Cover image of 'The Insurgents  David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War'

The Insurgents – David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War

by Fred Kaplan
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013
418 pages, $32.00

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Reviewed by Alain Cohen

Thirty years after chronicling the development of US nuclear strategy in The Wizards of Armageddon, Fred Kaplan has published a gripping tale about the makers of the latest revolution in warfare. This is the story of the ‘COINdinistas,’ the rebellious vanguard of officers and civilians who steered the US military towards adopting a different method of fighting their asymmetrical enemies.

In other words, The Insurgents is the story of the wizards of less than Armageddon.

The story of how the US military was unstuck from its conventional mindset over the last decade of war begins with John Nagl, an Armored Cavalry officer who had fought in Desert Storm and then gone to Oxford to obtain his PhD. His dissertation, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, compared the US Army’s campaign in Vietnam to the British Army’s in Malaya, on the premise that failure in the first case, and success in the second, was predicated upon each army’s ability to learn and to adapt. Given Nagl’s junior rank and age, he is cast as the unlikely agent provocateur at the center of the struggle to transform the US military into a ‘Learning Organization.’

A triumvirate of revolutionary officers—mentors and protégés—emerges from Mr. Kaplan’s book through the stories of Generals John Galvin, David Petraeus and Lieutenant-Colonel Nagl. All are spawned from WestPoint’s elitist incubator of critical thinking, the Social Sciences Department. (From within it, added to this bold trio of soldier-scholars are a cast of characters familiar to the observer of military affairs: Influential generals like Pete Chiarelli, Jack Keane, Ray Odierno and H.R. McMaster; military advisors like Kalev Sepp and David Kilcullen; and academics like Conrad Crane, Sarah Sewall, and Fred Kagan.)

The Insurgents is written in clear and rapid prose. Mr. Kaplan provides a digestible overview of the development of counterinsurgency doctrine culminating in a joint US Army and Marine Corps field manual (FM 3-24). As can be expected from an author-analyst of Mr. Kaplan’s caliber—the Slate Magazine columnist holds a PhD from MIT—the text is insightful and highly informative. Perhaps most interesting are the ‘golden nuggets’ that his research provides, such as the following long lost observation a clairvoyant David Petraeus had made in a 1986 article: “We in the military…tend to invent for ourselves a comfortable vision of war…one that fits our plans, our assumptions, our hopes, and our preconceived ideas. We arrange in our minds a war we can comprehend on our own terms, usually with an enemy who looks like us and acts like us.”

Much of the book is devoted to chronicling the chain of blunders that led up to and followed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. While offering fresh insights, Mr. Kaplan follows a similar narrative to the excellent works by veteran journalist Tom Ricks (Fiasco and The Gamble) and by Greg Jaffe and David Cloud (The Fourth Star). In some ways, Mr. Kaplan has written a sequel to these, critically describing the Stanley McChrystal and Petraeus years in command in Afghanistan from 2009 through 2011.

Despite the book’s subtitle, General Petraeus is not the centerpiece of Mr. Kaplan’s work. The analysis of the general’s time in Afghanistan is facile at times. The author seems intent upon finding the fundamental flaw, the big contradiction, to NATO’s approach in the Kingdom of Insolence, despite being a firm believer in the theory underpinning the counterinsurgency doctrine employed by McChrystal and Petraeus. The main flaw in Mr. Kaplan’s final analysis is structural. Despite his understanding of the distinctions between policy, doctrine, and strategy, these seem to be deliberately confounded at times to set the stage for critique. The result is a condemnation of counterinsurgency doctrine on the basis of errors in policy and strategy.

Mr. Kaplan ‘holds his biggest punches’ until the very final chapter. His main argument against the employment of counterinsurgency doctrine is that the intellectual revolution overextended itself, turning the doctrine into a dogma that was blindly and sometimes irresponsibly applied. Regrettably, however, Mr. Kaplan only skims some of the important issues that must be dealt with in a work of this scope. He does not challenge, for instance, the artificially dichotomized distinction between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Nevertheless, Mr. Kaplan gets many of the big ideas right. After years of hard slugging, he comments, “…the American Army had evolved into a different institution. It was more flexible, more adaptive; it was, in John Nagl’s phrase, a ‘learning organization.’”

The timeliness of Mr. Kaplan’s book cannot be overemphasized. As the US Army and Marine Corps prepare to issue a revised edition of FM 3-24, one hopes that it will be further refined to make clear that waging a counterinsurgency campaign is not a guarantor of victory, but only an enabler of statecraft, affording time and space for politico-economic progress to take place within the security bubble it provides, albeit at a high price.

Current events demonstrate that the resurgence of small wars by proxy in a multi-polar environment is at least as likely to occur as force-on-force clashes. Special Forces and conventional expeditionary forces ought to be prepared to accomplish a full-spectrum of missions—from diplomacy-driven advisory roles to rapid interventions in support or in defiance of teetering regimes. Hence, a relevant counterinsurgency doctrine will remain one important tool amongst others in a military toolbox that will continue to see use even in the wake of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

A 1983 Foreign Affairs review of Mr. Kaplan’s first major publication, The Wizards of Armageddon, notes: “The story of the remarkable civilians who developed the novel field of nuclear strategy…is told admirably well. Even those who are familiar with this story will find fascinating new details here… An absorbing work which is more scholarly and less sensational than the title implies.” This time around, The Insurgents has the merit of being equally absorbing, but no more scholarly than and just as sensational as its title implies. (That is not a bad thing.) Whether you agree with some or all of Mr. Kaplan’s objections to the latest revolution in warfare, this book will make you think.

Major A.A. Cohen is a Reserve Force infantry officer with the Fusiliers Mont-Royal in Montréal. He is the author of Galula (Praeger, New York, 2012).