A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (Yale Library of Military History)
Yale University Press, 2009
368 pp., $30.00
Reviewed by John J. Tierney, Jr
From the Top
The bulk of Moyar's book lies in chapters 2 through 10, in which he develops his thesis through a range of case studies. Most of these involve Americans in dual insurgent-counterinsurgent roles, but he also includes El Salvador, where the U.S. played an advisory role, and Malaya, a British operation. These case studies not only suggest the even wider array of insurgencies that have been waged throughout history but also bring out the essential importance of command in each of them, a point that Moyar has properly defined as neglected. In this respect Moyar is a true pioneer in a field whose importance for national security has been accepted only reluctantly and belatedly by the American public.
American history is, in fact, replete with insurgent operations, including the Revolution itself, the Civil War, and a number of overseas interventions largely forgotten by a post-Cold War generation. Moyar concentrates on U.S. actions in the Philippines during the 20th century and, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were, of course, many others, particularly in Central America and in the Caribbean, but Moyar's selections are both focused and relevant.
Space precludes a comprehensive account of each one of them, but a few selections should suffice. The Civil War offers some of the major aspects of the classic dichotomy between "good" and "bad" command. An example of the former would be General George Crook, who, in Moyar's words, "relied on decentralized command, leaving local commanders to decide how to fight the war in their areas." Crook "crushed the guerrillas in a portion of West Virginia by picking good officers and setting them loose in the countryside with no specific instructions on how to accomplish the mission of defeating the insurgents." In assessing "good" command Moyar is explicit in adhering to the qualities enumerated in his theoretical introduction.
By contrast, "bad" commanders in the Civil War, such as John C. Fremont and most of the "political generals," were incompetent, corrupt, clumsy, politically partisan, and stubborn. Many of them and their men looted and plundered civilian populations and forced many neutral civilians into the insurgent camp. Their efforts were worse than wasteful; they actually damaged the Union cause.
At the turn of the 20th century, Americans fought a long and costly counter-guerrilla campaign against insurgents in the Philippine Islands, who expected independence after the Spanish-American War. The insurrection was eventually defeated, but not until U.S. forces had learned—the hard way—that only an efficient, decentralized, and streamlined military leadership, sufficiently attuned to local cultures and aspirations, can prevail over imbedded insurgents.
Now we have repeated history in nearly a decade of experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Moyar's final two case studies provide excellent summaries of these campaigns, especially the blunders that cost thousands of lives until, true to historical experience, trial and error led to improved strategic and tactical missions. The future promises more of the same, but there may at least be one solace: now we have a vastly improved roadmap for guidance. All of which proves an adage attributed to Napoleon himself: "It was not the legions which crossed the Rubicon, but Caesar."
John J. Tierney, Jr., is Walter Kohler Professor of International Relations at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History (Potomac Books), and frequently delivers lectures on problems of counterinsurgency warfare at universities in the U.S. and abroad.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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