Interest in counterinsurgency comes and goes. During the 1950s and 1960s, soldiers, politicians, and scholars wrote voluminously on what was sometimes called “revolutionary war,” a supposedly new mode of conflict that enabled nationalist and communist movements (and some combinations of the two) to thwart or even defeat seemingly stronger European colonial powers. The Vietnam War generated a rich literature on the topic, but attention waned with the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina and the American desire to avoid irregular warfare in the future. In recent years, however, hard experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have rekindled interest in the subject and caused even some experts to reconsider old ways of waging “the war of the flea.”

Guerrilla Strategies: An Historical Anthology From the Long March to Afghanistan. Edited by Gérard Chaliand. University of California Press, 1982.
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Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. Edited by Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian. Osprey Publishing, 2008.
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These two anthologies present a broad range of texts on the subject, from canonical treatments to less well-known offerings that are useful and relevant. Those who can read French would do well to consult the massively updated edition of Gérard Chaliand’s collection (Èditions Gallimard, 2008 -- somebody please translate it!), but even the 1982 English version is a superb assemblage of first-hand descriptions of guerrilla war by insurgent and counterinsurgent groups alike. Chaliand is a wise old war hound who began studying these matters in the field during the early 1960s, and he continues to do so today. Daniel Marston and Carter Makasian present what is essentially a companion volume, covering roughly the same period (the twentieth century) but relying on scholars more than participants or theoreticians. The editors contribute sober and thoughtful analyses of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, but the strength of this volume is its summary of important insurgencies, including such classic cases as Northern Ireland and the Palestinian intifadas.

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. By David Galula. Praeger Security International Academic Cloth, 2006.
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This is a short, powerful monograph written by a French officer with long experience in China, Greece, and Algeria, among other places. Even though it has been reprinted, it is remarkably hard to find, in part because it is one of the first books soldiers look to buy -- for good reason -- when they go off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The basics are all here, including a shrewdly balanced handling of the issue of hearts and minds: David Galula does not display the ruthlessness of other French counterinsurgents, but he is under no illusions about the ways in which all belligerents try to force the population at large to choose sides.

War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province. By Jeffrey Race. University of California Press, 1972.
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This is a careful, well-written book that bears out most of Galula’s conclusions. Jeffrey Race’s close study of insurgency in a single province of Vietnam has many virtues, but perhaps the most important is the in-depth treatment of why populations choose sides. It is a cliché, though true nevertheless, that in most revolutions only small minorities oppose or support a government, while the majority simply hopes to get by in chaotic and dangerous times. Race is particularly insightful on how conventional forces, seized with the desire to close with the enemy and destroy it, can fundamentally misunderstand the wars in which they are engaged and undermine the causes for which they are fighting.

Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq. By Peter R. Mansoor. Yale University Press, 2008.
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This is the best memoir by a tactical commander who has served in Iraq. A trained military historian who later served as executive officer to General David Petraeus, Peter Mansoor commanded the First Brigade of the First Armored Division in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He witnessed the transition from conventional to irregular warfare and conducted a brilliant expulsion of Muqtada al-Sadr’s extremists from one of the holiest cities in the Shia world, Karbala.

The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story. By Mohammed Yousaf and Mark Adkin. L. Cooper, 1992.
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Mohammed Yousaf is a former senior officer in the Pakistani intelligence services, and his book, written with Mark Adkin, gives an account of Pakistan’s support for -- and, in some ways, manipulation of -- the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It will set on edge the teeth of some of those in the CIA and elsewhere with whom Yousaf worked, but no matter: this valuable, if not always reliable, portrayal of how a less developed country can help run a lethal insurgency against a great power should occasion sober reflection.

The Battle of Algiers. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. 1967.
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Bloody Sunday. Directed by Paul Greengrass. 2002.
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These two movies get to the heart of the counterinsurgency dilemma. Gillo Pontecorvo’s cinematic treatment of the 1957 contest between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French military for control of the capitol of Algeria is remarkable in many ways. Pontecorvo sides with the FLN, but the fictional French commanding officer, Colonel Mathieu, also receives sympathetic treatment. Although the film was entirely staged, it has a newsreel quality to it, reinforced by the fact that many of the actors had in fact taken part in the events described, and it is chillingly realistic in its depiction of the use of terror by both sides. Paul Greengrass’ account of the 1972 shooting of Catholic protestors by the British army in Derry uses similar techniques (and casting) to portray the dynamics of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It, too, has a point of view, but somehow manages to depict all the players empathetically. If The Battle of Algiers makes too strong a claim that violence on both sides can be controlled, purposive, and effective, Bloody Sunday is more convincing in suggesting that in such settings violence can escalate for all kinds of reasons, with devastating and unforeseen consequences.

Small Wars Journal.

This Web site has become an extraordinary gathering place for today’s self-described “COIN community” -- a tight-knit group of military, think-tank, and academic types who study counterinsurgency issues with what might be considered obsessive interest. The articles are of uneven quality, but the resources here, including references and research links, are terrific.

  • ELIOT A. COHEN is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
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