How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam ; Democracies and Small Wars

In This Review

How Democracies Lose Small Wars: State, Society, and the Failures of France in Algeria, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam

By Gil Merom
Cambridge University Press, 2003
310 pp. $65.00
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Democracies and Small Wars

By Efraim Inbar
Frank Cass, 2003
225 pp. $79.95
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According to both books, small wars are distinguished not by their size but by their asymmetry; they pit guerrilla insurgents against a democracy's regular forces. Most of Merom's account consists of case studies of two failed campaigns: French efforts to hold on to Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s and the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982. Merom explores the role of the media and the intelligentsia in challenging campaigns, as well as the implications for democracies of brutal methods and many casualties. In an interesting early chapter, he also demonstrates that states that are prepared to use brutal methods can usually succeed in suppressing insurgencies, whether it means annihilating the opposing population or "decapitating" the opposing force. Merom posits that the rise of an educated middle class thus restricts the use of such methods -- a theory not quite supported by the more interesting case studies.

The full range of considerations affecting small wars comes out in Inbar's collection, which also has the Israeli experience in mind (although Greek, Turkish, and Irish cases are also examined). One key determinant is the ability of insurgents to recognize the opportunities presented by democratic debate -- understood well by the Irish Republican Army but less so by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Greek Communist Party. Avi Kober raises another key question: whether new, more precise technologies will enable counterinsurgent campaigns to avoid the collateral damage that democracies find so troublesome. For the United States, this may require, as noted by Thomas Mahnken and now discovered in Iraq, more competence in nation-building and less reliance on "fire-power intensive strategies."