Archive for the ‘Perspectival Culture and COIN’ Category

The Counterinsurgent (review of Max Boot’s biography of Edward Lansdale)

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

originally published in The Weekly Standard, Jan 15 2018 (

The mixed legacy of Edward Lansdale.
1:55 PM, JAN 07, 2018 | By ANN MARLOWE

“You dirty son of a bitch.  .  . somebody’s got to beat you up and I hereby appoint myself.” Thus Edward Lansdale recalled addressing the CIA station chief in Saigon in the mid-1950s, when Lansdale was a CIA operative under cover of assistant air attaché at the American embassy. Whether or not his memory was exact—he recounted this anecdote in an interview three decades after the fact—the gist of the story is certainly correct: Lansdale was far from a natural fit in bureaucracies. He thrived only in informal settings, a trait that shaped his career and led to his contribution to American military history: as a pioneering practitioner of what are now known as counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

Born in 1908 to an automotive executive and his homemaker wife, Edward G. Lansdale spent his childhood in Detroit, then in Westchester County, then Los Angeles. He was a mediocre student—although he did well enough in high school to get into UCLA in 1927, majoring in English. The campus had only opened eight years earlier, so the friendly, talkative Lansdale had a chance to help start new institutions, including a satirical magazine, a fraternity chapter, and an ROTC unit. His grades were so bad that he couldn’t graduate after four years, so he quit school and moved to New York, hoping to make it as a writer or cartoonist.

It was not a great moment to find such work—the Depression was on—but Lansdale did manage to find a wife, Helen Batcheller, a pretty and reserved woman seven years his senior. Giving up on New York, the couple moved to California in 1935, where Lansdale got a start in advertising when one of his brothers offered him a job. The nascent advertising industry proved a good fit for Lansdale’s strategic intelligence, excellent writing skills, and personal brashness, but after Pearl Harbor, he burned to join the military. His efforts to enlist in the Army were rebuffed because of a minor medical condition, but a few months later he found a route to wartime service: in the Office of Strategic Services, a newly created intelligence agency. It was the perfect situation for a smart, charming, creative, untamed individual like Lansdale. Based in San Francisco and New York, he gathered intelligence and recruited agents, and was good enough at the work to earn promotions and to remain after the war’s end at OSS and its successor entities: the Office of Policy Coordination, a highly secret, fast-growing group created in 1948 and tasked with acting on intelligence analysis, and the Central Intelligence Agency, which soon absorbed OPC. (From 1947 until 1963, Lansdale was officially in the Air Force, working on assignment at these intel agencies.)

Lansdale’s historical importance is due to his successful-for-a-while counterinsurgency practices and to his accomplishments as a sherpa (or puppet master, depending on one’s view) to Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines and Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam. Both were doomed figures. The engaging Magsaysay was killed in a plane crash in March 1957 and a few years later Ferdinand Marcos began his two decades of kleptocratic rule in the Philippines. The more-problematic Diem was assassinated with tacit American approval in 1963, and of course South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975. The question for historians is whether things might have turned out differently in either case.

Max Boot, the military historian, policy expert, and opinion journalist, is a prominent supporter of COIN strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, so Lansdale is a natural subject for him. The Road Not Taken, Boot’s thumping new biography of Lansdale, will appeal to anyone interested in the debates over the effectiveness of COIN.

For most readers, though, the question will be whether they should crack open a big new book—600 pages, plus notes—about a marginal figure when there already exists a well-written 1988 biography. Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American by the late Cecil B. Currey, an Army reserve chaplain, weighs in at a comparatively slender 350 pages. Currey had the advantage of interviewing Lansdale in person in 1984—the quotation at the beginning of this review comes from one of Currey’s interviews—as well as other individuals who are now long dead. (His book boasts an introduction by former CIA director William Colby.)

Both biographers mainly rely on the same sources—and Lansdale’s was a well-documented life. (While working on a research project at the Hoover Institution, I myself read boxes of Lansdale’s letters and dispatches from the Philippines.) Boot emphasizes that, unlike Currey, he has had access to Lansdale’s letters both to his wife and to Pat Kelly, Lansdale’s longtime Filipina mistress. Indeed, Boot is the only person besides Lansdale to have read both sets of letters.

This is a fair point, since Lansdale’s long relationship with the smart, brave, and spirited Kelly was a huge and defining part of his personal life. Their affair began in 1946, and Lansdale tried to get his wife to agree to a divorce, but the proper, Christian Science-devoted Helen refused, and the marriage lasted until her death in 1972. Soon after Helen died, Lansdale and Kelly, who had often gone years without seeing each other, were married. By drawing on the lovers’ correspondence, Boot’s book gives us a much fuller picture of Lansdale the man. Yet it’s still an open question whether Lansdale’s letters to Kelly add much to our understanding of his professional life and his contributions to counterinsurgency theory and practice. I was struck by how much his letters home to his wife and family were written with an eye to a larger readership, more like blog posts than personal letters. Even writing to Kelly, once past the obligatory mild sexual innuendos, Lansdale was relentlessly on message about the Philippine situation. Perhaps the biggest divergence between the public and private Lansdale papers is in his occasional candor in the latter about how bad the situation in South Vietnam really was.

* *

Half adman, half spook; an accomplished writer who never finished college; an Air Force major general who never fought a battle—what is it that made Lansdale a “counterinsurgent par excellence,” as Boot calls him, whose “practices could be emulated by contemporary advisers in countries ranging from Mali to Mexico”? If we are to draw lessons for today’s counterinsurgency efforts from Lansdale’s record, it is worth looking closely at just how replicable his practices are.

Col. Lansdale and Philippine defense minister Ramon Magsaysay in October 1952, on an inspection of the Philippine countryside. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
Boot ably takes us through Lansdale’s career in the Philippines. His first stint, from roughly 1945 to 1948, was spent composing reports based on his observations of the country and then working as a public affairs officer. During his second stint, from 1950 to 1954, he was personal adviser to Philippine defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay. Drawing on Lansdale’s creativity and adman’s insight into what moves people, as well as Magsaysay’s credentials as a patriot and man of the people, the inseparable pair began to experiment with what we would now call “population-centric” counterinsurgency techniques to use against the Communist Huk rebellion then underway. They arranged food deliveries for farmers that the Huks exploited; they had soldiers hand out candy to children; they promised land to defecting guerrillas. They engaged in psychological warfare, manipulating superstitions and suspicions. These techniques, combined with more conventional military measures, destroyed the insurgency. Lansdale then strove in a thousand ways to have Magsaysay elected president in 1953, which he was. There followed a period of reasonably good government, sadly short lived.

Lansdale in 1953, on his first trip to Vietnam. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
Meanwhile, in 1953, while still working in the Philippines, Lansdale made his first trip to Vietnam. He moved there in June 1954, staying through 1956, with shorter postings ending in 1968. Lansdale brought with him a successful template from the defeat of the Huks. The only problem was each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.

In Vietnam, Henry Kissinger wrote in 1965, Lansdale seemed to rely too much on Philippine precedents “no longer fully relevant”:

The Philippine Insurrection has as many points of difference from the Vietnamese civil war as similarities to it. In the Philippines the insurrection had never reached the scale of the war in Vietnam. There was no foreign base for the guerrillas. The indigenous government was much stronger. There was a tradition of working with Americans. The situation in Vietnam is much more complex, much less susceptible to bravura, individual efforts.

If Kissinger was right—and military historians have been arguing similar questions almost since the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict began—then the subtitle of Boot’s book, Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, is a misapprehension. Maybe there was no American tragedy in Vietnam. Not every error is a tragedy. Maybe Lansdale could have done nothing to stop the Communist takeover.

Boot’s observations certainly turn more critical as the book progresses, and by the time his narrative reaches the fall of Saigon, his belief in the Lansdale magic wanes:

Would the course of the conflict have been different if Lansdale’s advice had been heeded? There is, of course, no way to know. .  .  . South Vietnam might not have survived even if Lansdale had enjoyed more success in implementing his agenda; North Vietnam would have been a tough and determined adversary under any circumstances, with more will to win than the United States had.

And, Boot adds, Lansdale was “downright delusional” to suggest that a proper American psychological-operations campaign against Hanoi could have led to the overthrow of the North Vietnamese politburo.

Boot gives short shrift to the most successful U.S. counterinsurgency program, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), which is understandable given that it started in May 1967 and Lansdale left Vietnam for the last time in June 1968. But CORDS, which aimed at engaging the rural population through improved security and state institutions so that it would support the government of South Vietnam, is Exhibit A for those historians who maintain that the United States tried counterinsurgency tactics and still came up short.

Boot’s decision to largely leave aside the extensive scholarly debate about whether and how the United States could have won in Vietnam is an odd omission for a writer on military doctrine, especially one making the case that we should today be doing more to emulate the actions of his subject. Could a COIN-centric strategy have worked in Vietnam? There is a current in recent scholarship, exemplified by Dale Andradé’s influential 2008 article “Westmoreland Was Right,” that argues that a concerted COIN campaign would not have succeeded:

The strategy conducted by the North Vietnamese was arguably like no other in history. It was the epitome of insurgencies: a combination of large main force units, a well-entrenched guerrilla movement with deep roots in the South Vietnamese countryside, and the support of two powerful sponsors—China and the Soviet Union. All of this, combined with the ability to attack South Vietnam over and over again, with no threat of a serious retaliation, was an unprecedented advantage. To simply argue that the U.S. military ignored pacification does not begin to address the problem of countering such a threat.

As Andradé goes on to note, each of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam commanders was “caught on the horns of the same dilemma”: Gen. William Westmoreland “concentrated on the main forces and failed to prevent a guerrilla offensive in 1968,” and Gen. Creighton Abrams “placed great emphasis on pacification and failed to prevent a conventional buildup in 1972.” Neither commander, Andradé writes, “had the resources or the opportunity to handle both threats simultaneously.”

Lansdale himself grew dubious about whether American efforts could succeed in Vietnam. Boot quotes a letter Lansdale sent his wife in October 1965:

I’m scared to tell everyone how really bad it is. .  .  . What has happened here is that after 20 years of war almost all the tensile strength has gone out of the social fabric. Military operations just make it limper. The village folks just don’t seem to give a damn about anything except to please be left alone.

This insightful remark, from one of the leading lights of COIN, acknowledges that COIN is limited by human and social nature—by the receptiveness of the population.

Lansdale on a visit to the remote Vietnamese village of Binh Hung in early 1961. [Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center/Maxwell AFB, via Liveright]
And of course counterinsurgency strategy is also limited in the other direction: by the abilities of the people attempting it. Nothing Boot says about Lansdale contradicts the criticism that COIN can only work so long as charismatic leaders practice it, and that it doesn’t work when mediocre leaders do. Here is Boot:

How different history might have been if Lansdale or a Lansdale-like figure had remained close enough to Diem to exercise a benign influence and offset the paranoid counsel of his brother.

Saying that Lansdale had a unique ability to get along with Diem and that had Diem stayed in power he could have saved Vietnam is not the same thing as saying that Lansdale’s or anyone’s practice of COIN would have saved Vietnam from Communist takeover. And if Lansdale was the only person who could manage Diem, I’d conclude not that Vietnam would have been better if President Kennedy had assigned Lansdale the job of resident Diem wrangler, which seems to be Boot’s position, but that Vietnam needed someone other than Diem.

A similar example of the dependence of counterinsurgency techniques on the all-too-rare alignment of practitioner and population can be found in the story of perhaps the most brilliant COIN theorist of them all, Lansdale’s French contemporary David Galula. He concludes his beautifully written military memoir Pacification in Algeria by casually informing us that his two successors in company command were promptly shot dead by the “pacified” villagers of the Kabylie. (His immediate predecessor met the same end.) Not much of a success if you only make your area of operations safe for yourself.

* *

Lansdale’s career was essentially over when he left Vietnam for the last time in June 1968 at the age of 60. As Boot makes clear, this was due to his personality: “In his attempts to influence American leaders, Lansdale lacked the deft touch he displayed in dealing with foreign leaders.”

Lansdale could be inspiring; men who worked for him tended to want to continue to work for him for decades. “I’ve met a handful of people in my life who have this particular genius for dealing with human beings in ways that make them feel dignified,” Walt Rostow said of him. Kissinger called Lansdale “a man of extraordinary gifts” and “an artist in dealing with Asians.”

Yet Lansdale stumbled again and again with the American ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CIA honchos, and—to a lesser extent—military commanders he had to work with in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Washington. Frustratingly, his good ideas were often overlooked because of his underlying resentment of having to operate in formal, structured, hierarchical organizations. Boot comments perceptively that Lansdale “viewed the bureaucracy as an enemy and, by so doing, turned it into one.”

My hunch is that Lansdale was not threatened by the two leaders who adored him, Magsaysay and Diem, because both had elements of the underdog about them—but he constantly found himself fighting with other Americans for alpha-male status. Rather than my hunch, I would prefer to have Boot’s thoughts on this matter, and in a book this length a few pages of psychologizing would have been perfectly in order, but none are to be found.

* *

Throughout The Road Not Taken, Boot briefly mentions memorable cultural and political events contemporaneous with the stories he’s telling. But he shies away from exploring the broader cultural context for Lansdale’s ideas about counterinsurgency.

Boot does note that advertising—the field in which Lansdale worked through the late 1930s—was where he learned “many of the skills that he would later employ as a CIA operative.” Sure, persuading American housewives to buy a certain brand of soap powder is in some ways similar to persuading Southeast Asian villagers to support a certain political party; a catchy jingle might help in either case. But Boot’s book could have used some discussion of the emerging business of advertising and the theories that Lansdale would have been exposed to as a young adman and exactly how they might have shaped not only Lansdale’s but other American military men’s ideas in the 1950s.

Currey is only a little better than Boot on this, quoting Lansdale in 1950 when he was teaching psychological warfare at the Pentagon to Philippine Army officers training in the United States. “All you have to figure out,” Lansdale said, “is what you want the enemy to do and then use psychological means to get them to do it.” No 18th-century commander could have said such a thing, but neither biographer gives us the context to really understand the importance of psychology to changes in strategic thought.

As for military doctrine, the growing cultural relativism of the fifties and sixties surely has a great deal to do with the Kennedy administration’s openness to COIN. In 1957, soon after Lansdale finished his first stint in Vietnam, Marcel Duchamp wrote: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” The same tide that raised the boat of Duchamp raised that of counterinsurgency theory. COIN is also largely about perceptions; it’s the Vietnamese villager’s perception that counts.

Such ideas were in increasingly wide circulation during the Vietnam era. Edward L. Katzenbach, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, wrote in 1962, “Although Mao never states it quite this way .  .  . his fundamental belief is that only those who will admit defeat can be defeated. .  .  . Or, conversely, when the populace admits defeat, the forces in the field might just as well surrender or withdraw.” Marine lieutenant general Victor Krulak, who ran one of the few successful small-unit counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam, echoed that sentiment: “The battlefield is in the minds of 16 or 17 million people.”

This perspectivalism is invaluable in small doses; it can aid critical thinking and can helpfully remind strategists of the importance of seeing events from others’ eyes. But if it dominates strategic thinking it can lead to disaster. In a brilliant, widely debated 2009 article, “A Strategy of Tactics,” whose title became a shorthand for the American problem in Afghanistan, military historian Gian Gentile argued:

In the American Army’s new way of war, tactics—that is, the carrying out of the “way”—have utterly eclipsed strategy. .  .  . Because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.

Perhaps Boot decided his own views were sufficiently well known, with many articles and a book on counterinsurgency already under his belt, and so chose to leave them on the margins. But The Road Not Taken—an interesting book, written in prose that’s clear and well crafted—would have been much richer if Boot had engaged in this debate over the limitations of COIN.

It may sound odd to speak of so large a biography as halfhearted, but there it is: Boot seems charmed by but ultimately ambivalent about his subject. On Lansdale’s professional life, Boot is too narrowly focused on the task at hand, marshaling all the facts, to explore the intellectual and cultural context of his subject’s ideas. And for all the quoting from Lansdale’s letters, his personality still seems somehow elusive. But perhaps this is how Lansdale, both achingly sincere and a professional dissembler who always had an eye on posterity, would have wanted it.

An Afghan Tale

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard:

An Afghan Tale
Reality and unreality at a Combat Outpost.
Ann Marlowe
July 6 – July 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41

The Valley is marketed as a police procedural set in a remote American military outpost in Afghanistan, and it is a page-turner, all 448 of them. It’s also so cunningly constructed that I had to read it twice to be sure I understood everything that was going on—and there are still a few loose ends. But it’s also an ambitious, if reticent, novel about good and evil, friendship and leadership, courage and shame that mainly succeeds.

Like a classic Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery, The Valley has a very limited geographic area and cast of characters. We follow Lieutenant Black—no first name—who’s been sent to a small American combat outpost to conduct a routine investigation: A villager’s house was damaged when an American soldier fired a warning shot in an unruly Afghan crowd, and the village chief complained to a passing civil affairs captain. Lieutenant Black is due to spend a week filling out the paperwork. Meanwhile, he has his own demons: Something has gone very wrong in what should have been a promising Army career, and this is a chance for him to prove himself.

The ramshackle Combat Outpost (COP) Vega—supposed to be the furthest-east, most isolated, and most dangerous American outpost in a Nuristan valley that ends at the Pakistan border—is home to 47 soldiers and one translator, or “terp,” named Danny, the major Afghan character. The men are fighting with not only the Taliban but the villagers, who are also fighting the Taliban. Five days before Black’s arrival, a soldier from Vega fell behind 10 meters on a nighttime patrol and got snatched by locals. His end was gruesome.

In Army-speak, COP Vega is a “self-licking ice cream cone”: an isolated fort so poorly situated that it mainly exists to defend itself rather than to extend American control over terrain or people. Small wonder that the men are half-crazy with stress and treat Black as an enemy. It’s not even so odd that one soldier may be a killer. It is odd, though, that a soldier no one has heard of is listed on the personnel roster, and that another soldier Black meets in the flesh isn’t on the roster.

The U.S. Army doesn’t lose track of soldiers. Or does it?

The Valley draws as much on the conventions of gothic fiction as crime fiction: COP Vega is a castle clinging to a fog-wrapped mountain, surrounded by hostile, poorly understood forces. Black’s trip to COP Vega on a classically pitch-black, rainy night is full of ominous foreshadowing. There’s a joking road sign pointing to “Xanadu,” a cryptic warning to “beware he who would be king.”

The Valley gives the best description of the American military base environment (and the post-9/11 Army) that I’ve ever read, both accurate in the details and evocative in atmosphere. John Renehan nails the big Forward Operating Bases (which are anything but forward) and the tiny, patched-together COPs up in the hills or on dusty plains where the rubber meets the road. He also captures the tensions between noncommissioned officers and junior lieutenants, and between junior enlisted and NCOs. This is all, by extension, a portrait of America today. Consider this:

The room was standard-issue meathead. Heavy-metal posters and jugs of workout powder. An Xbox video game system sat on a shelf beneath a small and beat-up monitor.

Or this description of Lieutenant Pistone, the commander of COP Vega:

He became your squared-away super-soldier, in his own way. Fastidiously organized, diligent about physical training. Not necessarily a good leader. He walked around with the sound track of his freshly awesome life playing in his head. He tended to forget that succeeding in the military was not so much about his own cosmic journey to heroism as it was about how good he was at dealing with people, handling people, taking care of people.

It comes as a shock to read in Renehan’s acknowledgments that the pain-stakingly observed Afghan setting is a work of imagination. Renehan served as an artillery officer in Iraq and has never been to Afghanistan. As this suggests, Renehan is not only a brilliant writer, but a very clever one. Still, there are some first-novel fault lines here: The Valley is written in a close third-person, almost entirely from the point of view of Lieutenant Black. (The couple-dozen pages that take the points of view of other characters are far less successful.) But there’s a major surprise at the end, and the closeness of the narration makes it seem as though the author is pulling a fast one on us.

More seriously, I wish the novelist had opened up his main character more toward the end. He has elegantly avoided all the redemption clichés we might have expected, but the ending feels a bit choked, and The Valley ends on an uncertain note.

Renehan has spoken in an interview of writing a sequel, and I can’t wait; I hope there’s a movie, too. “You are [a] man who needs the truth,” the Afghan terp Danny says to Lieutenant Black. And we need these truths about our wars and our soldiers, too.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, was embedded with the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in Afghanistan.

Critical War Theory (orig. published in Policy Review Feb-March 2012)

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

February 1, 2012
policy review » no. 171 » books
Critical War Theory
by Ann Marlowe
Ann Marlowe on Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars edited by Matthew Moten

Matthew Moten, ed. Between War and Peace: How America Ends Its Wars. Free Press. 371 Pages. $27.99.

Looking at war only from the soldier’s perspective, says Roger Spiller in the keynote essay in this collection, would be like a physician viewing an illness only from the patient’s point of view. Unpacking the metaphor leads in several interesting directions. There’s Plato’s propensity to have Socrates use the physician as an example. There’s the notion of war as an illness, soldiers as patients, and critics as doctors. And there is the direction Spiller takes the thought: to argue that war today is limited war, a kind the soldier does not like to fight, a kind that seems like “playing with his life.” But Spiller summarizes, “The soldier’s perspective might serve him well, but that is not to say it advances our knowledge of war equally well.”

It is rare — and somewhat perilous — in military circles for a theorist to say that the soldier’s viewpoint is not the one that counts. And Spiller — one of the founders of the Combat Studies Institute of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College — is writing here on behalf of the Army.

Between War and Peace is a project of tradoc, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, and was commissioned by then-tradoc Chief General Martin E. Dempsey, and edited by a West Point professor, Colonel Matthew Moten. tradoc recruits and trains American soldiers, so it is fair to infer that Between War and Peace, published January 2011by the Free Press, represents at least a range of approved military opinion. And as Spiller’s essay suggests, the collection trembles most interestingly on the edge of the abyss of postmodernism. (First they came for the artists; then they came for the English professors, and now, they’ve come for military theorists.)

Each of the fifteen chapters here is worth reading, offering an unexpected light on wars we think we know. But many of the contributors — and especially Spiller and Andrew Bacevich, who wrote the final essay — go much further. They raise issues about the discipline of military history itself, and of military strategy, and what we can know as we practice these disciplines. None of the writers disappears down a conceptual rabbit hole (though I was worried for Bacevich sometimes) but each of the authors stirs up doubts and disturbing questions.

It should come as no surprise that there is ambiguity even in the aim of the collection. The ostensible topic is “war termination,” and you are forgiven for not knowing quite what that is. Spiller notes that in the last twenty years only two articles on “war termination” have been published in the professional military journals. The phrase itself appeared during the First World War — a conflict notable for feeling interminable to the combatants.

What is “war termination”? The study of how wars end, shorn of many of the assumptions of past generations, and even of their vocabulary:

Today you will search in vain for any definition of victory in American military doctrine. Exactly when the classical ideal of victory disappeared from official doctrine is an open question, but its absence invites the thought that at some time in the recent past, victory, which so long dominated military thought and practice, lost some of its official appeal.

Spiller argues that our wars have had more equivocal outcomes than most people realize. Or as one social networking site’s option for describing one’s personal life says, “it’s complicated.” And this, in a nutshell, is the message of Between War and Peace. This is not your father’s military history, even if the tradocwebsite insists, “Victory Starts Here!”

Given the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cynic might think it a very convenient message indeed. Publish a book that amplifies the ambivalence of former wars, so that today’s wars appear as part of a continuum rather than unpleasantly novel failures or quasi-failures. But Between War and Peace (which confusingly shares a title with an unrelated 2004 collection of essays by Victor Davis Hanson) didn’t come into being that way. When commissioned in the summer of 2009 it was intended as a successor to an influential 1986 collection called America’s First Battles, a fine but very straightforward book without a pomo bone in its body.

In the preface to First Battles, the editors — a lieutenant colonel and a brigadier general — explained that the book was designed to test “the assumption that it makes a great deal of difference how the U.S. Army prepares in peacetime, mobilizes for war, fights its first battle, and subsequently adapts to the exigencies of combat.” The editors found “significant patterns” in the ten first battles described. And perhaps the Army was prescient; the years after the book’s publication had first battles enough — Panama in 1989, the Gulf War, and American interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

But Between War and Peace has plunged into much deeper waters than First Battles. Indeed Colonel Moten’s preface never mentions the earlier book. He explained by email, “We started the project with afb in mind, but I quickly decided to downplay the connection for a number of reasons. We don’t have an agreement with the afb authors to make such a pairing. We didn’t want to be artificially bound by a certain format. Finally, we have produced a book that is quite different from afb, and I felt that it should stand on its own.”

Between War and Peace stands on its own, and possibly alone. General Dempsey says in his foreword that the book is “ a wholly original and important contribution to military history and theory,” and he is correct. This might be the first official publication of the American Army where the chilly wind of postmodern uncertainty is not only acknowledged, but embraced. The cultural context is just a bit different. General Dempsey was interviewed on the marathon meetings held by tradocto write the Army’s new doctrine. He quoted Mark Twain rather than Lacan, but nevertheless sounded pretty literary: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

It’s easy to divine many of the Army’s preoccupations and its likely worries about the future from this volume. Many of the people involved with Between War and Peace are central to the Army’s intellectual life. Dempsey is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, a Ph.D. in history at tradoc, also involved with developing this volume, is working for his mentor General David Petraeus in Kabul. Contributor Con Crane, a West Point classmate of Petraeus, Director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at the Army War College, was the lead author of the Army’s 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, commonly known as Petraeus’s coinmanual.

There’s a uniformity of structure to most of the essays that suggests a strong editorial hand, and as we shall see, certain themes run through the collection. But there is by no means a uniformity of opinion. Like any wise old bureaucracy, the Army hedges its bets — or, perhaps, keeps its friends close and its enemies closer. Several of the essayists are known to be sharply critical of the way we have fought our recent wars. One of the most controversial contributors, Colonel Gian Gentile, writes here on the Vietnam War, but he has become famous even outside the military for his outspoken criticism of the Army’s embrace of counterinsurgency. Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel, is also known as a fierce opponent of our involvements in Iraq (where he lost an officer son) and Afghanistan.

Moten teasingly writes in his introduction that his team “agreed to try to avoid analyzing the problems of the past through the lens of current concerns,” but adds that the reader “is under no such obligation.” Many contributors offer surprisingly harsh and sometimes revisionist views of American strategies. Brian McAllister Linn suggestively describes American commanders in the Philippine War of 1898–1902as “focusing on winning the battle and ignoring the consequences. Fixated on tactics and operations they gave little thought to how this might achieve the nation’s strategic objectives.”
Several contributors find that what happens in an occupation, or afterwards, turns the war’s ostensible results on their head. The Seminole War’s hero was not the U.S. colonel who finished the war — but Seminole chief Osceola.

One pervasive theme is the frequency with which American troops have undertaken occupation duties, including governance. When Joseph Dawson discusses General Winfield Scott’s administration of a prostrate Mexico in the fall of 1847, he mentions “the truism that there are seldom enough troops available during postwar occupations” and describes, without editorializing, Scott’s sensible and thorough efforts to keep order.

Theodore Wilson writes of the American occupation of Germany as poorly planned, attacking the “myth of Germany as the model for military occupations.” He states that a map of security incidents in January 1946 “could easily be confused with a U.S. Central Command map of Iraq in 2006.” German recidivist Werewolf insurgents killed “between 3,000 and 5,000” Allied and German citizens in the months following May 1945.

Several contributors find that what happens in an occupation, or afterwards, turns the war’s ostensible results on their head. The Seminole War’s hero turned out not to be the U.S. colonel who finished the war — but Seminole chief Osceola, whose fame lives on in many place names today. Joseph Glatthaar argues that “Southern whites lost the [Civil] war but won much of the peace.” Peter Maslowski takes the idea of a “300 Year War” against Native Americans from an unnamed Chinese general speaking at the Command and General Staff College. The War of 1812, says Wayne Lee, helped “cement the myth of American exceptionalism and . . . an imagined virtuous invincibility.” This although American efforts were often startlingly inept. And Spiller suggests that historians of the future will see World Wars I and II as a single conflict, inevitable because of the “less-than-complete victory sealed by the Treaty of Versailles.”

A second theme is the American Army’s curious reluctance to develop doctrine for irregular warfare. It was always supposed to be the exception, though it looks from this collection as though it were the rule. Two of the essays deal with the Indian wars, one with the Mexican War (in the aftermath of which General Scott governed Mexico), one with the Philippine War, one with Vietnam, and one with the aftermath of the first Gulf War. That’s five wars with considerable irregular or insurgent elements out of fourteen in all. We fought some of these irregular wars — in the Philippines in 1902, the Mexican War, some of the Indian wars — wisely, if not according to today’s laws of war. Yet no one thought to analyze our rather extensive experience for future use. And there’s hardly a greater intellectual sin among the military than failing to register “lessons learned.”

A third theme is the superiority of professional to amateur (in the time period of the book, mainly militia) soldiers and the gradual progress of the American Army from a barely unified group of militias under Washington to a fully professional, cohesive force. There’s rarely a good word to be found here about militias, which were favored by the Founding Fathers because of their fear of standing armies. We read how amateurs refuse battle, rape and plunder, and simply don’t fight well. On first glance, this isn’t a current issue. Maybe it’s ammunition stored for future disputes contrasting conscription versus today’s volunteer force. The Army’s preference for professionals — in my view, a mistake — has had far-reaching and sometimes debatable consequences. For instance, although Afghanistan had a tradition of military conscription, after 2001the U.S. set up the Afghan Army as a volunteer force. Ever since, we’ve struggled against attrition, while American boys die doing a job that is arguably the task of Afghan boys.

Gentile told me that Spiller, the author of many books, has had a “huge influence on the Army’s intellectual life” since the early 1980s. So it is well worth looking at Spiller’s six “general propositions about the history of American war termination and its implications for the conduct of modern limited war”:

Wars are defined by their limitations, with “absolute” and “total” war and “total” victory “theoretical abstractions”;
Their original aims are constantly revised;
The aims of all sides “gradually converge toward an agreement to stop fighting”;
This convergence is not only the result of what happens on the battlefield;
The conduct of war is increasingly public; and
Rather than looking at “decisive” battles, we should look at “terminal” battles, those which influence how a war ends.

Spiller cautions that these propositions may seem counterintuitive to soldiers, who are trained to use overwhelming force to eliminate a threat. Perhaps numbers three and six are the most paradoxical.

The third proposition presents war as a conversation, like a symphony in which opposed themes are brought to resolution. (I also think of psychoanalysis, but that is probably a bridge too far.) Yet Spiller also harks back to the founder of Western military theory, quoting Clausewitz on war as “a continuous interactionof opposites.” It’s usually a good bet that no matter how paradoxical a proposition a military theorist raises, Clausewitz got to it first.

The sixth point is a bit confusing, but worth pursuing. “Any side can fight a decisive campaign or even a succession of them and still be defeated.”

By contrast a terminal campaign may exercise an influence over the outcome of a war neither side intends, not does it derive from military action alone. A terminal campaign is strategically important; it plays a role in educating both sides about how much — or how little — their efforts can accomplish.

For example, Spiller says Gettysburg was arguably a decisive battle, but the Civil War still continued for two years. The results “were not sufficient to convince hundreds of thousands of soldiers and the governments that commanded them to stop fighting.” The Tet Offensive, on the other hand, occurred seven years before the Vietnam War’s last battle, but “exercised the greatest influence over how the war would end.”

The “endings” discussed in the book are not just of particular wars but of what Spiller terms, quoting the late military historian Russell Weigley, “the history of usable combat.” Weigley wrote that back in 1973, but Spiller argues that “the age of modern limited war” began with the Korean War — which ended in an armistice, peace still not having been declared.

Today, Spiller argues, a war “must be more precisely attuned to the limited objectives for which it is being fought — limited objectives that must be precisely defined as well.” This gets at a paradox obvious not only to American war-fighters but to the Afghan villagers who are the supposed prize in our counterinsurgency. How can it be that the U.S. has such military might yet cannot defeat the ragtag insurgent bands? It’s a question of deciding what our objectives are — and that is something that grows harder and harder the more sophisticated a society is. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell has argued, one of the key problems of modern art is figuring out what satisfies us. It may be that the same is true of modern war.

Spiller writes, “The immense military power of the United States is no guarantee that it can seize and sustain the strategic and operational initiative, and steering a war toward a desirable end is no small task even in the most favorable circumstances.”

And so we come to Bacevich’s brilliant but maddening final essay, on the First and Second Gulf Wars. He sums up the problem as well as anyone: “The Anglo-American invasion of 2003transformed Iraq from a crumbling dictatorship into a failed state.” Why, he asks, has our involvement in Iraq “proven to be so interminable?” Because our policymakers first “misconstrued the problem” and then “devised inappropriate solutions,” which in turn “exacerbated actual problems to which Washington has remained steadfastly oblivious.”

You don’t need to agree with Bacevich — I don’t follow him all the way — to admire the clarity of his vision and the logic of his reasoning. And you don’t have to disagree with Bacevich to be frustrated by the elliptical nature of his essay and his unwillingness to admit into his discourse the possibility that he could be wrong.

Bacevich argues that two assumptions have governed American policy in the Persian Gulf. The first is that stability consists in “fostering a balance of power congenial to the United States.” But the U.S. has tried to manage that balance, and to change the nature of Gulf states. Still, it has always assumed that the Middle East, like other parts of the world, “consists of a more or less fixed number of legitimate states governed by more or less legitimate governments.” The second assumption is that American activism reduces conflict and advances American interests. “Bluntly, the phrase balance of powerwas a code word for hegemony.”

These two assumptions are false, Bacevich argues. Our exertions “have served not to reduce but to enflame the sources of conflict.” The Islamic world is different, he says, in ways that made our application of methods that worked elsewhere “not only irrelevant but even counterproductive.” In words that could not be more relevant as I write, Bacevich notes the “refusal of the West to allow the people of the Islamic world to determine their own fate in their own way.”

I am less in accord with his next sentence: “And that refusal contributed mightily to the rise of violent anti-Western Islamism.” The “Arab awakening” taking place now suggests that many Muslims know that the conversation they need to have is among themselves, not with us. These countries too are crossing the divide into the dizzying postmodern world of uncertain, fractured perceptions, and unknown desires. The Islamism of twenty years from now is unlikely to look like today’s. For one thing, Islamists — and Muslims in general — are less likely to know what they want, what would satisfy them. Victory may prove as elusive a concept for them as for us.
Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, blogs for World Affairs. Her biography of David Galula is available as a free download at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.