Archive for October, 2009

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

Sunday, October 11th, 2009


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.