As usual each Friday I try to post a review of weekend readings that pastors and others can read that serves as break from their spiritual readings. Tonight’s book was one that was a great exercise of other parts of my mind.
Fred Kaplan. The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, January 2nd, 2013. 432 pp.
What an amazing book. I have so many good things to say. But first a brief summary: The author Fred Kaplan takes a look at the US Army’s wrestling with the idea and practice of counterinsurgency after the post-Vietnam era. Kaplan makes the point that after the Vietnam War the leadership at the Pentagon never wanted to fight another counterinsurgency again. Instead the military as a whole focused on the more traditional concept of warfare such as big tank battles, heavy artillery and mechanized heavy infantry. A lot of this was due to the ongoing Cold War with the threat of Russia and the Eastern Bloc. It was also what was most familiar to many of the Generals and Admirals. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the fourth largest tank army during Desert Storm soon reduced the likelihood of the traditional warfare that the US wanted. Unfortunately after Vietnam the Army has stopped thinking, teaching and training for counter-insurgency. It didn’t even have a manual for that kind of warfare among its publications! This book focuses primarily on how this mentality hurt the US military and also on the men and women who tried to change the Army’s way of fighting war. It concentrate largely on the war in Iraq though it does give a brief look at Afghanistan. Having recently read a number of books on military history I must say this book was one of the best military history nonfiction I read in the first half of 2016.
This book was exciting and eye opening, scholarly yet highly readable for the general reader. It is a look at war but was quite unique with the book’s direction of exploring the role of higher education among a group of unorthodox officers. It is also an evaluation of the military as an institution while also describing in details the progress and growth of individuals who contributed towards the current doctrines of counterinsurgency. Contrary to the subtitle of the book this is not focus primarily on David Petraeus though I suspect the publishers must have added “David Petraeus” for marketing purposes of attracting sales. The last thing I wanted to read was a hero worship of Petraeus though I highly esteem this General. The book’s gives us numerous names and background of these individuals and how they crossed path. These stories demonstrate how incredibly well researched the book was—and also how connected the author was to these individuals.
I found the discussion of the contribution of the social sciences among the thinkers and practitioners of counterinsurgency to be the most fascinating. In fact in the beginning of the book the author traces the military’s rather interesting relationship with the study of social sciences to its origin at West Point many decades ago. For many officers they have a rather uneasy relationship with the social sciences but there are also a few critical thinking officers who saw the importance and value of the social sciences at West Point. These men form an informal clique that for decades have been known as the “Lincoln Brigade.” Important for the purpose of this book is how the innovative officers who contributed to the development of counterinsurgency in Iraq were from this “Lincoln Brigade.”
For many in the military during the early years of Iraq the word counterinsurgency was a bad word. The military and many of its generals were in denial of what the war in Iraq really was about. There were many cringed moments in the book in which the author demonstrate how clueless and incompetent certain generals were in the early years of Iraq. Yet while the lead generals were clueless there were also some lower level generals and Colonels who were learning and adapting. This was encouraging. I appreciated reading about the initiative some of these men and women took in changing the game. Those who have read Thomas Kuhn with philosophy of science would appreciate seeing the theory of scientific revolutions have relevant applications here with the doctrines of counterinsurgency in that there were politics and infighting between the mainstream army and these newer innovative officers with their new paradigm. As the author pointed out, these counterinsurgency thinkers were themselves ideological insurgents in the war of ideas and philosophy of war within the US Army itself.
After reading this book I appreciated the officers who “got it” with the war in Iraq. It was emotionally for me to read about the surge and how it lowered violence and stopped a civil war at that time. Of course one can’t read this book without thinking about the current problem of ISIS. I appreciated the leaders in the book who did their best to fix the mistakes of officers and leaders before them. The book makes you appreciate their contribution but the author at the end of the book reminded us that even legends like General Petraeus was human, capable of err and mistakes. The book also asked deeper questions of whether the US should ever be engaged in counterinsurgency in the first and also how counterinsurgency is not like the other historical counterinsurgency of the past with the changes that the US is officially not a colonial power, the world is ever more connected with CNN and the media and even how horrific so called successful insurgencies were in the past—numbers and suffering that is hard for policy makers to phantom knowingly enter into today. As a political conservative I also realize that there is too much statism in the assumption behind Counterinsurgency. One shouldn’t expect much success in “Nation building” if one understand the economics of how largely inefficient the state is as an agency of bringing about goods and services. Readers who think through this book critically would be more reluctant in their outlook of entering military ventures that often end up being a counterinsurgency.