Arms and the Man

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen; War Since 1990 and War: A Short History by Jeremy Black

Books Defence History Iraq Literature Military War on Terror

Itis unusual to find a photo of the author with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, but then The Accidental Guerrilla is an unusually fine book by a very remarkable man.

For 20 years, Kilcullen was an officer in the Australian SAS, with combat experience in East Timor and periods as a counter-insurgency adviser in Indonesia and southern Thailand. His speciality is lone insertion to acquire deep anthropological background on what he dubs hybrid conflicts. In these, what Kilcullen calls international Islamist “heretics” (takfiri) merge with “accidental guerrillas”, engaged in essentially local conflicts, so as to provide the necessary cover from which to attack the West.

Such a background led to Kilcullen being invited to help write Australia’s counter-terrorism policy. He was then seconded to the US State Department as Condoleezza Rice’s special adviser on counter-insurgency, followed by his appointment as senior adviser to General David Petraeus. Kilcullen helped devise, and implement, the US “surge” to rectify the ill-effects of an invasion to which Kilcullen was emphatically opposed. Along with the US Army’s Colonel H. R. McMasters, whose brigade-level experiences at Tal Afar also impressed Petraeus, Kilcullen is probably one of the most influential soldier-intellectuals of our time.

The essential argument of this dense but always readable book is that “it is crystal clear that our traditional paradigms of industrial interstate war, elite-based diplomacy, and state-focused intelligence — the paradigms that were so shaken by 9/11 and the campaigns that followed it — can no longer explain the environment or provide conceptual keys to overcoming today’s threats of hybrid warfare and a transnational enemy exploiting local, accidental guerrillas.” Kilcullen has observed any number of traditional, tribal societies where men are prepared to jettison their hoes and rakes in order to make common cause with foreign jihadists, who, by embedding themselves through marriage, seem less alien than heavily armoured Western forces who resemble Martians, not to speak of central governments that often seem to be merely doing the Martians’ bidding. 

Kilcullen argues that, instead of heavy-handed Western intervention, the objective should be to give local people a sense of security and reliable justice, so that they expel the jihadists with their own boosted immune system rather than implement sharia. The experience of southern Thailand, where three ethnic Malay Muslim provinces have been waging a long insurgency against rule by Bangkok’s plenipotentiaries, is instructive. This local “population-centric” approach was also evident in the Anbar awakening in Iraq, where, with the encouragement of Kilcullen, some 95,000 Sunni tribesmen turned on the murderous al-Qaeda foreign fighters, after the latter insisted that religion trumped tribal custom, and that the local sheikhs, downgraded in favour of radical imams, should “give me your daughter” in marriage. This Sunni force was much larger and better wired into the local scene than the 7,000-10,000 extra combat troops, out of a total force of 30,000, whom the US inserted on the ground.

In addition to advocating picking apart the tenuous bonds that link local and transnational insurgents, Kilcullen is a firm believer in a very light Western boot-print in the Muslim world. He also argues that the West needs to rediscover the rich-picture approach that characterised the Office of Strategic Services in the Second World War. It is striking that this former SAS soldier warns against fetishising special forces as a sort of silver bullet against insurgents, lest they become like the “cosseted elites” that cavalry generals sought to protect in the First World War. One hopes that Donald Rumsfeld is reading this somewhere.

Compared with Kilcullen’s thoughtful analysis of half-a-dozen well-chosen cases from countries in which he has served, the British academic Jeremy Black’s War Since 1990 reads like a frenetic gallop through hundreds of conflicts which easily blur into one sanguinary vista. This encyclopaedic mania almost obscures the points Black seeks to make, namely that Western military doctrine has been too obsessed with the salvific power of revolutionary technologies, and that Western military establishments need to appreciate the ways in which warfare is conducted in much of the non-Western world. 

This is rather like asking MacDonalds to incorporate awareness of the Italian “slow food” movement into its production process, though in fact it is something one imagines the US military do anyway with simulacra of Afghan compounds in Louisiana clearings. To this, Black somewhat awkwardly attaches his plea for more teaching of military history, which he feels is being excluded by Ivy League universities, even though the public can never get enough of it. A detached observer might argue that knowing all about the history of the Northern Ireland conflict has been less than helpful to the British Army’s conduct of operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least from the perspective of the Americans who have had to clean up our mess.

The same author’s War: A Short History is a much more successful enterprise in which he ranges effortlessly from about 35,000 BC to the present in under 200 pages. He is sceptical, throughout, about the terms and trends other academics get excited about — notably the putative early modern military “revolution” — and is impressively learned about warfare in 17th and 18th century China. Black feels that military history “often lacks intellectual sophistication”. His own brief account of war through the ages is therefore an elegantly written and salutary corrective.