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A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (Yale Library of Military History) 1st Edition

3.6 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300152760
ISBN-10: 0300152760
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Editorial Reviews


"In the burgeoning literature on counterinsurgency prompted by American experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, this volume stands out.  Moyar's argument, that the quality of leadership plays a far larger role in the outcome of such conflicts than is normally acknowledged, is surely correct; his graceful examination of conflicts spanning one hundred fifty years is convincing.  A book that makes an important historical argument and, just as important, will be of use to leaders who will bear responsibility on the battlefields of the Long War."—Eliot A. Cohen, author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime
(Eliot A. Cohen)

"One of the great mistakes we made after the Vietnam War was forgetting what we learned there.  Mark Moyar has ensured that we don't forget what we learned in Iraq over the last seven years—and has also re-captured lessons from earlier conflicts."—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
(Thomas E. Ricks)

"Mark Moyar convincingly demonstrates that small unit leaders win counterinsurgencies.  His chapter on Afghanistan is especially disturbing; I hope someone in authority is listening."—Bing West, author of The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq
(Bing West)

A Question of Command stands out because it reaches back quite far, and to unexpected destinations.” —Wilson Quarterly

(Wilson Quarterly 2009-09-01)

“Moyar's study of Vietnam--Triumph Forsaken--is becoming a classic in counterinsurgency circles. His new case studies--A Question of Command--are making it to the desks of top military decision makers.”--George Stephanopoulos, ABC News
(George Stephanopoulos ABC News)

“Moyar is a true pioneer in a field whose importance for national security has been accepted only reluctantly and belatedly by the American public. . . .  Now we have a vastly improved roadmap for guidance.”-- John Tierney, Books and Culture
(John Tierney Books and Culture)

“Terrorism, uniquely horrifying as it is, doesn’t belong to an entirely separate and containable realm of human experience, like the one occupied by serial killers. Instead, it’s a tactic whose aims bleed into the larger, endless struggle of people to control land, set up governments, and exercise power. History is about managing that struggle.”--Nicholas Lemann, The New Yorker

(Nicholas Lemann New Yorker 2010-04-26)

"Counterinsurgency warfare, as Mark Moyar demonstrates in his insightful historical study, is neither new nor unfathomable.  Throughout the past, it fails when battlefield leaders do not understand the enemy and its methods, and succeeds only when officers can convince local populations why they are better off helping foreign troops than joining their own insurgents.  Not high-tech weaponry, massive supply, or even training defeats insurgents.  Only men — smart, brave, sensitive, and inquisitive officers — now and in the past, make the difference.  Moyar offers a clear historical reminder of what defeats insurgencies at a time when most in the present age are sorely confused."—Victor Davis Hanson, Stanford University
(Victor Davis Hanson)

About the Author

Mark Moyar is director of research at Orbis Operations and the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 and Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam.

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Product Details

  • Series: Yale Library of Military History
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (October 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300152760
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300152760
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #730,850 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"A Question of Command" is head and shoulders above its contemporaries when it comes to objectively distilling counterinsurgency theory. The first thing you will notice is that Moyar's treatment of competing theories is comprehensive and the book is extremely well documented and footnoted. Very professional.

The central theme of Moyar's work is the theory that counterinsurgency is "leader-centric" warfare, a contest between elites in which the elites with the superior leadership attributes usually win.

I was pre-disposed to discard this theory, but thought, "it may be an interesting book anyway." Well you can teach an old dog new tricks. His articulate and well documented arguments caused me to reconsider my biases and pre-conceived notions about the role of leadership in counter-insurgency warfare. You see, anybody can say "leadership is the key." But not everybody can get down in the weeds and spell out the specifics where both good and bad leadership made a substantive difference. This man does excellent, in-depth research is a good writer too.

Mr. Moyar's uses case studies, some of which are a bit remote from mainstream counterinsurgency literature, e.g. the Civil War, Reconstruction in the South (a major eye-opener for me), The Philippine Insurrection, The Huk Rebellion, Malaya, Vietnam, the Salvadoran Insurgency, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Vietnam was especially interesting. There is a prevailing logic as to how and why we "lost in Vietnam." I am not going to be a spoiler. I am a Vietnam "Era" Vet, and I encourage other Vets to read the book, especially this Chapter. I think it sets the record straight about a lot of half-truths and politically correct journalist accounts that were flat incorrect.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mark Moyar has a reputation for going against the academic grain. One of his previous books, "Triumph Forsaken," is a full-throated, unapologetic defense of assassinated South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and US involvement in Vietnam in general. His inability to land a tenure track position at any American university despite his glittering resume (summa cum laude from Harvard, D.Phil from Cambridge), presumably because of his conservative viewpoints, has been the subject of debate in the academy - and a civil lawsuit.

In this, his most recent piece, on the hot topic of counterinsurgency, Moyar takes aim, indirectly, at the celebrated US Army / Marine Corps COIN Manual published in 2006, which focuses on population centric doctrine as the touchstone for a successful COIN campaign. The author's main thesis is that good leadership - defined as a combination of charisma, creativity, sociability, flexibility, empathy and morality - is just about the only thing that really matters. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, "It's not about the book" -- it's about the man. Moyar uses nine case studies, all of which but one (Malay Emergency) were US experiences, to demonstrate his point, both in the positive, examples where good leaders made all the difference, and the negative, where the lack of such leadership led to failure, often despite the use of population centric COIN best practices.

Moyar has dug up some great quotes from legends to support his case. One of my favorites comes from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who was asked by Winston Churchill to opine on the situation in Malaya at a time when things were particularly bleak for the British cause.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I know it's a cliché, but I really wanted to like this book. I had just gotten back from Afghanistan, and Moyar's thesis - that leadership is the critical element of counterinsurgency - tracked with a great deal of my experience on the ground. My master's work focused on terrorism and insurgency, and I hoped that I would be reading something that would expand my intellectual horizons on a topic of importance to me personally as well as to the U.S. and the West presently.

Moyar's book fails spectacularly on all counts, which unfortunately only serves to undermine his thesis (which I actually think deserves a far better and more studious examination than the one he provides here). There are two major flaws, in my mind, and I'll discuss each in turn.

This book's first gaping flaw is that it fails to actually define insurgency, which any serious student of counterinsurgency literature should notice. It's a flaw that permeates the entire book, as Moyar conflates guerrilla warfare (a tactic) with insurgency (a political-military entity designed to overthrow a government via asymmetric means). This is particularly evident in his case studies (for which he never provides selection rationale, an unforgivable oversight in political science), where he lumps in Reconstruction with El Salvador and Iraq. Moyar's (incorrect) conception of insurgency is essentially a military strategy of asymmetry through force of arms - guerrilla warfare - completely ignoring the political dimensions, most pertinent among them legitimacy.

Ironically, this sets up his analysis to basically argue that insurgencies can thus best be understood as contests between elites, with the side with better elites emerging as the victor.
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