In This Review

Nonstate Warfare: The Military Methods of Guerrillas, Warlords, and Militias
Nonstate Warfare: The Military Methods of Guerrillas, Warlords, and Militias
By Stephen Biddle
Princeton University Press, 2021, 464 pp.
Airpower in the War Against ISIS
Airpower in the War Against ISIS
By Benjamin S. Lambeth
Naval Institute Press, 2021, 352 pp.

Two books raise awkward questions about whether the United States truly understands the military challenges it faces. In an important and innovative analysis, Biddle takes issue with what he sees as a lazy distinction between the regular military strategy of states and the guerrilla techniques of nonstate actors. He sees instead a spectrum of methods, with those intended for decisive battle at one end and those intended to help avoid battle at the other. Most actors seek the strategy best suited to their capabilities that is somewhere between these two extremes. Biddle looks at five campaigns waged by nonstate actors in Croatia, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and Vietnam. His analysis leads to the argument that the best U.S. force posture for the future may well resemble those of the past, with more dismounted infantry than one would assume would be needed for a high-tech force and with more armor and artillery than one would think for a low-tech force. 

Lambeth’s sharp, authoritative account of the role of airpower in the recent war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, points to the danger of holding stereotypical views of an enemy. Supported by numerous interviews with commanders and pilots, Lambeth’s argument includes many criticisms of senior civilian and military policymakers. The most substantial one is that the U.S. campaign against isis was a case of too little, too late. President Barack Obama was reluctant to authorize military action; by the time he changed course, in 2014, ISIS was already rampaging through Iraq and Syria. Lambeth also complains that American policymakers and the U.S. military saw ISIS as an insurgent group, when they should have recognized that this new enemy was a quasi state, with its own command-and-control network and the makings of a conventional army. U.S. officials eventually realized that they were facing a very different kind of enemy and belatedly relaxed the rules of engagement to accelerate the pace of the air war that would help defeat ISIS.