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Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War [Paperback]

Douglas Porch
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

11 July 2013
Counterinsurgency has staked its claim in the new century as the new American way of war. Yet, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have revived a historical debate about the costs – monetary, political and moral – of operations designed to eliminate insurgents and build nations. Today's counterinsurgency proponents point to 'small wars' past to support their view that the enemy is 'biddable' if the correct tactical formulas are applied. Douglas Porch's sweeping history of counterinsurgency campaigns carried out by the three 'providential nations' of France, Britain and the United States, ranging from nineteenth-century colonial conquests to General Petraeus's 'Surge' in Iraq, challenges the contemporary mythologising of counterinsurgency as a humane way of war. The reality, he reveals, is that 'hearts and minds' has never been a recipe for lasting stability and that past counterinsurgency campaigns have succeeded not through state-building but by shattering and dividing societies while unsettling civil-military relations.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 445 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (11 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1107699843
  • ISBN-13: 978-1107699847
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 15 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 254,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'In this brilliant volume master historian Douglas Porch shatters the myth of contemporary counterinsurgency by exposing its raw historical roots. American counterinsurgents often preach moralistic sounding bromides like 'protect and serve the local populations'. Porch deconstructs the mythical universe of counterinsurgency and lays bare the historical truth that they are ultimately wars of death, destruction, and often brute conquest.' Colonel Gian Gentile, United States Military Academy, West Point

'Douglas Porch has written one of the single most outstanding reviews and critiques of the modern theory of counterinsurgency. It fully exposes the myths and legends behind a fundamentally flawed and pernicious approach to conceptualising human conflict. This book should be essential reading for military students, scholars and laymen alike.' Alex Marshall, The Scottish Centre for War Studies, University of Glasgow

'I cannot say how important I believe this book to be. You may have the usual issues with my article, but do not let these put you off this hugely significant piece of scholarship, which melds aspects of foreign and domestic policy in a very unusual way and, if the world were just and reasonable, would become an internationally acclaimed text. I hope it does because it would be little short of a tragedy if it disappeared and the West did not embrace the analysis and so change its ways for the better. It's a tough read for the British and Americans, but like all good analysis, it really can stop us making the same mistakes, generation after generation.' Henry Porter, Observer

'Provocative … challenges the very doctrine of counterinsurgency from the late nineteenth century to the Petraeus surge in Iraq.' Total Politics

Book Description

Douglas Porch's sweeping history of counterinsurgency campaigns, ranging from nineteenth-century colonial conquests to General Petraeus's 'Surge' in Iraq, challenges the contemporary mythologising of counterinsurgency as a humane way of war. The reality, he reveals, is that 'hearts and minds' has never been a recipe for lasting stability.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars COIN is old wine in new bottles 12 Sep 2013
By Steve
The `back of jacket' endorsements are accurate for once; this really is a brilliant and compelling analysis of warfare as counterinsurgency. It illuminates the causes and consequences of recent and not so recent conflicts as well as being incredibly topical in giving insights into current tragedies like Syria (one theatre not actually covered in this book).

The author's analysis of COIN as a counterinsurgency methodology is extremely well argued. Inevitably the focus is very much on the mistakes (a.k.a. successes) of British, American and other armed forces of 'the willing'. In contrast there is little coverage of truly successful operations - the author posits that success usualy arose through circumstance or external factors - or the potential for public good in stabilising a deteriorating situation. But perhaps that's because too often the actions of military powers, local or interventionist, instigate or worsen rather than contain a violent insurgency, and any benefits are short-lived. Douglas Porch assigns responsibility for failures in counterinsurgency operations to politicians without a clear policy, an over-reliance on Special Forces as a 'magic bullet' and military commanders with a contextually irrelevant strategy, presenting 'old wine in new bottles'.

This review would have been 5 stars, but for two reasons. Firstly the writing style is somewhat dense at times (I know....) Having said that, the whole flows well and ideas are expressed clearly; so I urge any hesitant reader to persevere. Secondly it would also be interesting to read the author's analysis of the experience of other actors engaged in counterinsurgency operations in say China, Russia, Sri Lanka or India.

I do hope this book gets the attention this subject deserves; especially now.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a ploemic not a study 1 Sep 2013
By Jay
I have read the authors previous books with interest. This however is dreadful - the writer is angry (almost hysterically so) and proceeds to undermine the point of his arguments by blaming napoleons marshals and 19th century colonial soldiers for failing to have a strategy for the 21st century as well as for being shockingly politically incorrect.

He sets up a straw man and rips him to shreds. He accuses everybody of failing to realise their policies won't work but this is easy as he never suggests what could have worked - because he seems to believe nothing will. To do this he has to ignore successful counter insurgencies (and plead that the few he mentions didn't work) - especially those where states successfully put down insurgencies within their own borders
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5.0 out of 5 stars interesting 30 Mar 2014
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An interesting and well-argued book. I don't agree with everything the author says, but he is careful to back up his views with well-reasoned arguments.
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Douglas porch has written a superb thought provoking account of counterinsurgency past and present. Again Ive been using this as reference material and further reading for my Masters. A superb read for the general reader and student of warfare.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Can of Worms Finally Released and Emptied 13 Sep 2013
By Arthur Chenevey - Published on
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This book hits home at a personal level, yet it offers a well researched--NOT A WELL FABRICATED BATCH OF USA PROPAGANDA--historical documentation of what has become known as Western Counter-Insurgency, and then proceeds to expose it for what COIN really is: "Petty War" tactics and nothing special at all.

During the unpopular conflict in Southeast Asia, neck deep in this fiasco, I smelled something horribly rotten and never could put my finger on. I was well read in the current Insurgency and COIN documents from all the well knowns, but what I saw unfold before me and what I read and was taught as US Military Doctrine were diametrically opposite one another.

The level of savagery and brutality elicited upon the peoples of the south for whom we were there to supposedly help, the corruption in both our government, especailly in the SpecOps groups, and the southern government and its military we worked to create and support, the utilization of indigenous mountain peoples we exploited as hunters exploit their hunting dogs, and the openly elitist view the US Military, both conventional and SpecForces groups harbored toward all of peoples in this region, really is par for the course, when discussing USA/British/French Colonial inspired COIN. This book LITERALLY documents these facts beginning from the Preface to the Conclusion, ripping SOCOM a "new one."

As Porch stipulates throughout the book, tactics are not the problem--something the USA has learned to excel at accomplishing. Tactics elicited, possessing no genuine, paradoxically solid, yet flexible strategic end, other than cramming Western democracy down peoples' throats, who often do not even understand this concept, and doing it all through well executed military tactical force, is a prime recipe for failure. Porch shows this failure over and over and over again through well sited and well documented writing.

As the book details, what we have now in the USA Military with SOCOM, is a BassAkwards military organization heading for an inevitable meltdown. In USSOCOM, we find a huge, centralized, conventionally run and organized, special operations group supported by a weak and fallible conventional force--the direct opposite of what any modern standing army needs, all due to current DoD thinking that this is how we must fight wars to come. "Special" needs to remain "Special" PRN--as needed--and not become the full focus of any standing army's operational doctrine. COIN itself? As Porch so beautifully documents, COIN needs no special ways and means assigned to fight it. What COIN does need to be winnable are common sense in correctly choosing whether or not we should even engage troops to the geography of this potential conflict, sensitivity to what is actually transpiring at all levels--politically, culturally, socially and economically world wide, AND then create a strong, appropriate and flexible strategic guidance which tactical and operational actions will follow.

This book shows repetitively, how the knee jerk response to what occurred in Southeast Asia from WW2 to 1975, erroneously swung the preparatory pendulum to the far opposite side of the spectrum, only to find failure once again in weak strategic applications within the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts, with a strategy, yet again designed to cram Western values down indigenous throats, but this time, instead of Communism being the evil empire needing crushed, it is the "war on terror." As said prior: "Tactics are not the problem."

This book is much relief. Reading it is like being able to finally take a deep, cleansing breath of air after four decades of holding one's breath, so as not to inhale the proverbial stench and grime of the rhetorical BS constantly spread by supporters of COIN and this White Elephant in the room that is SOCOM, with their nonexistent strategies for conducting well-executed tactical warfare, all buried under elitist manure.

This book will cause a stir in US DoD and USSOCOM for sure. Will it cause changes in how the US military engages insurgencies, changes for the good? Well, the book created a huge boulder-dropping-into-a-quiet-pond effect, that is certain. Only time will tell if the biggest bureaucracy in the USA has an ability to actually learn something useful for a change, consciously stopping that swinging operational/tactical pendulum to the dead center, where it needs to be, and then provide well thought strategy for the next conflict surely to arrive.

This book is a gem among gems: factual, well researched--not fabricated to support individual and governmental mythological interests--and is as objective and free of personal biases tainting this research that is humanly possible.

Well done!!!! And thank you.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The pendullum swings yet again 16 Oct 2013
By Art M. Loureiro - Published on
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Dr. Doug Porch has provided us with a compelling argument that "war is war" irrespective of the label we put on it. Having served multiple combat tours and watched the evolution of the COINdinistas argument in handling these types of conflicts, I can attest that the points made by Dr. Porch are valid. Highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest on the application of force to achieve political objectives. Clausewitz is not dead as some would wish...
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's the strategy, stupid. (Kindle Edition) 7 Jan 2014
By The F7 Pawn - Published on
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This book could be more accurately described as a thinly-veiled condemnation of imperialism and the related COIN tactics that accompany it rather than an attack on COIN per se. It's a pity, too, because Mr. Porch spoils some fine historical and strategic analysis with some unnecessary and regrettable exaggerations of COIN tactics and condescension toward those with whom he would disagree. Describing the Vietnam-era Phoenix program in multiple places as an "assassination" regime (it was much more than that) or decrying US "scorched earth tactics" (page 321, laughable to anyone who has spent even a day there) in Afghanistan undermines his case and calls into question some of the conclusions he draws regarding his subject. Similarly, Mr. Porch engages in childish name calling of "SOF cowboys" based on little more than Rolling Stone author Michael Hastings' less-than-scholarly treatment of General Stanley McChrystal and his teammates. He also warns, unconvincingly, that COIN fetishes have led to the diminution of civil liberties at home but ignores that conventional wars have produced the same baleful effects.

Stylistically, the book is somewhat awkward. There are minor spelling inconsistencies (General Shinseki's name, for example, is misspelled) and Mr. Porch's academic writing style gives us prose with a tendency to meander.

Having said that, the book's strength lies in its focus on the strategic context on each of the insurgencies under Mr. Porch's analytic gaze. He puts the importance of this strategic context into its proper place of supremacy over COIN tactics. Similarly, Mr. Porch is at his best in throwing cold water on British and French claims to superiority in small wars and he effectively demolishes the Nagl myth of the US Army as a non-learning institution.

As Mr. Porch avers, places where counterinsurgencies tend to take place are rarely within the sphere of America's vital national interests, are subject to the Clausewitzian factors of fog, friction, unpredictability, and chance, and are damned hard to withdraw from once engaged. That American Wilsonians (of both parties) continue to stumble into these briar patches and cause great harm to our nation makes Mr. Porch's book highly recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Important argument, but.... 16 Mar 2014
By Lifelong student - Published on
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The author has an important perspective that needs to be considered by all military professionals. As a COIN advocate, I'm glad I read it. Some of his arguments hold water and they have changed my mind. However, I had a tough time keeping up with the problems the French and British had conducting COIN. The author assumes the reader is more familiar with the historical colonial insurgencies, which I am somewhat ignorant of. Finally, the author's writing style is wordy. OK if you're an academic type; tough for me to maintain interest (took me about three months to finish). Last chapter is the best, so there's definitely value in finishing the book.
4.0 out of 5 stars Hearts and Minds? I don't think so. 31 Mar 2014
By Walter E. Kurtz - Published on
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This book covers the development of counterinsurgency doctrine in theory, and how it was applied in practice. It starts with the Vendée war during the French Revolution. For those who don’t know, Vendée was a region of France that was staunchly royalist. When the French monarchy was overthrown by revolutionaries and king Louis XVIII was executed, Vendée rose up in rebellion.
What followed was a counterinsurgency war renowned for its savagery.

Why does the author start with this particular conflict? After all, this was hardly the first insurgency in the history of the world. What had changed was the nature of the French political thought. The revolutionaries back in Paris painted themselves as enlightened, liberal thinkers who were going to start a new golden age. Up until that moment insurgencies were normally put down with violence and terror, but such methods were no longer compatible with the image that the new French government was projecting.

So, the war in the Vendée was supposed to be fought accordingly to new humane rules. Except that it wasn’t. The government troops waged a war against the insurgents that was in no way different from the old wars. They fell back on mass violence, mass terror, mass destruction, mass plunder and collective punishments to crush the insurgency.

This became a common recurring theme in all future counterinsurgencies. The author goes over such wars as the Spanish insurrection against Napoleon, conquest of Algeria, colonial wars in Africa and Asia, American invasion of Cuba and Philippines, the Boer war, all the way to current war in Iraq. He focuses on the experiences of the French, British and Americans.

His main thesis, which in my opinion he demonstrates quite well, is that despite the lofty rhetoric about fighting insurgencies in smart and human way, counterinsurgency wars always sooner or later fell back on violence as the solution. While the politicians back home talk about hearts and minds and clean, humane wars, the soldiers on the ground quickly descend into barbarism in order to crush the insurgency.

Aside for the fact that these wars quickly become moral black holes, they bring in two problems. The first one is that counterinsurgency wars often fail. While the insurgents usually do not have the strength to win militarily, they often win politically. Tired of fighting and appalled by reports of atrocities, the government back home usually negotiates some sort of deal with the insurgents, or simply pulls out. When insurgents do lose, it is usually more to do with their mistakes and hopeless strategic situation than any brilliant tactic used by their enemies.

The second problem is that the militaries engaged in counterinsurgency have a tendency to develop deep disdain for the civilian government back home and they bring some of the violence home. The best example is Algeria in 1950s, where the French army started dictating terms to the civilian government in France, and then eventually rebelled and had to be put down with harshness. (Some of the rebellious generals were executed.) In South America, the armies engaged in counterinsurgency warfare became notoriously barbaric (even by “normal” counterinsurgency standards) and often threatened to (and sometimes did) take over the country.

These are extreme cases, but pretty much every society engaged in long-term counterinsurgency sees increased militarization and attack on civil rights. You do not go to a foreign country where you spend a couple of years acting like a savage, and then come back home to civilized society and act as if nothing ever happened. The violence and barbarism soak inside you and stay in your soul.

The author is obviously biased against counterinsurgency war. Yet, this book is not some rant by some left-wing peace activist, but a well researched and well presented academic thesis. I enjoyed reading it, but I have to admit that the author often uses big fancy words, and when he speaks about the French, he likes to use French expressions without translating them. When you are writing a book in English, you are writing a book in English. Please don’t make it multilingual.

The author also does not explain much about the wars he is discussing. For example, when talking about Vietnam, he does not explain the war as a whole, but focuses solely on the American counterinsurgency methods and why they failed. He assumes that the reader already has good knowledge of that war. The same goes to lesser degrees for all the other conflicts he discusses. To truly enjoy this book, you would need to already have solid foundation of historical knowledge.

The author also does not provide much in terms of suggesting on how to resolve the problem of savagery of counterinsurgency war. One solution is obviously not to wage such wars at all. For that matter, I think human race would be better off without waging wars of any kind.

The only hope I see on the horizon lies in the development of mass communications. In the 19th century, when European soldiers were drowning Africa in blood in order to colonize it, news from these wars was rare and took weeks to arrive back home. Today we can have (and we often do) live coverage from any conflict on the planet. We have insurgents reporting their own news on the internet. We have soldiers on both sides speaking up about atrocities that they witness on private blogs. Lack of sources is no longer an excuse for ignorance.

We also have less racism. In 19th century Europeans could butcher Arabs, Indians, Africans and other dark-skinned people all they wanted because dark-skinned foreigners were seen as less than human, if they were seen as human at all. I am not so nave as to say that racism is dead, but at least it is no longer tolerated in the open. Pale-skinned soldiers cannot anymore go to another country and butcher the dark-skinned natives and then justify themselves in front of cameras by saying that those people were inferior in some way. Don’t take me wrong. Racist killings still go on, but at the very least you can no longer brag about it in the medias.

Human race is slowly getting better. Maybe one day hearts and minds will be an actual method of dealing with insurgencies rather than an empty slogan. Then again, I hope that the day will come when there will be no need for hearts and minds because there will be no war anymore.
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