The Insurgents; War From the Ground Up; Blowtorch

In This Review

The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
By Fred Kaplan
Simon & Schuster, 2013
432 pp. $28.00
War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics
By Emile Simpson
An Oxford University Press Publication, 2012
256 pp. $32.50
Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam, and American Cold War Strategy
By Frank Leith Jones
Naval Institute Press, 2013
416 pp. $52.95

Much has already been written about the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq, which led to a marked improvement in the country’s security situation. A good deal of the attention has gone to General David Petraeus’ role in shaping the strategy, which was the culmination of an insurgency of sorts within the U.S. Army. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the army had developed an institutional allergy to counterinsurgency (or COIN), since it was considered to be something “other than war” and therefore not worthy of the army’s attention. The story of how Petraeus’ “COINdinistas” overcame that aversion to their thinking and changed army doctrine and practice is already familiar. But Kaplan has a gift for bringing to life what might otherwise seem like arcane strategic debates by linking them to the personalities and biographies of the main participants, and he vividly captures the drama of Petraeus’ struggle against a Pentagon establishment that Kaplan portrays as delusional and myopic. 

The COINdinistas come across as smarter than their rivals in the military bureaucracy -- but this is also a tale of hubris. Buoyed by their relative success in Iraq, Petraeus and his allies believed that the surge there offered a model for Afghanistan, despite being well aware that the two situations were very different. But the Afghan surge, which President Barack Obama announced in late 2009, did not lead to a decisive breakthrough, partly because its key architects were unable to see the policy through to its conclusion. General Stanley McChrystal, a late but zealous convert to COIN, took command of the international forces in Afghanistan in 2009 but retired the following year after Rolling Stone published critical comments he and his staffers had made about Obama and his administration. Petraeus took McChrystal’s post briefly but soon left the army to become the director of the CIA -- only to resign last year after it emerged that he had engaged in an extramarital affair.

It is hard to know whether the Afghan surge would have been more successful had either of those men remained involved. But their departures surely did not make it any easier for the rank and file to carry out their mission. Their experiences on the ground in Afghanistan are detailed by Simpson, a young British officer. His book, however, is more than just a collection of anecdotes on the conduct of this particular counterinsurgency campaign: it is a disquisition on the meaning of contemporary warfare and the challenge of framing a coherent strategy that addresses the concerns of civilian populations and intervening governments alike. Drawing heavily on Clausewitz and other classical theorists, Simpson stresses the intermingling of force and politics at all levels. The result is an erudite and intelligent contribution to the literature on counterinsurgency. 

Recent counterinsurgencies might have exhausted the appetite of U.S. politicians and the American public for interventions that require substantial ground forces. Still, future campaigns of that sort cannot be ruled out. After all, in the wake of the Vietnam War, many predicted that no U.S. president would ever again commit to a counterinsurgency campaign; history conspired otherwise. And the Vietnam experience still exerts substantial influence on contemporary strategic thinking. Perhaps the most lasting insights come from the career of a civilian: Robert Komer, a National Security Council staffer in the Johnson administration. Komer was famed as a tough bureaucratic operator; his nickname, Blowtorch Bob, provides the title for Jones’ sympathetic biography. Komer was heavily involved in the “strategic hamlet” program in Vietnam, which aimed to separate Vietcong forces from the civilian population in the South. This role led to his association with the United States’ failure in Vietnam. But Jones makes a convincing argument that Komer was, in fact, a master strategist, able to put short-term issues in their wider context and think through the likely consequences of action. Komer eventually concluded that the basic problem in Vietnam was Washington’s inability to prod the South Vietnamese government to make sensible reforms that could have blunted the appeal of the Vietcong. 

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