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.