Editor’s note: The author is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the U.S. government.
The Army hates intellectuals. It loves fighters – especially tank-drivers – and it’s wedded to an anachronistic way of thinking about war that gives primacy to high-intensity armored combat. The stinging failure of Vietnam drove a fundamentally conservative officer corps to ignore the messy, complicated, and borderline un-soldierly tasks essential to success in modern conflict. Were it not for the fearless struggle of a few unloved dissidents, the Army would remain manifestly unsuited for the “political wars” of the 21st-century.
That’s how the story goes, anyway, in Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.
In its basic outlines, the tale is as familiar to students of military thought as a folk motif to the anthropologist: Populated largely by the Colonel Blimps of an obsolete service branch, the stodgy, conservative, retrograde establishment resists the lessons of modernity, punishes dissidents, leads men to needless slaughter and armies to shocking failure, and must be saved from its errors by those it has cast aside—the intellectuals, the iconoclasts, the Young Turks who perceive war correctly. It’s a fine story, and one that’s particularly gratifying to Americans: suspicious as we are of military professionalism and forever anxious about civil-military relations, there’s something perversely soothing about a senior officer corps that can’t think for itself.
There’s a kernel of truth in this narrative, of course. Military conservatism did play a part in the disappointments in Crimea, the Transvaal, Flanders, the Ardennes, and Vietnam, and it doubtless contributed to the parlous condition of occupied Iraq. Institutional culture (and the mere physics of bureaucracy) can produce friction, slow the adoption of new ideas, and create strong incentives for conformity. Often it is only the force of will of a powerful and committed champion that enables reformist thinking to make a dent—even when the reformers are armed with the very best insights.
But the story of organizational adaptation – and that’s what The Insurgents is, for all its revolutionary vocabulary – is rarely so dramatic and personalized as Kaplan’s occasionally breathless claims would have you believe. A shift as dramatic and pervasive as the “COIN revolution” doesn’t emerge simply from the committed work of a few Big Idea People (even when one of them wears stars), but rather from the confluence of operational necessity, learned experience, and command priority. Most of the soldiers and Marines who were struggling to suppress violence and bolster host-nation governance had never heard of David Galula, but their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan had as much to do with the institutional military’s reorientation as did the theorizing of the “COINdinistas.” Whatever Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and General Ricardo Sanchez may have thought about irregular war, “the insurgents” were pushing an idea whose time had come.
Kaplan hints around this truth, seeming in places even to concede it. So many generals and senior officials are at one time or another listed among the “gets it” crowd that it’s difficult to see who might be left to counter this COINdinista “insurgency.” No fewer than five of the book’s minor heroes are said to have particularly enjoyed the same revolutionary warfare offering in West Point’s history department, and we’re made to understand that the whole of the light infantry and special operations communities have irregular predilections. But nothing casts more doubt on the heroic man-against-the-Army narrative than this basic fact: David Petraeus – Ranger School honor man, son-in-law of a West Point superintendent, aide and protégé to generals, and combat commander of perhaps the Army’s most storied formation – was the ultimate Army insider. And if indeed “the Army as an institution tended to scorn officers who stood out or were too bookish,” one wonders how Arabic-speaking Olmsted Scholar John Abizaid, University of Chicago history PhD Daniel Bolger, Yeats-quoting Martin Dempsey, and Chinese linguist and double-MA Karl Eikenberry ascended to such impressive heights.
The Insurgents is the sort of journalistic “current history” popularized by Bob Woodward and Tom Ricks and decidedly not a scholarly work, but Kaplan’s use of sources disappoints just the same. A more thorough investigation of the Army’s involvement in Vietnam and the institutional and doctrinal changes enacted since that war would benefit the reader, whose understanding will surely suffer from the author’s unquestioning regurgitation of the contentious arguments in Andrew Krepinevich’s and John Nagl’s highly critical (and extremely flawed) books on the subject. Kaplan does well to note the “war of information” waged by Petraeus and friends against potential critics, but he cedes what may be the most important ground in that war: the writing of history.
A number of minor errors will distract the careful reader (the 4,000-soldier 101st Airborne Division?), but these flubs are of little consequence to the broader message of the book. More importantly, what are we to make of an analysis so dependent on the unexamined conclusion that senior military leaders prioritized organizational preferences over success in war? Kaplan repeatedly alleges that irregular conflicts were “not the kind of war the Army wanted to fight,” which may well be true (to the extent that the Army has a collective will); to imply then that the Army refused to prepare for them primarily as a matter of preference is tendentious and wrong. Surely a more even-handed consideration of the facts would address both the controlling influence of policy and, within the Army, legitimate differences in judgment about how best to accomplish the mission—not just some inane and ahistorical longing for big tank battles.
The book shines when it most resembles long-form journalism: the chapters that deal with the drafting of FM 3-24, which are comprehensive and well-reported—long on factual narrative and short on judgment. Most of the names in Petraeus’s “cabal” will be familiar to close observers of the last decade’s counterinsurgency debate – Con Crane, David Kilcullen, Michael Meese, “Gunner” Sepp – but the author highlights the role of obscure officers and bureaucrats alongside those of Leavenworth’s “Jedi Knights,” providing fascinating color on people who didn’t show up in the newspaper. The Insurgents’ best moments come when Kaplan introduces the supporting cast: the 101st’s division planner in Mosul, a helicopter pilot and Cornell PhD whose dissertation focused on security assistance reform; the Pentagon official whose responsibility for the Quadrennial Defense Review prompts a crash course in stability operations; a Special Forces officer who, when called upon to write the first draft of the COIN manual in 2004, has to ask his boss for an insurgency reading list. A more narrowly-scoped chronicle of the development of COIN doctrine would have capitalized on the strength of Kaplan’s reporting – his eye for compelling detail – while avoiding the sorts of broad judgments and unfair generalizations that tarnish The Insurgents.
But in the end, Kaplan’s book is too dependent on the tale told by “the insurgents” and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy “friends of Petraeus.” The disinterested student of this period’s history will likely have to wait until our current wars – and the careers of those who wage them – have wound down before an appropriately thorough treatment appears.