurgents become heroes and martyrs for their cause. In any case, insurgents can recruit new members faster than you can kill them, so other approaches are needed.

The problem with COIN as it was waged in the past was that insurgents were portrayed as barbarians, terrorists or common criminals. Consequently, governments fought them with barbarism of their own. This usually failed. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Government’s heavy handed methods alienated the general population and brought them more and more into the insurgent camp. The result was that insurgents would eventually win, or the insurgency was crushed but rebellion and resentment would simmer under the surface, thus requiring the government to permanently maintain the terror machine in place.

Violence is no longer a viable strategy for moral and practical reasons. The manual instead recommends a two-pronged strategy of COIN forces peacefully integrating with the local communities and aiding them by listening to their grievances, maintaining law and order, fixing basic civic services (running water, garbage collection, etc.) and helping in economic development. This alone should remove a lot of grievances and anger that fuel the insurgency. At the same time, the COIN forces, through their presence on the ground and extensive dealings with the locals, acquire valuable intelligence. This intelligence is in turn used to combat the insurgents.

Insurgents, and this is of capital importance, must be fought with honor (hard as it might be to swallow), with all that it entails. They should not be treated as barbarians or unlawful combatants (whatever that means). They should be located and identified using police investigation methods, arrested, interrogated without the use of torture and then given a fair trial. This is of course not always possible, but when combating insurgents, the army should show as much restraint and respect as possible. Calling in artillery strikes, bombers, or spraying the whole city block with machine gun fire (all of which often happened in Iraq) solves the problem in the short run, but makes things much worse in the long run. A lot of infrastructure gets destroyed, a lot of innocent bystanders get hurt and a lot of sympathy goes to insurgents and their cause, even though technically speaking it was them who provoked the reprisal.

The authors do admit that COIN is hard to win. Even if you follow everything that the book says, you still might lose. Even if you win, insurgents are unlikely to just go away. Their dieharders will keep on fighting, but without public support they will come to be regarded as criminals and terrorists. They might remain as a thorn in the government’s side, but they will no longer pose a threat.

So what do I think of this manual? I agree with it in the sense that I fully believe that these methods and techniques are the best way to wage COIN. However, they are too demanding and unrealistic.

The first problem is that soldiers engaged in COIN have to be master investigators, negotiators, social workers, politicians, policemen, civic service bureaucrats and business promoters all rolled into one. On top of that, they must be gifted with Zen-like patience and calmness. When their friends and allies get murdered by insurgents, as it is bound to happen, they must resist the temptation to give in to the (very natural) feelings of vengeance and continue to treat insurgents with certain basic level of respect and honor.

How many people do you know who possess all these qualities? I never met such a person, not even when I look in the mirror. I am willing to imagine that such individuals do exist somewhere, but how many? COIN requires tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of personnel. With so many people involved, it is only a matter of time before someone somewhere loses his patience and responds to barbarism with barbarism of his own. Soon others will follow suite and it won’t take long before the war spirals into the moral black hole that COIN warfare usually becomes.

But there is also a second problem. For insurgency to become popular, it must paint itself as a champion of the common people. To do that, insurgents must convince the populace that they will address their grievances. And for that to work, there have to be grievances to begin with. But where do these grievances come from? Almost always they are caused by the local government’s ineptitude, corruption and policies. For COIN to work, the COIN forces have to, according to the manual, address and resolve these grievances as much as possible. The problem here is that this is likely to bring them into conflict with the ruling government.

Take the case of El Salvador as example. (El Salvador is mentioned few times in the manual.) The insurgency in El Salvador in the 1980s was Marxist in its ideology, but the vast majority of common Salvadorans didn’t care in the least about Karl Marx or Communism. They followed the insurgents because they could no longer stand the crushing poverty and tyrannical rule of the Salvadoran government. Their country was at that time ruled (and still is) by a small, greedy, power hungry, racist, ultra right wing group of elites who lorded over the masses like some Medieval aristocrats lording over peasants. The abysmal conditions in El Salvador were created partially through government’s corruption and incompetence, but also in large part because of its deliberate policies.

To properly fight the Salvadoran insurgency, American forces sent there would have had to reform the Salvadoran government and political system, making it more democratic, egalitarian and (gasp) socialist. Needless to say, the elites lording over Salvador would have never allowed that to pass. Not that the Americans even tried. To them Salvadoran insurgents were not freedom fighters but “Commie terrorists.” So, COIN in Salvador took the form of violence, terror and repression on massive scale, plus death squads.

What I just said about Salvador applies to almost all COIN operations everywhere, and not just those waged by Americans. If a government sends its men and women to a foreign country to help the local authorities to quell an insurgency, it is because they have a stake in the conflict and want to preserve the status quo. And if they want to preserve the status quo, they will not attempt any meaningful reforms.

So just what is my suggestion? I do realize that I might sound confusing. On one hand I am saying that the manual is correct in its assumptions and teachings, but at the same time I am saying that it is impractical. Am I saying that COIN should be waged in the good old fashioned way—violence and terror on massive scale without restraint?

God forbids. No.

I would say first and foremost that COIN wars (and all wars in general) should never be waged to begin with. Wars damage everyone they touch, even the winner. Their economic, social, political and military costs outweigh the cost of maintaining peace. But if you do find yourself waging a COIN war, the manual should be followed as much as possible. Its high and demanding standards might be impossible to be followed one hundred percent, but maybe they can be followed twenty-five percent? It is better to follow good teachings only in part rather than not at all.

And if you are not of the sentimental type (“sentimental” is usually a synonym for loving and respecting other human beings and not wishing them harm), then look at it from practical point of view. In the past, insurgents were fought with violence and terror. It almost never worked. Quite often the insurgents won anyway and the losers walked away morally tainted. When the insurgents lost, the local population often felt angry, bitter and cynical towards their government, and the fighting would resume a generation later or so. If you wage COIN war according to this manual and still lose, at least there will be less hate left behind. At the very least, maybe that will stop a new war from starting somewhere down the road.
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The context for this important work (John Nagl's Foreword, Page xiii): ". . .the sad fact is that when an insurgency began in Iraq in the late summer of 2003, the Army was unprepared to fight it." In the "Introduction," Sarah Sewall observes the critical point of counterinsurgency (COIN) (Page xxiii):

". . .although it is military doctrine, the field manual emphasizes the multiple dimensions of COIN: `those military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat an insurgency.'" Traditional US COIN policy was unwisely military only--ignoring the many other dimensions.

Obviously, one of the most arresting features of this volume is one of its authors--General David Petraeus. At the outset, this book emphasizes the competitive learning struggle between insurgent and counterinsurgent. The manual says that (Page lii) ". . .the side that learns faster and adapts more rapidly--the better learning organization--usually wins."

The first chapter explores insurgency and counterinsurgency, concluding with a series of lessons for governments as they "take on" an insurgency. Page 51 features a Table outlining successful operational practices (e.g., emphasize intelligence, isolate insurgents from the population, protect key infrastructure, provide amnesty for those willing to support the new government) and those that are not normally successful (e.g., overemphasizing killing and capturing the enemy as opposed to engaging the populace as a whole, ignore peacetime processes, including legal procedures). The first chapter also features a number of pithy points that might seem counterintuitive (e.g., "if a tactic works this week, it might not work next week"; "sometime doing nothing is the best reaction").

Other key chapters focus on the need to have unity between civilian and military activities (counterinsurgency fails if it is carried out as a military approach only), the requirement for good intelligence, leadership and ethics in counterinsurgency.

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book are located in the several appendices. One focuses on the support of linguists in COIN; intriguing, too, is a section on legal considerations in COIN.

For some readers, this might be uncomfortable reading, given its focus on warfare. On the other hand, COIN is a reality and a method for combating insurgencies. The book is pretty well written; for the most part, it is also clearly written. It is fascinating to see the author rise in the ranks, partly as a result of his perspective as laid out in this work.
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on August 30, 2007
Gen. Petraeus is a smart man, and a wise soldier; the most reassuring thing about reading this book and knowing he's in charge right now in Iraq is that this work shows he knows the limits of armed power, and right where those boundaries are. He doesn't try to say a 19 year old with a gun can solve everything, or that a Ranger trained sergeant can do whatever is called for -- but they can do certain things very well that have to be resolved before the suits and shovels can be deployed. Petraeus may not have written the whole thing, but knowing he was integrally involved with the text and uses it with his command and control structures is the most reassuring thing i've heard about Iraq in years.
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on July 8, 2008
I believe this manual is an excellent overview of counterinsurgency strategy and some tactics. This includes the broad strategy as well as to the drill down for the units/teams/boots on the ground. Its stated audience is for battalion commanders and their staff and higher. I would recommend it to any soldier, sailor or marine regardless of rank and for U.S. citizens generally who have an interest in the topic.

According to the manual, the host nation (HN) and the counterinsurgency force (COIN) will win if they can provide security first, and then other functions of a responsive - responsive to the HN populace - HN government. Otherwise, the populace will seek security and services elsewhere (i.e., in insurgent organizations/militias). This is not necessarily a sequential ordering. While basic security is fundamental - once a baseline is reached - other governmental functions responsive to HN's populace's concerns should also be instituted, supported, and reinforced, while still improving and accelerating the improvement of the security environment for the populace. One example used is how insurgency organizations/militias can destabilize the security environment and create insecurity through terrorist strikes, in order to then be viewed by the populace as the cure to the insecurity by operating militias to defend against such insecurity, and thus try to gain popular support.

Bottom line: creation, maintenance and sustainment (or assisting/building up) of legitimacy in the host nation vs. the insurgent organizations is the contest and crux of the matter. Insurgency and counterinsurgency is a fight for the support of the populace (i.e., the big middle). This conclusion should have been clear by now - insurgency has been with us for a very long time. For some examples, in the West, you can go back to at least to Julius Caesar for lessons; see also Napoleon; in the East, you can go back to at least to Sun-Tzu's The Art of War.

According to the manual, to win an insurgency/counterinsurgency type conflict, requires staying power without intentional or unintentional signaling of wavering support for staying the distance, at least until the HN has achieved the "tipping point" in terms of legitimacy and popular support.

As an aside, there is a good appendix on Social Network Analysis (SNA), which provides a cogent overview of some of the key concepts for those not familiar with SNA or its use in war, conflict, or intelligence.
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on December 18, 2007
Having just completed Rupert Smith's _The Utility of Force_, this was recommended to me by my former executive officer as a companion piece. He was dead-on in his recommendation. Whereas Smith's strength was in disucssing strategy in combating insurgencies (and proposing that the warfare of the future will be of a counter-insurgency nature), Nagel addresses counterinsurgency at the tactical ( battalion. company and platoon) level.

Naturally there is some overlap, particularly as it relates to dealing with and among a population. Nagel, however, literally walks one through waging warfare on the ground, from reconaissnace and intelligence to planning operations through executing and sustaining the campaign. I was particularly impressed by the chapter on leadership and ethics for counterinsurgency and by the numerous vignettes providing a historical perspective on successful counterinsurgency strategies.

While the manual is written (by definition) for professionals, it is an excellent tool in gaining insight and understanding how to successfully engage the types of conflicts we are likely to see more of in the future. Read in conjunction with _The Utility of Force_, a strong foundation for the future of warfare at both the field and company grade.
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