- Innovation, Transformation, and War: Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, 2005-2007
The broad story of the Iraq war has been well documented. A rapid victory by US and allied units gave way to an enduring insurgency. In the widely accepted contemporary narrative, 2003-2006 saw US military units [End Page 509] flailing against insurgents without success. In 2007, some combination of the promulgation of a new counterinsurgency doctrine — the decision to send additional troops to Iraq — and the leadership of General David Petraeus combined to reverse the tide of the war. Change therefore came primarily from decisions taken at the highest levels of command, though executed bravely and effectively by personnel at the tactical level. 1
James Russell rightly challenges this narrative, as well as theories of top-down military innovation, by examining how different US military units sought to adapt to counterinsurgency in Iraq before the major changes in 2007. In the present volume, he provides a theoretical chapter on innovation, with a focus on bottom-up military innovation, and three empirical chapters from the period 2005-2007 (western Anbar province, Anbar's capital Ramadi, and Ninewa province). Russell illustrates the manifold ways in which units modified or created standard operating procedures and incorporated new technologies to combat insurgency without extensive guidance from higher echelons.
There is much to recommend in this book. Russell has great insight into the US military and his empirical work is extraordinarily fine-grained, particularly for contemporary history. He has combined interviews with military personnel, unclassified primary sources (many of which are available in an online appendix from the publisher), and secondary source accounts to produce detailed case studies. His description of existing theories of military innovation and the development of his own theory is extensive without being bewildering for the uninitiated.
Russell is also careful to note that innovation is not synonymous with success. While he attributes much of the substantial improvement in security in Ramadi from 2005 to 2007 to tactical changes by US military units, the same is not true in Ninewa. Here he caveats at the conclusion of the chapter "... this analysis does not argue that wartime innovation produced a 'victory' like that which occurred in the fall of 2006 during the battle for Ramadi" (p. 190). This caveat crucially highlights the limits of even successful counterinsurgency innovation.
There are two limitations of the book, one in terms of social science and the other empirical. In social science jargon, Russell selects on the dependent variable by presenting only cases of what he codes as successful wartime innovation. Yet the reader is left to question whether the units examined are broadly representative of the universe of units deployed to Iraq. Did all units adapt as well? If not, why not?
Empirically, Russell is also limited by the fact that so much of his evidence relies on primary sources from the units he studies, particularly interviews. It is unlikely that interviewees would describe themselves as poorly adapting to counterinsurgency (which perhaps helps explain the selection on the dependent variable). Russell acknowledges this as a risk but argues that secondary source reporting provides a cross check (p. 18). While this is true to some extent, contemporary secondary source reporting is, due to the exigencies of conflict, at best a partial check that is often reliant on the same set of primary sources as Russell (i.e., the units conducting counterinsurgency).
An additional check might have been to interview units that operated with the units in Russell's cases to provide a sort of peer review. In the Ninewa case, Russell does something like this through interviews with special operations personnel who worked with the unit that is the focus of his case (pp. 153-154). Yet other opportunities existed. For example as Russell notes the 3rd Battalion, Eighth Marines (3-8) operated in 2006 under two units he examines in his Ramadi case: the 2nd Brigade, 28th Infantry Division (2/28) and the 1st Brigade Combat Team...