If you’re a British Army Review reader you may have seen this review of John Mackinlay’s The Insurgent Archipelago already. However, as the BAR is not published electronically (why??!!) I’m posting it here on KOW for those of you who don’t receive a hard copy.
First, go buy the book.
Now read why.
John Mackinlay has been thinking about insurgency and counterinsurgency in one way or another for the better part of a lifetime, from 1964 when he first reported for duty in Borneo as a junior officer in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and then after a twenty-year military career as a research academic during which time he has written many highly regarded scholarly articles and monographs on the subject. This book, The Insurgent Archipelago, is the product of those many years of observation and thought. It is an important book because unusually for the insurgency and counterinsurgency literature which, as I shall describe below, is relatively slow-moving, and repetitive (even static), it has something new to say. It is a timely book because eight years into the inaptly named ‘Global War on Terror’, about which Mackinlay says insightful and needful things, with the cost in blood and treasure of the two major expeditionary campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan far exceeding the hopes and expectations of those who launched them, and with meaningful success still elusive, it is past time for a strategic rethink. This elegantly written book, without jargon and largely unburdened by academic hokum, provides an essential guide to the ‘when the rubber hits the road’ issues of global insurgency, what it is, how to understand it, and, possibly, how to deal with it.
But by way of full disclosure before I review the book’s most important findings I should tell a short story. Just over five years ago I was sat with John Mackinlay on the pleasant terrace of Somerset House on The Strand, which is located beside King’s College London, where we both have the pleasure of working in the War Studies Department, talking about an article I was writing on the adaptation of land forces to operating in the environment which Rupert Smith describes as ‘amongst the people’. This was a new area of research for me and so, naturally, I craved the advice of the most knowledgeable of my more senior colleagues on the matter: John Mackinlay. ‘You’ve got a lot to learn about insurgency’, he remarked after hearing my plan. I write this for three reasons. First, obviously, because I must declare a bias in reviewing the book of a colleague whom I admire and with whom I work closely; second, because it illustrates, I think, one of Mackinlay’s qualities—he is willing to speak uncomfortable truths; and third because he is a good teacher. I did indeed have a lot to learn and I did so in substantial part by listening to what he had to say. Readers of this book will have a similar experience. He has the knack for, as the Americans put it, ‘cutting to the chase’—demystifying a (now) highly popular subject plagued by too much punditry and humbuggery, cutting away extraneous and tangential detail to focus on the underlying dynamics of the phenomenon under study.
The book is sweeping, as the subtitle ‘From Mao to Bin Laden’ suggests; yet it is also admirably succinct at 292 pages including notes and index. In design it is exceedingly clear, consisting of three parts—‘Maoism’, ‘Post-Maoism’, and ‘Responding to Post-Maoism’, which reflect the basic components of his argument. Insurgency’s classical form is the brainchild of the carnivorously ambitious strategic and political genius Mao Zedong who gave meaning to the now familiar bumper sticker that insurgency is ’80 per cent political and 20 per cent military’. Mao’s innovation was to figure out what to fill that 80 per cent with: industrial scale political subversion by which he was able to harness the latent power of an aggrieved population to the wagon of political change, to whit the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War which ended with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This ‘Maoist prototype’ of insurgency was subsequently adopted and adapted widely by various revolutionaries in the course of the myriad ‘wars of national liberation’ which wracked the decolonizing world from the 1940s through to the beginning of the 1970s. Western countries, most notably Britain, in turn, developed techniques of defeating Maoism which were laid down in doctrine and in quasi-doctrinal works such as those of Thompson, Galula, and Kitson. Though unevenly applied in practice and repeatedly forgotten by the major armies of the world, there exists a well-developed body of theory informed by practice for defeating Maoism. The celebrated US Army/Marine Corps field manual FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency represents something of an apotheosis of this genre.
The problem is that what we now face in the form of ‘global insurgency’ is not Maoism but Post-Maoism—a form of insurgency which differs significantly from that which preceded it. We have, in essence, been searching for the right tool to defeat today’s most virulent insurgency in the wrong conceptual tool box. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable truth to be laid out in this book; another worrying one is that the security interests of Western Europe differ markedly from those of the United States—because the threat in the former emerges from their own undigested Muslim minorities which are alienated further by their involvement in expeditionary campaigns which, arguably at least, serve the needs of the latter well enough. But there are many other useful observations in the book which, perforce, in the interests of time and space I shall aggregate and summarize them into just two for the purposes of this review.
The first of these is that whereas the study of insurgency and counterinsurgency has been static and repetitive for decades, meticulously combing through the same campaigns—Malaya, Vietnam and Algeria, for the most part—and, more or less, coming up with the same conclusions, the practice of insurgency has not; it is constantly changing and therefore what worked to defeat it in the past may not necessarily work again. The second is that insurgency naturally reflects the society from which it emerges. Insurgents exploit the features of whatever terrain that is available to them in order to offset the gross disproportion of their military strength as opposed to that of the government and its security forces which they oppose. If what’s available is steaming jungle then it is beneath its leaf-thatched and leach-infested canopy that they will make their encampments; if it is trackless desert then like Lawrence of Arabia it is in that vastness that they will lose themselves; similarly, if it is dense urban conglomeration that defines their territory than they will hide in plain sight in the anonymous multitude; and if, as Mackinlay argues, their milieu is the increasingly globally networked and borderless human society that will mean that it is the ‘virtual territories of the mind’ that they will seek to exploit. This is not so much true of the counterinsurgent, however, because the counterinsurgent possesses infinitely more baggage—a fact which was apprehended so clearly and presciently by C.E. Callwell a hundred years ago when he observed that the fundamental asymmetry between insurgency and counterinsurgency lies in the fact that, while tactics favour the regular army, strategy favours the irregular. Insurgency naturally reflects the society from which it emerges; counterinsurgency, by contrast, must consciously laboriously adapt structure, organization, and mindset to the realities of the new environment. If the insurgent is the proverbial ‘fish’ swimming amongst the sea of the people, as Mao put it, the counterinsurgent tends to be the metaphorical fish out of water.
This is not a book to be agreed with a priori; Mackinlay has a story to tell—albeit a carefully constructed one informed by a lifetime of study—but a story nonetheless which he invites the reader to come along with. Not all readers will or necessarily should. Rather this is a book to be challenged by, to consider carefully and deliberately, and to debate. I myself who have good reason to agree with most of it cannot bring myself to agree with all of it. Mackinlay, for instance, identifies Propaganda of the Deed as the essence of the global insurgent’s concept of operations. He maintains that it is solely a tool of the insurgent and not one available to the counterinsurgent. I personally am not ready to concede that point—though to Mackinlay’s credit I have not a better theory yet. I am, instead, simply reminded of Galula’s famous injunction about the asymmetry of insurgent and counterinsurgent propaganda:
The insurgent, having no responsibility, is free to use every trick […] Consequently, propaganda is a powerful weapon for him […] The counterinsurgent is tied to his responsibilities and to his past, and for him, facts speak louder than words […] For him, propaganda can be no more than a secondary weapon, valuable only if intended to inform and not to fool. 
There is much wisdom in what Galula says in general but this passage in particular represents one of the most fundamental and widespread theoretical mistake in the entire literature. Facts speak louder than words for both sides; both sides strive to shape the information environment in part through harnessing the media; in crude terms, the job of the counterinsurgent propagandist is to make the insurgents stand up for their actions.
But this is also why the book is to be treasured for what Mackinlay does, unusually for this literature, is say something new. With The Insurgent Archipelago he has planted a flag on new territory which others may explore too, to contest or to confirm. His theory is complete and clearly articulated and sorely needed. It deserves to be apprehended by all those whose task it is to defeat the challenges posed to the post-industrial West by global insurgency. Looking for the cutting edge of theory on insurgency and counterinsurgency? Here it is.
 Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2006)..
 Compare this with Robert Asprey’s two-volume 2000 plus pages War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2002) which says much less in almost ten times the length.
 See Peter Zarrow, China in War and Revolution, 1895–1949 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).
 See Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (St. Petersburg, FL: Hailer, 2005—originally published 1966); David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1964); and, Frank Kitson, Low-intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (London: Faber and Faber, 1971).
 United States Army and Marine Corps, FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
 On ‘global insurgency’ see David Kilcullen, ‘Countering Global Insurgency’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2005), 597–617, and by the same author The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (London: Hurst, 2009).
 There is little difference in the spirit or even the detail of the principles of counterinsurgency outlined by Thompson, Galula, or Kiston, noted above, or for that matter in Charles Gwynn’s Imperial Policing (London: Macmillan, 1934).
 C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (London: HMSO, 1906), 85.
 Galula, 14.
 See Neville Bolt and David Betz, Propaganda of the Deed 2008: Understanding the Phenomenon (London: RUSI, 2008).