Forgotten Founder: The French colonel who wrote the book(s) on counterinsurgency


Who was David Galula?

This question must have occurred to many readers of the new U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual. In the near panic to understand the Iraq insurgency, FM 3-24 was downloaded 1.5 million times just in its first month after being posted on military websites in 2006.

“Of the many books that were influential in the writing of Field Manual 3-24,” say its coauthors, “perhaps none was as important as David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare.”

American officers about to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq scrambled to find out who this Galula was, and why the FM 3-24 authors–Gen. David Petraeus and Col. Conrad Crane and Lt. Col. John Nagl–thought he was so important. But almost no biographical information was available.

When I began to research Galula’s life, first casually and then with a biography in mind, I discovered that he’d been prominent enough in his short lifetime to earn an obituary in the New York Times (“David Galula, 48, French Army Aide”). He had attracted the support of one of the most powerful and celebrated advocates of counterinsurgency in his day, Gen. Edward Lansdale, who wrote in 1962 that he hoped Galula would “write the book which he long ago promised me he would write, about Mao’s revolutionary warfare in practice.”

Then, as I learned more about the beginnings of counterinsurgency theory in the 1950s and ’60s, I realized that Galula was not a solitary visionary but the most articulate of a large number of military men who had been part of a nearly forgotten movement. While the stereotype is that Americans learned about the importance of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, but promptly forgot it afterwards, the reverse is closer to the truth.

There was an ample literature on counterinsurgency theory–COIN, in military parlance–by 1965. In fact, a long stream of books in English on counterinsurgency began in 1958 with Lederer and Burdick’s bestselling novel, The Ugly American, which urged the study of Mao and unconventional warfare. A favorite of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who had leapt on the COIN bandwagon and hoped to reform the American military to fight new kinds of wars, The Ugly American contained a sympathetic character based on Lansdale.

In 1962, The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him, a compilation of articles from a special issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, was published with a foreward from President Kennedy. In 1965 journalist Robert Taber published the left-slanted The War of the Flea. (The entire first printing of Taber was bought up by the American military and became required reading for Special Forces officers.) The British general Sir Robert Thompson, well known as a counterinsurgency guru in Malaya in the 1950s, published Defeating Communist Insurgency in 1966.

The recently deceased military historian Stephen Bowman has noted that, in 1963, “The Special Operations Research Office, under contract to the Army, published A Counterinsurgency Bibliography which contained 965 different sources concerned with counterinsurgency.” And especially during the Kennedy presidency, COIN was fashionable in intellectual circles. There were powerful men in the Army and the State Department who understood and applied COIN in the early days of American involvement in South Vietnam. In fact, Galula would never have penetrated as close as he did to the heart of the American military establishment had he been advocating something unknown or disturbing: His near-vanishing from the historical record is more a matter of bad luck than historical injustice.
Galula wrote two books, more or less at the same time, in 1962-3. The book referred to in FM 3-24 and taught in the war colleges today is Counterinsurgency Warfare, written when he was a research associate at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Almost completely theoretical, it aims to establish “the laws of counterrevolutionary warfare.” Published in 1964 by Praeger, which released perhaps a dozen other volumes on counterinsurgency around this time, it received a small flutter of attention.

Galula’s book was cited as “the ‘how-to’ book in the field–and the best of them all” by the French Indochina expert Bernard Fall in his 1964 Street Without Joy. In February 1964 the New York Times gave Galula a brief review, along with Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare, but the reviewer praised the reactionary Trinquier and granted Galula only a grudging sentence. In May 1964, the American journalist Eric Larrabee mentioned Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare in a round-up article for Harper’s entitled “Books on Guerrilla Warfare–Fifteen Years Overdue.” In those days counterinsurgency (also called “revolutionary warfare” or “guerrilla warfare”) was a topic which an educated person might be expected to follow.

Galula’s other book, Pacification in Algeria 1956-1958, arrived nearly stillborn, classified as “confidential” when it was written as a 1962 report for RAND. At the time, Algeria was in turmoil and some of the commanders he referred to were active in the OAS, the rightwing French terrorist organization, which may explain the classification. Just a few hundred copies seem to have been published, and the work couldn’t be cited in unclassified literature. The only citation of it which I have seen was in a formerly classified USAID study from September 25, 1967, located by the young French scholar Elie Tenenbaum.

Counterinsurgency Warfare was never lost to the world. It likely had a minor influence on American thinking about Vietnam. Tenenbaum has also located a March 1968 proposal sent by Ambassador-at-large Henry Cabot Lodge to President Lyndon Johnson for replacing “search and destroy” missions in Vietnam by “house by house” policing, “much as was done by Gen. Massu in Algiers and which is set forth in Galula’s book Counterinsurgency Warfare.” As Tenenbaum notes, three months later Johnson relieved Gen. William Westmoreland, replacing him with Gen. Creighton Abrams, who put an end to the “search and destroy” operations Lodge criticized.

Military intellectuals cited Counterinsurgency Warfare regularly in bibliographies in the 1980s and ’90s–that’s how the authors of FM 3-24 came to read it in their own student days–but it eventually went out of print, and was republished only through a complex chain of recent events in which the journalist/military historian Thomas Ricks played a major role.

Nor was COIN theory ever wholly forgotten. In his 1982 Duke master’s thesis, Stephen Bowman writes that the term “counterinsurgency,” when mentioned to an officer in the Army, “arouses little curiosity or excitement. But counterinsurgency is an accepted doctrinal mission of the U.S. Army.” Bowman would later teach at West Point and head the military history department at the Army War College. His brilliant thesis is cited by Andrew Krepinevich in The Army and Vietnam (1986), a masterly and influential indictment of the Army’s failure to use COIN. Yet while Krepinevich’s view has become accepted wisdom, Bowman’s more nuanced assessment has been ignored.

One reason may be that Krepinevich satisfied a need for the Army to beat up on itself after Vietnam. Recently, some military intellectuals have begun to challenge this picture, and the most outspoken is the head of the military history department at West Point, Col. Gian Gentile. He and others have suggested that COIN was not appropriate for all phases of the Vietnam war, and, worse, the fashionable emphasis on COIN is producing just as stifling an intellectual conformity today as the preference for “massive retaliation” did in the 1950s.

This is the last thing Galula would have wanted. If there is anything to take away from his two books, it is the rigor, analytical sophistication, and capacity for self-criticism that he brought to his task. But rest assured, reading Galula is a pleasure, not a duty: He is a beautiful writer–in his second or third language, no less–and both his books are worth perusing. Counterinsurgency Warfare explains how insurgent movements work and the strategy for combating them; Pacification in Algeria is about day-to-day tactics and grand strategy and politics, and is probably of greater interest to the general reader.

Though somewhat fragmentary, Pacification is almost novelistic in its detail, and the only book on counterinsurgency that rises to the level of tragedy. It suggests that counterinsurgency is a long, difficult, perilously personality-dependent slog–the very opposite of a simple formula. (Galula notes that the two officers who replaced him in his command at Djebel Aissa Mimoun in Algeria were quickly shot dead, as his predecessor had been.)

His strategy focused on providing security to the people, not on chasing the guerrillas who harassed them, and his approach became known in military circles as “population-centric.” On a tactical level, the innovation that recommended Galula to the American military was deliberately placing small numbers of soldiers among the people they were protecting while simultaneously using these troops to lead public-works projects. Galula is probably the first person to write about how to do this, though not the first modern commander to practice it. (The Marines had worked with local security forces in villages in the Dominican Republic during 1916-22 in a program that was copied successfully in Vietnam as “Combined Action Platoons,” or CAPs.)

To American military intellectuals, Galula’s practices were a revelation. In Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops had been living on large, highly protected Forward Operating Bases. They would patrol in the villages and cities where people lived, but vanish at night into the FOBs–a practice General Petraeus has criticized as “commuting to work.” The U.S. Army, concerned with the progress of the counterinsurgency in Iraq, embraced Galula’s “population-centric” insights wholeheartedly–and his radical tactics somewhat less wholeheartedly. Even three years after the publication of FM 3-24, it’s impossible to find Galula’s two books available for sale online for much below their list price.

But while Galula has become more famous in death than he ever was in his lifetime, his life is still unknown. It is fascinating in its own right, still more so for the light it sheds on the development of COIN theory in the crucibles of the Chinese revolution and the French struggles in Indochina and Algeria.

I was lucky enough to make contact with David Galula’s widow, Ruth Morgan Galula. Now in her late eighties, she is quick, funny, sophisticated, and has an astonishingly good memory for the details of her husband’s life.

Little in Galula’s early life suggests that he would become a major military theoretician, least of all in the English language. He was born in 1919 to a prominent Jewish clan in Sfax, Tunisia, the sixth of seven children and the only boy. The family was secular and worldly, but his parents were first cousins through their mothers, a common occurrence among Sephardic Jews. In 1924 his father, Albert Galula, obtained French citizenship for himself and his children, including David–something that was never automatic for Tunisians.

After a business partnership with his brother-in-law went bankrupt, Albert moved his family to Casablanca. David attended the Lycée Lyautey, one of the best French overseas lycées, named for the general who pacified Morocco. Young Galula preferred to play hooky, going riding or swimming. In his teens he became interested in the French military: One of his maternal aunts had married an army officer, and David became fascinated with the idea of attending Saint-Cyr and following in his footsteps.

Galula graduated from Saint-Cyr in 1939, and by the following June, the Germans had taken Paris. To keep the young Jewish officer away from the Nazis, and to do something useful for the Free French (the Vichy regime would eventually expel all Jews from the officer corps), Galula was sent to work as a spy in Tangier. Once Casablanca was taken by the Allies in November 1942, Galula joined the Free French Army, fighting under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny in the re-capture of Elba in 1944, and then in Toulon, and on through Alsace-Lorraine to the Rhine.

At about this time he had an extraordinary stroke of luck: Captain–later Colonel–Jacques Guillermaz became his commanding officer. An accomplished Sinologist, Guillermaz chose Galula as one of three officers to accompany him to China when he resumed his duties there as French military attaché. In China, Galula would get to study Mao’s revolutionary warfare at first hand.

Starting in September 1945, he spent six months in Chongqing before moving to Beijing for language training. There he encountered another student, the young American journalist Seymour Topping, later of the New York Times. Topping remembers Galula very clearly: He based Jean Leone, a character in his 1999 novel of the Chinese civil war, The Peking Letter, on him. (Leone invites the narrator to share his traditional Chinese house with him, just as Galula did with Topping. Leone/Galula is depicted as a worldly cynic and connoisseur of fine food and wine.)

At this time Galula would have been reading Chinese revolutionary warfare theory. Mao was not translated into French until 1950, so Galula is likely to have studied him in English. A U.S. Marine captain, Samuel B. Griffith, had translated Mao for the Marine Corps Gazette back in 1941; later Griffith, by then a retired brigadier general, published a book of Mao’s writings, On Guérilla Warfare, in 1962, as well as translating Mao’s great influence, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. A copy of this was among Galula’s books when he died in 1967: Galula and Griffith had met in northern China when Griffith commanded a Marine regiment at the end of World War II.

Galula was next posted to Thessalonika as an observer with the United Nations Special Committee on the Balkans, where he witnessed the end of the cruel, ruinous Greek civil war. Then he returned to Paris to do Deuxième Bureau work: The “second bureau” of the General Staff, although technically dissolved in 1940, is the informal term for France’s military intelligence service.

In 1951, Galula replaced Guillermaz as the naval and military attaché at the French consulate in Hong Kong. He discussed politics with visiting journalists and intelligence specialists, including Henry Luce and Joseph Alsop, both of whom would later visit his district in Algeria and write about it.

But the most influential contacts of his later career were General Lansdale, who wrote in a letter that he met Galula “around 1955,” and Gen. Raoul Salan, commander in chief of French forces in Indochina during 1952-3. (Mrs. Galula says that, even at this stage, General Salan was aware of her husband’s thinking on counterinsurgency.) In 1956 Galula volunteered to fight in Algeria, and he wrote his first “Notes on Pacification” in November of that year, three months after his arrival–a point when most American company commanders will tell you they are just starting to get the lay of the land in a new deployment.

Galula, however, had two advantages our young commanders do not. The first was his experience in and around China observing Mao’s guerrilla tactics, emphasizing the need to win the allegiance of the population. The second factor was the openness of the French Army to innovation in colonial warfare. By the time of the Algerian war, the French had powerful evangelists for what was called “revolutionary warfare” (guerre révolutionnaire). All the major French thinkers on guerre révolutionnaire had fought in Indochina and learned from the French defeat, as the military historian Peter Paret has written, “that an inferior force could outpoint a modern army so long as it succeeded in gaining at least the tacit support of the population in the contested area.”

Galula’s operational zone in Algeria, Kabylia, was one of several experimental zones where French commanders tried out guerre révolutionnaire ideas; Galula was not the only innovator. But his success in Djebel Aissa Mimoun and in his second posting at Bourj Menaiel, where he was promoted to major, attracted the notice of higher commanders.

Still, imaginative officers like Galula had no ultimate impact on the war. The Galulas were in Algiers for the 1958 coup when Gen. Salan and Gen. Jacques Massu, the paratroop commander, demanded the return of Charles de Gaulle to political power in France. By the summer of 1959, Galula was working in French military intelligence in the Deuxième Bureau in Paris. He visited the United States in 1960 for six months of study at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia.

By 1961 Galula was back at the Deuxième Bureau working for President de Gaulle’s “crisis office” during a tumultuous time for Algeria. According to his widow, Galula agreed with de Gaulle that Algerian independence “was not the right thing to do but it was the necessary thing,” and Lansdale has written that Galula avoided “entanglement in right and left extremist activities.” In 1962, however, he retired from the army.

His next stop was Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, where Gen. William Westmoreland, then the West Point superintendent and later commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, helped him obtain a position as research associate. At Harvard Galula became close friends with Henry Kissinger, associate director of the center and head of Harvard’s Defense Studies Program. But the center’s head, Robert Bowie, was at daggers drawn with Kissinger and thought Galula was a “reactionary.” What the Galulas had hoped would be a long-term Harvard appointment ended in November 1963.

The Galulas wanted to live in the United States, and David wanted to find employment that would better support his family. High-level American jobs, however, required that he give up his French citizenship. So, in 1964, he went to work for a French manufacturer of long-range radar equipment, and in 1966 moved to London to begin work as a liaison officer for NATO’s Air Defense Ground Environment Consortium.

In the spring of 1967, Galula was having digestive problems, which propelled him to the American Hospital in Paris; there he was found to have inoperable lung cancer. In his last weeks he reread the three volumes of General de Gaulle’s war memoirs, and on May 11,967, at the age of 48, Lieutenant Colonel David Galula was dead.

The brief details of Galula’s life suggest the complexity of the intellectual influences on what is now called population-centric counterinsurgency theory, as well as the role of simple luck in determining which books and ideas in the marketplace exert influence, and when. Galula’s seminal works caution us that counterinsurgency is not nearly as easy as some popularizers of his ideas seem to believe, nor is it a one-size-fits-all solution for every conflict in the world. Military thought is shaped by intellectual fashion as much as any other field.

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