The Magazine


Winning battles but losing the war?

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By ANN MARLOWE
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The Accidental Guerrilla

Fighting Small Wars
in the Midst of a Big One

by David Kilcullen

Oxford, 384 pp., $27.95

In the dim red glow of the crowded C130 transport aircraft, my soldiers' faces were guarded and withdrawn. We were minutes away from landing, and all expected a serious firefight before the day was out. Some retched from turbulence or checked their rifles.

And so on, for a few hundred words. Is David Kilcullen about to assault Falluja? No--Connecticut-sized East Timor, which was down to about 200,000 wretched inhabitants at the time the Australian army faced the fearsome challenge of "invading" it. Kilcullen, "one of the few Indonesian linguists in the force," took the "gamble" of walking over to the Indonesian airfield commander and asking for his handover of control. Looking up at the "continuous stream of aircraft stretching all the way to Australia," the commander sagely agreed.

There are too many silly, pretentious, self-regarding moments like this in The Accidental Guerrilla, and they nearly overwhelm Kilcullen's often sensible observations, and undermine our confidence in his mainstream if not particularly original views of best-practice, population-centric counterinsurgency.

Even my eight weeks of embeds with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan make me wonder about writers who spend hundreds of words telling you about their flights on military aircraft--a trope in Kilcullen's account. On an Apache helicopter flight in Iraq, he loosens his safety harness and takes off his helmet and eye protection "to see better" after an IED explodes on the ground below--an example the reader might want to avoid, even when an IED hasn't gone off. But then, Kilcullen thinks body armor is "cowardly."

Another suspect device is his use of transliterated phrases from foreign languages--incredibly unimportant phrases from incredibly unimportant foreign languages such as Tetun: "Mai ho ha'u ("Come with me"), the boy said urgently." That was in 1999. Is Kilcullen really sure this is exactly how the boy phrased it? Why is it important that we know?

Then there's the interlarding of anthro jargon ("a common apical ancestor") and little ticks like "Usama" bin Laden and the inconsistent acknowledgment of the Arabic-Farsi ain (Sa'udi but Arab) which show more interest in giving the impression of erudition than in transliterating sensibly. I won't linger on the photographs, which either depict the attractive author or were taken by him (reminding us why professional photographers are important).

In fairness, when I interviewed David Kilcullen off the record in
February 2007 he did not seem as self-regarding and mannered as he comes across in print. But the falseness that leaps off the page here isn't superficial.

He pays lip service to the importance of cultural knowledge, but one of his key arguments--that Iraq represented a "hybrid conflict" and "cannot be fully understood through a classical counterinsurgency lens"--is itself highly ahistorical. Kilcullen seems bent on aggrandizing the (admittedly formidable) difficulties of Iraq compared with prior conflicts, and his vanity makes one suspect that the reason is to point up just how much smarter he is than anyone who previously conducted counterinsurgency campaigns.

But that is not the way to learn from the past. Wasn't Vietnam also several wars in one, featuring "accidental guerrillas .  .  . foreign fighters .  .  . and regional nation-state rivalry"? On a simpler level, Algeria also qualifies as a hybrid conflict, with main force, foreign, and guerrilla fighters. In both conflicts, sophisticated counterinsurgency strategies were used.

The French in Algeria may take the prize for bold experimentalism--even walling off the border with Tunisia at great expense, an idea whose parallel iteration was proposed but rejected by American advisers in Vietnam. But the CAPS (Combined Action Platoon) Marines in Vietnam may have practiced the best counterinsurgency of any force in a postwar insurgency. The problem was that there were just 5,000 of them. Neither Kilcullen, nor for that matter General Petraeus's counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24, give them their due.

This is part of a broader tendency of contemporary writers on counterinsurgency to suggest that, until late 2006, there was little knowledge of it in the U.S. Army. But it just ain't so. And oddly enough, when Kilcullen does pay his respects to his predecessors, he chooses a mediocrity: the French journalist Bernard Fall, whose work is badly dated.