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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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.
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Review: Triumph Forsaken–The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (v. 1)

5 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Insurgency & Revolution, Intelligence (Government/Secret), Military & Pentagon Power, Misinformation & Propaganda, Power (Pathologies & Utilization), Strategy, War & Face of Battle

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Revisionist, Questionable, Valuable, and a Starting Point,

October 20, 2006

Mark Moyar

I write this in Lubbock, Texas where historian Mark Moyar presented his conclusions in very summary form to one of the most extraordinary collection of individuals to ever gather on the topic of “Intelligence in the Vietnam War,” an event co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Intelligence (Central Intelligence Agency) and the Vietnam Center (Texas Tech University).

While I came to hear authors like George Allen, whose 50 years of on-the-ground experience are presented in NONE SO BLIND, the definitive work on intelligence in the Viet-Nam war, and C. Michael Hiam, first time author who has done an utterly amazing job in describing, defending, and honoring Sam Adams in Who the Hell are We Fighting?, I have to credit this author, graduate of Harvard, student of Christopher Andrew the singular at Cambridge, with ripping me out of my chair and forcing me to think about the relative merits of documentation versus oral histories versus personal observation (I was there from August 1963 to late 1967).

Here are three bottom lines on the book:

1) It is some of the most erudite, earnest, well-intentioned, and potentially explosive revisionist history directly relevant to the intelligence-policy relationship as well as relations among nations.

2) It is lacking in an understanding of how the veterans of the war actually perceive it, taking both secondary sources and original documents from varied governments including China and Viet-Nam, at face value.

3) It merits the benefit of the doubt, a serious reading by those that were actually there, and inputs, in the form of oral histories, to the Oral History Project Head at the Vietnam Archive (Texas Tech University). If you have substantive comment to make on this book, don't stop here at Amazon–call them at 806.742.9010 and schedule a short telephone interview to add your oral history to the collection.

I read a lot and have had a fortunate life. I have always known that governments lie in the documents and their public statements, that secondary sources are all too happy to bend the truth to make a case, but it was not until this moment that I realized just how very urgent it is to dramatically increase our oral history and direct understanding of every aspect of the Viet-Nam debacle, one we repeat today in Iraq and Afghanistan, where those fighting have no memory of both the successes and failures of the past.

My gravest concern with this important and worthy book is that it plays to what the extremist unilateral militants–including the chicken hawks now serving–want to hear: that imperial adventurism can succeed if one just intervenes a little more harshly, a little sooner, with a bit more cleverness.

I have been an iconoclast, and I now find myself defending and praising an individual for having produced a work that conflicts sharply with my narrow understanding of the reality as I lived it, and that of the many others attending this conference.

I regard this book as a very courageous and intelligent offering, one that must be regarded as a work in progress, and one that will add substantially to our understanding once the author has a chance to write an epilogue that factors in the comments of those now living who were actually there.

Five stars for brave brains. This author must be reckoned with.

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