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Reviewed by:
  • Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terror: Military Culture and Irregular War
  • Joseph R. Cerami
Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terror: Military Culture and Irregular War. By Robert M. Cassidy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Security Studies, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8047-5966-3. Tables. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. 211. $23.95.

Robert Cassidy’s study of counterinsurgency continues a tradition of Army officers, armed with advanced university degrees, who have wrestled with the topic of irregular warfare in light of the Army’s preference for the regular, conventional kind. The most influential include Andrew Krepinevich’s The Army in Vietnam and the more recent Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by John Nagl. Cassidy’s goal is ambitious, to: “look at both the cultural impediments and successful techniques for waging counterinsurgency....” His intent is in “incorporating over a century’s worth of survey examples from several different military traditions.” In addition to examining the military cultures of Russia, America, and Britain, the author offers chapters on al Qaeda’s ideology and culture, as well the implications for the U.S. military “because it did for a very long time almost exclusively embrace a conventional, bigwar, paradigm, to the detriment of a capacity to prosecute counterinsurgency.”

Obviously, the scope and breadth of this book makes it vulnerable to criticism from many directions. Let me point out several obvious concerns, for reasons that I will explain later. Equating Clausewitz with proponents of conventional war and Mao with counterinsurgencies oversimplifies the contributions of each to our understanding of warfare. After all, Clausewitz provides the foundation for strategic thought—that is, about war being the continuation of politics. And whether it’s the Clausewitzian trinity or Colonel Summer’s American trinity, the notion that unifying the government, army, and people provides a powerful combination has important implications for any nation and any kind of war, insurgencies included. Similarly, many argue that ultimately Mao’s Red Army overwhelmed Chiang Kai-Shek’s National Army using very conventional warfare. And, not to discount the improvements in counterinsurgency due to the Americans’ CORDS program in [End Page 1393] Vietnam, that Cassidy, Krepinevich, and Nagl highlight, other historians remind us that it was conventional North Vietnamese large unit, mechanized forces that overran South Vietnam.

In recounting recent Russian history in Chechnya, Cassidy gives more credit to the “cunning Chechens” than he does to the staying power of the Russian Army. And, although the traditions and service records of British Army regiments remains a standard for all professional forces, we are not reading much history of their success in maintaining the British colonial empire over the long term. No doubt, scholars who specialize in the subject of culture will find room to criticize Cassidy’s very brief summary on “culture: political, strategic, and military” that draws on the older scholarship of Clifford Geertz, Lucien Pye, and Sidney Verba.

These observations aside, there are two aspects of the book that are especially striking. The first is that Cassidy, Nagl, and Krepinevich draw similar conclusionsthat the U.S. Army’s particular military culture constrains creative thinking about the nature of warfare, as well as the Army’s role in counterinsurgency warfare. All three coalesce around the notion that a deeper study of organizational theory, change management, and learning organization theory provide important insights. How then to explain the ongoing training of “indigenous forces in the counterinsurgent role” (as Cassidy prescribes) in Iraq and Afghanistan by today’s Army?

Second, and more significant I think, is that an in-depth understanding of political and economic development, along with sociology and cultural anthropology, provides the context for understanding insurgencies and the Army’s role in dealing with insurgents in fragile states. Those are large literatures to digest and even harder to make generalizations about—as “truisms” or “lessons learned”—despite the Army’s desire to capture the essence of complicated topics in PowerPoint format. How then to draw on a knowledge base for doctrine on political, economic, and social development that does not exist in current scholarship?

Back to Clausewitz then—and the timeless debates about the nature of warfare in its military and political dimensions. If warfare is mainly...