MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books—why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Mark Moyar is professor of national security affairs at the Marine Corps University, where he holds the Kim T. Adamson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism. His new book is A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq.
From Mark Moyar
I started writing A Question of Command in the middle of 2007, near the nadir of the Iraq war, in large part because I was distraught at the daily slaughter in Iraqi cities. Having recently completed a book on the first half of the Vietnam War, I had started on the sequel but decided to put it on hold in order to write something of more immediate value to the Americans serving abroad. The United States, I was convinced, was not providing its military officers with the proper instruction before sending them into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believed, in addition, that America’s strategic and policy decisions had suffered badly from a lack of understanding of counterinsurgency that stemmed, in considerable measure, from the scarcity of good books on the subject.
For the preceding three years, I had been teaching mid-career officers at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia. During that period, a new colonel took charge of the college and re-oriented the curriculum towards counterinsurgency, as a result of his experiences commanding a Marine regiment in Fallujah. I had responsibility for identifying new instructional material for one of the core courses taken by all of the students, so I rapidly gained familiarity with historical and theoretical works on counterinsurgency that lay outside my lane of the Vietnam War.
As I waded into new sources, I reached the same conclusion I had reached in the course of writing two books on Vietnam—that most of the scholarship did not delve adequately into the actual business of how to defeat insurgents. Too much of it focused on high-level strategy and policy and on theoretical questions. There were only a few noteworthy exceptions, and they were historical works rather than theoretical treatises, like Brian Linn’s The Philippine War and Andrew Birtle’s U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine. Teaching experienced military officers, many of whom had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan, allowed me to see better the lack of practical usefulness of so much counterinsurgency research.
My broadening awareness of the counterinsurgency literature also revealed that Vietnam specialists were not the only people who accepted too readily the “hearts and minds” theory of counterinsurgency, which claims that counterinsurgencies should be defeated primarily with social, economic, and political reforms, not with military force. Through many years of research on Vietnam, I had concluded that the hearts and mind theory did not work in the case of the Vietnam War, and I came to the same conclusion for many other counterinsurgencies. In A Question of Command, I argue that security and good governance, rather than sweeping reforms, are the key activities in counterinsurgency, and that success in those two activities is principally a function of leadership. Rather than focusing on finding the right methods, as the “hearts-and-minds” school recommends, counterinsurgents should concentrate on finding the right leaders.
With the publication of A Question of Command, I hope to influence three specific audiences, in addition to the general public. The first is the U.S. military’s officer corps. Through its historical analysis and theoretical analysis, the book illustrates the leadership attributes and methods that have produced success in the past and are likely to do so in the future. It explains how to develop leaders, put them in the right positions, delegate authority efficiently, co-opt new groups of leaders, and influence an ally’s leadership. These subjects have been ignored almost entirely by previous scholars, in favor of topics of considerably less value to practitioners.
The second audience is policymakers, who are apt to make bad decisions in counterinsurgency situations if they do not understand the dynamics of counterinsurgency leadership. For example, American policymakers would not have barred Iraq’s traditional ruling class from the new Iraqi security forces had it known that building security force programs on a crash basis without experienced officers is a recipe for disaster.
The third audience is the scholarly community, particularly in the areas of history and political science. I am hoping to convince them that they have given insufficient attention to the role of leadership in counterinsurgency, and will therefore redirect attention in such a way as to promote greater learning in this area.