CSA PRL 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 and realistic discussion of how and why COIN 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  at the failure of COIN both today and in the past.