Galula in Algeria by Grégor Mathias: A Foreword

Grégor Mathias has recently published a groundbreaking book examining David Galula’s operations in Algeria. The book, aptly titled Galula in Algeria: Counterinsurgency Practice versus Theory, is based on careful archival research and previously untapped sources describing Galula’s own experience with counterinsurgency. Given that much of today’s counterinsurgency theory is based on Galula’s own writing, the task of assessing his approach to these types of operations seems long overdue.

This gap has been amply filled by Grégor Mathias – a researcher at the Service Historique de la Défense and professor at the Collège Foch – Haguenau in France. The book has already attracted some attention over at Small Wars Journal (thanks to Mike Few) and is sure to fall on fertile ground both among counterinsurgency proponents and detractors.

Given the above, I was honoured when I was asked to write a foreword for this new volume. Available as of late October, the book’s publishers have now agreed to feature its foreword here on Kings of War – to trigger a discussion about the book, about Galula as a commander, and about what his record says about the counterinsurgency principles we have inherited from him.

The foreword follows…. and you can buy the book itself here.

Foreword to Grégor Mathias, Galula in Algeria: Counterinsurgency Practice versus Theory (Praeger & ABC-Clio, 2011), 143p.
by David H. Ucko

Mark Twain apparently quipped that while the past does not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. So, thirty years after it had left the jungles of Vietnam and forgot all about insurgency, the US military again faced the same problem, though in Iraq this time, following its invasion of the country in 2003. Counterinsurgency had been under-researched if not deliberately neglected between these two wars, so it was only natural that when it came to studying and learning about this concept many officers and scholars would turn to the 1950s and 1960s for advice. For better and for worse, insights were drawn from Vietnam and made to apply to the war in Iraq, though notable attention was also given to other countries’ experiences with these types of campaigns: the British in Malaya; the French in Algeria.

This intellectual re-discovery of counterinsurgency elevated an unlikely group of experts, mostly forgotten since their heyday of the 1960s. Foremost among this group stood David Galula, a French military officer whose combat experience in Algeria and writings on counterinsurgency were viewed as particularly instructive to understanding the challenges of modern counterinsurgency. When doctrine writers from the US Army and Marine Corps got together to write their new counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006, David Galula’s influence was evident, not least because his Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice was one of three works cited in the field manual’s final preface.

To those in the US military seeking to gain a better understanding of counterinsurgency, Galula offered an accessible guide to the difficulties and dilemmas typical of these campaigns. From his experience in Algeria he derived and illustrated various counterinsurgency principles that have not only been found to apply elsewhere, but were now picked up on and reiterated in the most recent of doctrine. These touch upon the importance of achieving a nuanced political understanding of the campaign, operating under unified command, using intelligence to guide operations, isolating insurgents from the population, using the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve security, and assuring and maintaining the perceived legitimacy of the counterinsurgency effort in the eyes of the populace. Galula’s writings offered a clear illustration of how these time-tested principles could be implemented based on his own experience in Algeria.

Counterinsurgency Warfare soon earned the reputation of a classic in the field, though it would be fair to say that far more people had heard of the book than actually studied it; indeed, it is another of Mark Twain’s sayings that a classic is a ‘book which people praise and don’t read’. Far less attention still has been paid to Galula’s own life and practical record as a counterinsurgent, of which little is known besides that which he himself shared in his books. The result of this curious neglect has been a tendency toward hagiography in much of the writing on Galula, underpinned by a fundamental uncertainty of how this maverick officer himself handled the problem of insurgency in his day.

This is where Grégor Mathias steps in, providing us with a carefully researched, densely packed and in many ways unique account of David Galula’s own practical experience with counterinsurgency. The picture that emerges is of a remarkable and intellectually hungry French officer; a polyglot; a traveller; explorer; and keen learner. His most formative experience with counterinsurgency was his command of a French company in the Djebel Aïssa Mimoun subdistrict of Kabylia, Algeria, in 1956-57, though as Mathias makes clear, much of what he later taught derived equally from his time as a military attaché in China during the civil war, as a member of the UN commission in Greece during its civil war, and from his visits to Indochina and the Philippines, where he observed ongoing counterinsurgencies without himself participating.

It is said that it is a curse to live in interesting times, yet Galula appears to have taken this fate in his stride. Indeed, his international exposure and encounters not only help explain his fine grasp of political violence, but also provide a fascinating narrative intertwined with major historical events. Still, perhaps this book’s greatest service to counterinsurgency scholars today is to provide a more comprehensive account of how Galula fared when seeking to put into practice the very theory for which he is now so famous.

It soon emerges that even for Galula, it was far easier to derive principles from ongoing campaigns than to make sure they were properly implemented. Indeed, Mathias’ account reveals a company commander grappling with many of the same dilemmas facing today’s military leaders – in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. While Galula was comparatively successful as a commander, his time in Algeria clearly shows the limited ability of an outside force to exert legitimate influence and pressure on a local population. It also shows the difficulty of honouring the principle of civil-military unity of command when there are tangible differences in priority and approach between these two sets of actors. Like many commanders today, Galula struggled with troop shortages, wrestled with a domestic press unconvinced of his operational gains, and outright stumbled in the delicate transition from French to Algerian control and governance. Not all of Galula’s setbacks can be placed at his own doormat: after all, a company commander can only wield so much control. Even so, perhaps one of the more interesting insights in Mathias’ account regards the difficulties of determining ‘success’ in counterinsurgency campaigns and the related tendency, one certainly shared by Galula, for unwarranted optimism in the face of short-term gains.

If Galula’s own record mirrors many of the frustrations felt by today’s commanders, does he nonetheless merit the reputation and influence that he has now earned, posthumously? Certainly. His writing offers one of the most lucid and accessible treaties on counterinsurgency, helpful to any student and practitioner seeking to understand the difficult dilemmas common to these campaigns. His principles, while difficult to implement, nonetheless provide a foundation upon which to base action. That Galula’s own record as a counterinsurgent is more mixed should not surprise, but rather act as a helpful reminder that this form of warfare is never easy, but rather ‘messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife’.[1] Arguably, it is precisely because Galula struggled with the same challenges that we see today that makes his record and his writings so relevant.

For this reason, Mathias’ account is also a helpful corrective to some of the overblown and under-researched portrayals of Galula in recent years. Neither Galula’s writings, nor his experience in Algeria, were ever going to provide us with the right answers, but rather help us ask the right questions. As Mathias persuasively shows in this book, there is no master-key to these types of operations and Galula’s principles provide no checklist for success. This is something the French counterinsurgency expert would no doubt have agreed with: counterinsurgency, he noted, ‘may be sound in theory but dangerous when applied rigidly to a specific case’. (96)

All of this – Galula’s mixed record and his tentativeness in proposing his concept – should instill a much-needed measure of humility about what is possible in counterinsurgency operations, and through military intervention writ large.  For this very reason, it is incumbent on those militaries with expeditionary ambitions to study the history of their intellectual forefathers, to learn from their experiences, and try not to repeat their mistakes.

[1] T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Ware, Herfordshire: Wordworth, 1997), p. 182


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