Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Question of Command

My review of this book, below, is published in the August, 2010 issue of Leatherneck Magazine:

A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq. By Mark Moyar, PhD. Published by Yale University Press, 2009. 416 pages. MCA Stock # 0300152760. $30.00

I have been disappointed that Dr. Moyar has not rapidly followed up his excellent history of the early years of Vietnam, Triumph Forsaken, with the promised second volume. But after reading A Question of Command, all is forgiven. It is a valuable addition to military history in general, and to the history of insurgent or irregular warfare in particular. That alone would make this book a welcome addition to the library of any historian or military leader.

But A Question of Command is far more than a history book. Given the wars of the foreseeable future, it’s a service to the Republic. Moyar uses meticulously researched case studies of nine insurgencies to provide a must-read guide for military leaders dealing with insurgencies on the ground, from squad leaders to theater commanders, and for politicians and bureaucrats directing the effort. I wish I could afford to buy a copy for every member of the president’s cabinet and the congress.

For the history buff, Moyar’s clear and concise reviews of insurgency in the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Philippine Insurrection, the Huk Rebellion, the Malayan Emergency, Vietnam, the Salvadoran Insurgency, Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate those themes that are common in such warfare, but also demonstrate that each situation is unique. For Vietnam veterans, the review of the lost opportunities in that conflict will be painful. One cannot read of Ambassador Durbrow accepting the recommendations of a Michigan State University advisory team to equip the Civil Guard with pistols and nightsticks like American police without wishing that thus armed they had had to join in the defense of a village against a VC attack. I’m sure Afghanistan and Iraq vets will have the same feelings about their wars, because Moyar has no hesitation in identifying those who did well—and those who failed the test presented.

Moyar, a Harvard and Cambridge trained historian who teaches at the Marine Corps University, takes issue with the US Army/Marine Corps Counter Insurgency Field Manual thesis that the key to counterinsurgency lies with understanding the nature of insurgency and winning the hearts and minds of the people. The most important aspect of counterinsurgency war is, in Moyar’s view, leadership, which should resonate with Marines, though perhaps not bureaucrats and politicians. Rapid expansion of local forces without being able to provide solid leaders, which takes far longer, is often counter-productive.

Leaders who have been highly successful at conventional warfare may do very poorly at counterinsurgency, Phil Sheridan being but one example presented. Moyar draws on numerous examples in the nine case studies to identify the ten attributes of effective counter insurgency leaders. These are: Initiative, Flexibility, Creativity, Judgment, Charisma, Sociability, Dedication, Integrity and Organization. They are particularly key at the battalion and company level. There are, of course, no leaders who are perfect tens, highly gifted and proficient in all these attributes. Some traits, Moyar points out, can be learned, and others are innate, but all can be enhanced. However, appointing leaders on the basis of seniority, whose turn it is for field command, or success in desk jobs is a recipe for defeat and dead troops.

Moyar suggests testing for the ten attributes. He notes that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator identifies two types, ENTJs and INTJs who are naturally strong in several of the traits. High command must be willing to relieve leaders who are not suitable for counterinsurgent command, though the may perform well in other billets. While that might end careers, it is highly preferable to losing troops’ lives—or wars. His final chapter, “How to Win,” shows how good leadership can successfully pull together the other aspects of counterinsurgent warfare, though nowhere does the reader get the impression that victory will be swift, easy or painless, regardless of the leadership.

If you’re deploying soon, reading A Question of Command will be a good investment of your time.

--Robert A. Hall

Editor’s note: Former SSgt Robert A. Hall served with HQ, 26th Marines, at Khe Sanh in 1967, noting that, “It was quiet when I left—I don’t know what happened.” Immediately after earning a BA in Government from UMass, he served five terms in the Massachusetts state senate, as well as another six years in the USMCR. In 1980, he earned an MEd in history from Fitchburg State College. Since 1982, Hall has been an association executive. He’s a frequent contributor of poetry to Leatherneck. His memoir, The Good Bits: The Marines, The Massachusetts Senate and Managing Associations was published in 2005 and a book on association management, Chaos for Breakfast, in 2008. “I’m an ENTJ,” Hall says, “So Dr. Moyar’s book made me wonder if I should have joined the Army and become a general, instead of a Marine NCO.”

1 comment:

  1. Your comment regarding Khe Sanh in 1967: “It was quiet when I left—I don’t know what happened.” caused me to spew coffee all across my monitor and keyboard this morning! LOL

    In any event, you were fortunate to have missed the bru haha that shortly erupted thereafter. I give you a hearty salute for your service sir!

    Semper Fi