Review: A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (Yale Library of Military History) (Hardcover)

4 Star, Insurgency & Revolution, Leadership, Stabilization & Reconstruction
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Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but Narrow, Simplifies A Bridge Too Far

December 19, 2009

Mark Moyar

EDIT of 21 Feb 2010:  A colleague in COINSOC has pointed out that I missed one key aspect of this book and I hasten to add it: “Moyar's point that we are applying peacetime personnel policies by putting people in place based on factors other than their leadership ability and continuing to allow poor leaders even after their capabilities are apparent is a good one though.  It's kind of like we are the Titanic and the inertia is too much.”  It is an important point.  It takes two years to weed out the unfit leaders in a real war, but first you have to admit you are in a real war, and the USA has still not gotten to that point so we are damned on both sides: not taking the fight seriously, and leaving the home front wide open to attack (see my review of Charles Faddis's two books, one on CIA and one on DHS).

I first encountered the author when I read and reviewed Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, but in ordering this book, took no notice of who the author was, I rarely do, and thus was surprised to discover this is the second work by the author, now at the Marine Corps University where I served as Adjunct Faculty once upon a time.

This book is brilliant and unique in its chosen focus, but I have to leave it at four stars because it simplifies in a manner that is almost neo-conservative in its sharpness.

The single most important insight is that the single most important intelligence quesiton as we get into any insurgency or counter-insurgency is this: who are the elites on either side of the confrontation, how good are they, do they have the special character (that this book helps define), and what does this mean to us?

The problem I have with this book is that it dismisses legitimacy and morality, does not recognize the futility of being on the wrong side of the conflict (as we were in Viet-Nam and have been on hundreds of occasions) or on having ideological traitors or blatantly corrupt self-serving partisan hacks in the White House making decisions that are grounds for impeachment if our flag officers had more character and could remember they swore an oath to uphold the Constitution against all enemies domestic and foreign, not an oath to be blindly loyal to the craven and the corrupt.
Here are some notes and links intended to complement this original work by the author. All of my reviews, virtually all non-fiction,are more easily examined at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, where Insrugency, Leadership, and Stabilization & Reconstructions are among the 98 categories in which I read.

I read the notes and the index first, something I do for books I consider especially worthy. The index STINKS, being a name index with a few terms randomly added. Early on I am distressed to see that the author, in his focus on leadership traits, assumes that all else follows, e.g. intelligence. This may be true, but he does not carry the argument far enough–we lacked integrity at all levels of command in Viet-Nam and El Salvador, where I spent formative years (1963-1967 and 1979-1980 respectively), from the White House to the My Lai incident in Viet-Nam and the murder of the Archbishop in El Salvador.

The ten attributes of leadership:
01 Initiative
02 Flexibility
03 Creativity
04 Judgment
05 Empathy
06 Charisma
07 Sociability
08 Dedication
09 Integrity
10 Organization

Then the author adds Shared Identity and Experience

I have to observe that we beat the first three out of our children by the time they are in the fith grade, over-emphasize Charisma and Dedication, mock Empathy, and define Integrity as Loyalty rather than Righteousness. Just two links: Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling; and an oldier but still relevant goodie, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.

The entire book is a plea for 21st Century adaptive officers who are well-read and multiculturally sensitive.

A quote on page 205 captures the very best of this book. Citing LtCol Ian Hope, commander of Canada's Task Force Orion in Kandahar:

“Under the baking Afghan sun we are rediscovering, by way of pain, that the first determinants in war are human. In combat, the power of personality, intellect and intuition, determination, and trust outweigh the power of technology, and everything else. This stark reminder comes after 30 years of the Canadian Army following obediently the lead of our allies [i.e. the bloody Americans] in combat development and falling victim to the seduction of the microchip.”

Exactly right. Winston Churchill liked to say “The Americans always do the right thing–they just try everything else first.”

NEWSFLASH: In Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, and in the other 150 failed states around the world, the Americans are still a decade away from getting it right.

The author concludes the book with a chapter on How to Win that has the following nine sections:
01 Improving Leadership Attributes
02 Recruiting
03 Leadership Development
04 Foreign Influences on Leadership Development
05 Foreign Influences on Command Selection & Deselection
06 Lines of Authority
07 Delegation of Authority
08 Methods of Command
09 Co-Opting the Elites

As I read through the chapters, an enormous amount of naivete jumped out at me, especially with respect to Viet-Nam and El Salvador, and more recently, but remotely, Afghanistan and Iraq. I also lived in the Philippines and have read widely on counter-insurgency.

01 The author, despite being a revisionist historian ofthe first order (tendence neo-conservative), accepts too much of the conventional history and avoids coming to grips with the strategic realities that make leadership, however good, irrelevant in the absence of higher order integrity. A few books:
The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025
Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II-Updated Through 2003

02 The author seems to assume “our government right or wrong,” and this is of course a death wish in dealing with reality. While the author discusses the fact that the Huks were independent fighters against the Japanese and those Filipinos that went vichy, he segues straight into their being “the enemy” when we decide the government is ours, and he is unwitting of the literature on Lansdale's creating mock Huk units to terrorize rural areas so that our chosen front guy could ride the white horse into elected leadership.

03 In Iraq, which is a direct result of the treason of Dick Cheney and his small band of neo-conservative betrayers of the public trust, the author either avoids the vast literature on the mis-steps before the war and the mis-steps after the quick victory, or chooses to downplay it. I accept all that the author offers in the way of leadership prescriptions, but he goes several bridges too far in failing to address both the lack of integrity among our flag officers in not putting Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith before the Congress for impeachment, and in willfully accepting the “lite” force into Iraq that was known to be deficient in terms of keeping the peace. The author appears to be unaware of all the word the Department of State did to plan the Golden Hour peace transition, and makes no reference at all to the varied impeachable offenses of the Rumsfeld tema in shutting the Department of State completely out. Nor does the author seem to recgnize that General Garner was on the verge of extracating us when Dick Cheney send Paul Bremer in to muck it all up so we could occupy the country for the long term. One of these days the taxpayer is going to see the cost tally for all the permanent installation we have been building in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that may be the straw that breaks the Pentagon's back. We have lacked integrity at every level.

04 Finally, and really a blend of all of the above, the author seeks to isolate leadership traits in our officers without due regard for the righteousness of revolutionaries. something I know a little bit about, not least from writing the still best examination of the preconditions and precipitants of revolutiuon in 1976, distinguishing among political-legal, socio-economic, ideo-cultural, techno-demographic, and natural-geographic. The US Government has been too often on the WRONG SIDE, and it has been on the wrong side for a variety of reasons including the failure of our system of checks and balances, and the failure of our flag officers to demand legal, ethical political leadership as a condition for sending our faithful forces into harm's way.

America lost its exceptionalism when it gave up being a Republic Of, By, and For We the People, and instead became a two-party tyranny fronting for banks and phantom wealth fabricated by the Federal Reserve (which is neither Federal nor a Reserve) and Wall Street. We are now spending close to 1.3 trillion a year on war, when we could–for just $230 billion a year–eradicate all ten of the high-level threats to humanity identified by LtGen Dr. Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret) and other members of the United Nations panel, and as reported out in A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

We all keep coming back to Sun Tzu, who is quoted but never embraced–the acme of skill is to win without fighting, and the surest path to victory is to know yourself as well as you know your enemy. We have no clue about either because we have allowed a $75 billion a year monstrocity to claim without reason to be our “national intelligence,” while allowing a $750 billion monstrosity, four honey pots called by their Service names, to lust for bells and whistles in the technical arena without being held accountable for strategic, operational,tactical, OR technical integrity.

There is a great deal more at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog, where virtually 98 of the reading categories and grouped reviews bear on this book. Bottom line: this book is a great checklist. Checklists don't win wars, leaders do. We don't have any to speak of, despite the author's florid praise for General Petraus. Gray, Zinni, Stackpole, Clapper (before he became USD(I), O'Lear–those guys are GONE. We have a handful of Colonels that “get it” but most of them are either not making flag or choosing to go work for the US Institute of Peace (Mike Dziedzic, co-author of Policing the New World Disorder: Peace Operations and Public Security or going to work for contractors.

My last two “authorized” links:
Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

I am *not* a happy camper. I have not given up on the Republic (see the literatures on Collective Intelligence, Non-Zero Panarchy, and Biomimicry), but I am acutely aware that we are in a fight to death, and the fight is in-house, not with some legitimate foreign enemy. Pogo nailed it: we have seen the enemy and he is us. Now let's get our act together and become righteous–America the Beautiful again. All it takes is unwavering INTEGRITY, one person at a time.

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