David J. Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 272 pp., $15.95.
Ted Morgan, Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu That Led America into the Vietnam War (New York: Random House, 2010), 752 pp., $35.00.
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village is a Liar: An Education in War (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 272 pp., $26.95.
WHILE DISSIMILAR in style and focus, these three books—a history, a memoir and a theory—address the core of any insurgency: the relationship between a government and its people. Pulitzer Prize–winner Ted Morgan has created a masterpiece of research and insights connecting the front lines of Dien Bien Phu with the politics of the 1954 Geneva Conference that marked America’s entry into the Vietnam War. Los Angeles Times reporter Megan Stack presents a devastating collection of personal anecdotes about callous, oppressive male rulers in the culture of the Middle East. David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer, reprises from previous lectures and essays his theory about benign counterinsurgency in support of nation building.
[amazon 1400066646 full] THE THIRTEEN thousand defenders at Dien Bien Phu, 185 miles west of the main French garrison in Hanoi, were supplied only by parachute drops. Their mission was to await the assault of the Vietminh and then destroy General Giap’s forces by overwhelming defensive firepower. It was the Valley of Death. Morgan limns the colossal ineptitude of the French generals and colonels who deluded themselves while Giap methodically whittled down the defenders using barrages from Chinese-supplied artillery combined with wave attacks by fifty thousand soldiers.
Morgan fought in the French Army in Algiers in 1960 and later became an American citizen. In this book, he applies his skills as a soldier, linguist, reporter and historian to depict in riveting detail the doomed heroics of French, Algerian, Moroccan, Vietnamese and Foreign Legion soldiers slowly squeezed into submission by six months of shelling and trenches that slithered forward, night after night, like giant tentacles.
In 1941, the Vietminh under Ho Chi Minh (later backed by the Soviet Union and the young People’s Republic of China) had begun to push for liberation from colonial France and from Japanese occupation forces that had invaded Indochina. After Japan’s defeat, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent and set up a provisional government. France made clear its intention to restore its sovereignty over the country. Indochina quickly became embroiled in battle after bloody battle between French forces and the revolutionaries.
Morgan cleverly shifts his narrative back and forth between the exhaustive fighting on the front lines and the political machinations among the Soviets, Chinese, French, English and Americans at the Geneva Conference that opened on May 8, 1954, when they tried to restore peace in Indochina. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower shared a deep belief that France should not recolonize Vietnam after World War II. Only grudgingly did they permit some partial military aid to bolster the French effort. And the Geneva agreements, instead of unifying the Southeast Asian region, split the country into a Communist North and a French-supporting South. While Eisenhower was proud that he had kept American ground troops out of Indochina, dividing the peninsula in two guaranteed a second war. (It was the Chinese fear of more active American involvement on the side of the French that led to the partition of Vietnam at Geneva, the only way to ensure each party had its own sphere of influence.) Geneva was, Eisenhower said, a “terrible agreement,” but there was “no better plan.” And it was fear of Communism and Chinese influence—the domino theory—that led to the disastrous American military involvement in the South thereafter.
Giap and Ho Chi Minh never forgave China for preventing a full victory after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The grisly fighting and harsh conditions in captivity claimed the lives of ten thousand defenders.
A half century later, forty-one Americans died in an Afghanistan enclave in the Korengal Valley. Vanity Fair magazine dubbed this too “The Valley of Death.” The title, devoid of historical context, was a solipsistic parody. In Vietnam, egotistic French leaders threw away thousands of lives in a tactically stupid and strategically doomed mission to resurrect colonialism; in Afghanistan, the scale of the battle was far smaller and American military leaders went to extraordinary lengths to protect their soldiers. The consequences of abandoning the outpost in the Korengal were not strategic.
The French in Vietnam were colonialists fighting nationalists. The American-led coalition in Afghanistan is aiding the moderates in a civil war against tribal Islamic extremists. Yet in both cases, foreign forces cannot prevail; the indigenous people must determine their own form of government.
[amazon 0385527160 full] WHILE THE force of nationalism doomed the French effort to reimpose colonialism, people are willing to accept oppression by their own governments. Based on a decade of reporting for the Los Angeles Times, Megan Stack has written a jeremiad against oppressive male rulers, giving the reader vivid, sad tales from Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Every Man in This Village is a Liar occasionally explores the metaphysical meaning of life in language that reminds the reader of wine labels: “a bouquet of springtime with a tinge of zest.” When she stays focused on other people, her prose is arresting, and the reader shares her outrage at the everyday humiliations and callousness of the ruling classes in the Middle East.
Undoubtedly the book was cathartic to write. Stack is a brave journalist who fought off lechers and thugs. Her narrative arc begins with subjugation, reaches a zenith of subjugation and ends with subjugation. An editor might have suggested adding some glimmers of hope to this dark depiction of the human condition:
The Middle East goes crazy and we go along with it. . . . there would be no new Middle East because the old Middle East is still here, and where should it go? Only a country as quixotic, as history-free, as America could come up with this notion: that you can make the old one go away.
In observing and reporting about how women—and men without power—are treated in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East, Stack admirably adheres to the tradition of the professional journalist. She captures vignettes of the human condition and lets the reader draw the larger conclusions.
When she talks of her encounters with a prominent Afghan warlord, she shows how pervasive was the deceit and lack of core loyalties in Afghanistan when the Taliban fled in 2002—on both sides. The CIA supported one armed faction on a Monday and another on Tuesday; meanwhile, the warlords and tribal leaders alternately allied with and fought one another.
[amazon 0199737495 full] STACK PLAYS Thomas Hobbes to Kilcullen’s John Locke. Where she presents no heroes, David Kilcullen exudes a spirit of hope. Where she sees oppression, he sees opportunity. Believing that American soldiers can quell insurgencies by transforming Islamic countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, he advocates persuading indigenous leaders to forswear corruption, provide the people with services, and thus remove the causes of resentment and rebellion. Although that sentiment certainly accords with the principle of liberal-democratic governance, it is far less than a truism. Governments from Saudi Arabia to Venezuela thrive with an iron fist, deep pockets and backroom deals that solidify the regime’s rule and keep the masses thoroughly in check. Corruption does not have to lead to insurgency. Stack provides examples from a half dozen Middle Eastern countries illustrating how entrenched governments reward corrupt and thuggish behavior that solidifies those in power. Eradicating corruption is not the same as defeating an insurgency.
Yet “unless we take drastic action to counter corruption,” Kilcullen writes, “and create legitimate local government structures that can function in the interests of the population, there’s little doubt that we are eventually going to lose.” The paradox is that “we”—the American/European military coalition—must build a “legitimate” government, while acknowledging the sovereign independence of the indigenous authority. The difficulty in achieving that balancing act is demonstrated by President Hamid Karzai’s erratic actions—the manipulation of the recent election with a million fraudulent votes, his rants against America and refusal to remove corrupt officials, etc. The consequence is that coalition battalion commanders in Afghanistan spend half their time on civil matters, frequently trying to fire officials appointed by Karzai.
According to Kilcullen, the theory that nation building is synonymous with counterinsurgency began in 2006 with a “group of intelligent and combat-experienced junior officers working quietly to change the way that military organizations thought and operated.” At that time, too many U.S. battalions were charging around Iraq in search of an ephemeral enemy, rousting civilians whose retaliation was aiding the insurgents. Kilcullen’s “intelligent junior officers” wanted to revise doctrine so that U.S. soldiers would protect rather than harass the population. Their efforts were codified in Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), which defined nation building as a military mission and focused on population protection rather than offensives against the enemy.
But while 45 percent of U.S. Army officers believed that the publication of FM 3-24 had significant influence in changing field operations, only 22 percent of the Marine Corps’s upper ranks concurred. Success in Iraq emanated from Anbar, an area assigned to the marines. There, various Sunni tribes came over to the strongest tribe of them all—the Americans—and turned against al-Qaeda.Pullquote: Counterinsurgency-as-democratic-nation-building is a theory in search of a war for validation.Essay Types: Book Review