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Book Review: Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War by Douglas Porch

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was recently released and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the second in that series.

After reading Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War by Douglas Porch I am actually surprised this book made the list.  Mainly because Porch spares no sacred cows in his skewering of Western counterinsurgency doctrine over the past century or so.  This is essentially a study of counterinsurgency doctrine from 1870 forward and an attempt to determine said doctrines effectiveness.

The book itself is 346 pages of text with 53 pages of notes, a 17 page bibliography, and an index.  It is divided into 11 chapters, 10 of which are topical and the eleventh is the conclusion.

To start with, Porch’s disdain for the modern school of COIN thought is apparent throughout as he mentions it’s proponents as COIN-dinistas.  Most of the book is a look at modern insurgencies and the way they have been combated starting with the Peninsular War in the early 19th century.  The constant narrative thread is that COIN is and has been a failure in whatever guise it has been tried.  The only sure way of suppressing an insurgency is through the swift application of violence and maintaining a military presence.  “Hearts and Minds” is a failure because you cannot induce people to be something they do not want to be and any appearance of success is illusory because as soon as the threat of force and repression is removed people will revert back to what they were before the threat existed.

I must admit that I tend to agree with Porch’s assessment and my reading of history says the same thing. The only thing that allows a foreign or domestic power seen as illegitimate to stay in power is repression.  It was true 200 years ago, it was true 2,000 years ago, and it is true today.  WItness the continuing failure of US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan today and compare that to Roman efforts to control Judaea in ancient times.  Repression, usually bloody repression at that, is the only surefire method of controlling insurgency.  Repression only works because eventually you either kill all the insurgents or cow those that remain into submission.

That method of warmaking is anathema to the modern West and so Porch is undoubtedly correct that Western powers are doomed to continue to fail in their attempts at counterinsurgency.  The question is not how to win against an insurgency (they are essentially unwinnable), but why the West gets involved in them at all?

Porch’s book is a sad record of COIN failure and an analysis of why that is so.  He freely admits he does not have an answer for how Western forces can fight and win an insurgency and stay within modern notions of warfare.  The two are probably incompatible.

Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is a thought provoking and damning study of COIN doctrine both historical and modern.  I would compare this to Max Boot’s The Savage Wars Of Peace: Small Wars And The Rise Of American Power.  Boot thinks that there is a winning combination, Porch does not.

I can see why this book is on the CSA’s list and it fully deserves to be there.  If you are interested in a nuanced an realistic discussion of how and why CIN doctrine is a prescription for failure and what has worked historically then this is it.  I highly recommend this outstanding book for taking an uncompromising and realistic look the failure of COIN both today and in the past.

 

Emperor Augustus Passes Away

On this day 2,000 years ago the reign of the first Roman Emperor statue-augustusIMPERATOR CAESAR DIVI F AVGVSTVS born Gaius Octavius ended when he passed away at the age of 75 at Nola after a short illness.  Supposedly his last words were – “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.”  His reign had lasted for 41 years and he had brought true stability and peace to Rome for the first time in almost 100 years.

After his death his body was transported to Rome where he was cremated and his ashes were installed in the Mausoleum he had had built on the Campus Martius for the remains of himself and his family.

Mausoleum of Augustus on the Campus Martius in Rome
Mausoleum of Augustus on the Campus Martius in Rome
Manassas 5

The First Battle of Manassas – 21 July, 1861

First Manassas or First Bull Run as it was called in the North was the first major battle between land forces of the Civil War.  The outcome of the battle also set the general pattern for battles in the first two years of the war. That pattern being tactical Union defeats with the Confederacy being incapable of following up on the strategic opportunities presented by their victories.

Forces Involved:
Union – 28,450 troops under BG Irvin McDowell
Confederate – 32,230 under BG Joseph Johnston and BG P.G.T. Beauregard

A key point is to remember that uniforms were not standardized on either side this early in the war. Both armies looked like multi-colored mobs and the lack of standardization was to increase confusion about unit identity on the day of the battle.  Another Point to remember is that the Confederate forces were those of two different armies and neither army was completely engaged during the battle. Only about half of the Confederate forces took part in the decisive fight around Henry house Hill.  The commanders of both armies but especially the Confederates comprised almost a who’s who of people that would be prominent later in the war.

Manassas 1

The Opening Skirmish: On July 18th Tyler’s Division of the Union Army tried and failed to force Blackburn’s Ford across Bull Run on the direct route to Manassas Junction.  He was supposed to just demonstrate in that direction while avoiding an engagement.  Instead got into a fight with Longstreet’s Brigade of Confederates that was guarding the ford.  Tyler continued the fight at the Ford until McDowell arrived personally and ordered him to break off the engagement.

The Confederates planned on standing on the defensive just south of the Bull Run River with the approximate center of their line being the stone bridge along the Warrenton Pike where it crosses the river.  By contrast the Union planned a two piece attack with Tyler’s Division demonstrating along the river line while a Two Divisions would march around the Confederate flank, cross Bull Run at the Sudley Springs Ford and attempt to roll up their line from the confederate left.

The morning of the battle itself found the action beginning around 0800 as Tyler’s division demonstrated by the Stone Bridge. About 0900-0915 the Evan’s Brig. on the Confederate left flank began engaging the lead elements of the Union 2nd division as they approached Matthew’s Hill from the west. Evan’s was reinforced by two more brigades but the Union troops arrived too fast forcing the Confederates to engage as they came up and not allowing them concentrate. Around 1100 hours the Confederates were driven from Matthew’s Hill and retreated to Henry House Hill where the first units of Joe Johnston’s Army was arriving and they could establish a defensive line as the Union Army kept approaching.

As the Confederate troops attempted to establish their new position on Henry House Hill vital time was bought by the privately raised Legion of Wade Hampton which delayed the Union troops by about five minutes in a short sharp fight at the foot of the hill.  Incidentally, Hampton’s Legion suffered the highest casualties of any unit engaged at First Manassas.

Manassas 2

After the Confederates had retreated they established a defensive line in the shape of a an inverted semicircle.  This shape allowed the Confederates to fire on the Union troops from three sides as they came up the hill in the assault.

It was at this time that Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname as his Brigade fought desperately and bought the remainder of the time necessary for the Confederates to consolidate their position.

The key and decisive part of the battle was the fighting that swirled around Henry House Hill in the afternoon from roughly noon until 1600.  The Union army had gotten two batteries of Regular Army artillery in good position to fire on the Confederate lines.

As the fight developed the Union initially had a superiority of force of somewhere between 3 and as much as 5 to 1.  If they had concentrated and attacked with an entire division or even an entire brigade they probably could have taken the hill and won the battle, but they did not d that.  Instead, the Union troops advanced and attacked a regiment at a time.

The Decisive Moment
The Decisive Moment

As each Union regiment assaulted the crest of the hill they were repulsed and thrown back only to be replaced by a fresh regiment to whom the same thing happened.  Throughout the course of the afternoon the Union troops continued to assault in the way until there was a mass of defeated mixed up Union regiments at the foot of the hill.

Keep in mind also that the Confederate troops were continually being reinforced as Johnston’s Shenandah troops were fed into the battle as they arrived from the railhead at Manassas Junction.  Eventually the balance of forces started to swing against the Union.

The battle finally turned entirely against the Union hen the Confederate cavalry of J.E.B. Stuart attack and overran the two batteries of Union artillery that had been so damaging to the Confederates all afternoon. This was doubly worse as the artillery was caught as it was displacing to get a better angle of fire on the defenders.

As the artillery was overrun fresh confederate troops of Jubal Early and Arnold Elzey followed the cavalry and plowed into the Union right collapsing it forcing the entire Union army to begin to retreat.  The Union troops managed to retreat in fairly good order until they reached the Cub Run bridge where a destroyed wagon on the bridge itself caused a traffic jam forced the army to cross the creek on foot.  It was here that rumors of confederate cavalry turned a retreat into a rout and then a rout into a panic.  The only Union unit that maintained discipline was the 14th U.S. Infantry which kept its order and continued to fight serving as a rear guard for the entire union army as they fled the battlefield.Manassas 4

The Confederates were too exhausted to immediately pursue the defeated Union army and by the time they were rested the next day rain overnight had turned the roads into a morass and ruled out any effective pursuit.  This allowed the defeated Union Army of the Potomac to regroup and reconsolidate in and around Washington D.C. in the next few weeks.  The first Union campaign of the war had ended in failure. Casualties were actually fairly light for such a large battle, especially when considered by the casualties standards of later battles of the Civil War.

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Book Review: Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was recently released and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.  This review is the first in that series.

Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen is at a minimum an interesting read.  It is one of those works that appear from time to time that attempt to peer into the crystal ball and divine what future war will look like.  I expect that like most books of this sort, he is partially right and mostly wrong.  However, it is still worth reading and a good inclusion on the PRL as it shows that the new COS is not stuck in the paradigm of the past and recognizes that the next war will not likely be the same as the last one.

The book itself is 294 pages of text with 36 pages of notes and an 11 page bibliography.  The text is separated into 5 topical chapters and an appendix.

The basic theory expounded in the book is that given the trend of the world’s population concentrating itself in coastal or near coastal cities, littoral) that is where most combat is likely to occur in the future.  It also further posits that most combat will be between state and non-state actors who might or might not have state support.  The most important things stressed are the interconnected nature of the modern world, the lack of legitimate authority in large swathes of urban areas, the lack of services in mega-cities, and the phenomenon of the breakdown of the state in slums and periurban agglomerations.

Several littoral and urban conflicts from recent years are chronicled from the Mumbai attacks in 2008, Mogadishu, Somalia in the early 90′s, to the 2009 government takedown of the Shower Posse in Kingston, Jamaica.  All of these episodes are used to illustrate various points made throughout the narrative.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapter on the theory of competitive control and how it works to make non-government groups such as gangs and terror outfits legitimate in the eyes of residents by doing things that government either will not or cannot do for the residents.  It is an interesting theory and it perhaps even explains some aspects of urban conflict but I cannot see how the theory helps in developing ways to combat urban terror and lawlessness except for giving a patina of academic rigor to the already demonstrably failed COIN techniques developed over the last century.

Because the book tries to predict the future, it is probably wrong.  Mos such books are.  However, that does not mean the book is worthless, far from it.  Absent the conclusion, which is prescriptive, the book does an outstanding job of describing the factors at work in modern, littoral, megacities and is worth reading because of that.  It is no doubt correct that urbanization will continue and that government failure to adequately plan and provide for urban population growth will be a source of tension between the governed and the government.  I still do not see widespread urban combat taking place in a vacuum and especially absent a rural hinterland supporting said combat.

This is an outstanding book for its description of trends in city growth and the implication that growth has for future combat and tensions.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the combat of today and a possible future trend of where combat will occur.

2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List

The new 2014 US Army Chief of Staff Professional Reading List (PRL) was recently released and I was relieved in the extreme to see that there was only one novel on the list, Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.  The list is different than earlier lists because it is organized topically instead of by position as earlier lists were.  I have read many of the books on the list already and decided to read the ones I have not and post my thoughts on the books on the list.