The Dragons and the Snakes Paperback
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Top reviews from the United States
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Most books on current military trends focus on technology--Russian and Chinese cyber, space, and missile capabilities usually take top billing. The value in Kilcullen's book is that he takes a step back and examines how these adversaries actually think about conflict with the United States (noting that they see this as having already begun in the information space), and how they are seeking to adapt and undermine US conventional strengths and not simply to surpass them with better technology. This is a key distinction that too often goes unnoticed by the armies of defense experts who seem myopically focused on the latest piece of flashy, high-speed kit.
ADDED: 24 Oct 2020
The more I think about this book the more impressed and depressed by Kilkullen's analysis. Earlier my view was influenced by events in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq without realizing we're now deep into the "Ebb Tide of the West" (chapter 6) Why? "...a rebirth of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics is destroying American democracy." I write this just prior to the 2020 November election, and it's pretty obvious that survival of our country in a contentious world is low on this list of national priorities . In short, we've lost our way.
I guess what I missed in this is his proposals for what we should do to fix the problem BH Liddell Hart in Strategy provides a good example of what we can do to fix the problems (you might not agree with his ideas but he was all in in proposing solutions).
What the end of the book reminds me of the most is in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Gandolf is talking about Denethor when his subjects say he has for seen what would happen and Gandolf says he has forseen and done nothing.
I read this book for a book club but I do not recommend the book.
The book argues that the First Gulf War in 1991 marked the apex of the American way of war. Both the Dragons and the Snakes, which the U.S. now face looked at that war and learned the lesson not to fight the U.S. that way.
The book explores the ways Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others have adapted. One of the author's interesting observations is that by killing off the leaders of these groups, more competent leaders have arisen to control these Snakes. Unintended consequences, indeed.
The Dragons are China and Russia. If the competitive threat posed by China is perhaps only a dim concern now, read Chapter 5 for an eye-opening review of the range of challenges presented by China. One conceptual challenge is that China defines war much more broadly than the U.S. has traditionally done. China's manufacture and shipment of tons of fentanyl to the U.S. may be a reverse Opium War by China against the U.S. The full scope of the Chinese threat is impressive.
The book argues that Russia has largely rebounded from the collapse of the Soviet Union at least militarily. It has also adopted some of the Snakes' methods for fighting the West. Liminal warfare (doing just enough to gain an edge, but not enough to provoke an effective response) and escalating to de-escalate are strategies employed by Russia that the book explores.
Of most importance is the book's final chapter where the author examines possible approaches to manage the U.S. and Western decline. Perhaps the Byzantine empire's management of its varying fortunes across a 1000 years may offer lessons for today.
The author reviews the historical context for the adaptations forced by warfare over the last 30 years. He also does this utilizing intellectual tools which I found highly useful. His conclusions aren't reassuring. If the effect of war on the means and methods of waging war and the decline of U.S. effectiveness in doing so interest you, I recommend the book highly.
Top reviews from other countries
His analysis of Russia’s sub liminal warfare is perfect for understanding of hybrid warfare, which we so famously witnessed in Eastern Ukraine. This book is a very real world take on the current threats written by not only a great thinker, but also a “doer” due to Kircullen’s experience as a military officer, which reflects in his writing.