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10 Non-Iraq Books for Understanding Iraq

by Tom Ricks, Amazon.com, accessed February 3, 2006

[I]f more American officers had studied this before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and seen its illuminating advice, so contrary to how the U.S. has operated in Iraq: use the minimal amount of force necessary to get the mission done, treat your prisoners well, and judge all actions--including military ones--by their political effects.

Thomas E. Ricks has been a longtime military correspondent for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and his new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, is the most thorough and devastating critique yet of what he calls the "American military adventure" in Iraq. In his account, perhaps the greatest strategic error the U.S. made was failing to recognize the insurgency as it began and using traditional military means to fight it. As he writes, many officers scrambled to find classic analyses of past counterinsurgencies to understand how best to fight this new war, and here he shares with us the 10 books not about Iraq he found most useful in understanding the war there. As he notes, "most were recommended to me by thoughtful military officers or counterinsurgency experts."

1.
Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula
This is the place to start--a fascinating monograph by a Tunisian-born French officer who fought in World War II, observed the Communist takeover in China and the Greek civil war, and then fought in Algeria. Some call Galula the "Clausewitz of counterinsurgency." I agree. This essential volume is only 143 short pages, and can be read in an evening. Two years ago almost no one in the U.S. military had heard of it; now it is being made mandatory at the Army's big Command and General Staff college. The war in Iraq might be over now if more American officers had studied this before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and seen its illuminating advice, so contrary to how the U.S. has operated in Iraq: use the minimal amount of force necessary to get the mission done, treat your prisoners well, and judge all actions--including military ones--by their political effects

2.
A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne
The U.S. war in Iraq is very different from the French war in Algeria in the 1950s. France had a million citizens residing in Algeria, and the French had been in Algeria for over a century. The biggest difference is that a sovereign Iraqi government able to stand on its own would represent a victory for the United States, while an independent Algeria was a defeat for France. Yet there also are some striking similarities. Both wars involved western powers exercising sovereignty in Arab states, both powers were opposed by insurgencies contesting the western presence, and both wars were controversial back home. Most significantly, both the French military and the U.S. military were woefully unprepared for the task at hand.

3.
The Philippine War, 1899-1902 by Brian Linn
A thorough look at the most successful U.S. counterinsurgency campaign.

4.
Small Wars Manual (1940) by the U.S. Marine Corps
Another reminder that once upon a time we knew how to do this.

5.
Bureaucracy Does Its Thing by Robert Komer
A short, scathing examination of why the U.S. national security establishment was able to devise a good counterinsurgency strategy during the Vietnam War--but was unable to implement it. This is available online (for free) at: http://www.rand.org/publications/R/R967/.

6.
The Army and Vietnam by Andrew Krepinevich
Probably the best examination of why the U.S. Army was unable to adjust enough to win in Vietnam.

7.
Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife by Lt. Col. John Nagl
The bookend to Krepinevich's study, this work by an American officer who went on to serve in Iraq compares the American failure in Vietnam to the British victory in Malaya a few years earlier. His odd title is taken from T.E. Lawrence's observation on how messy and slow it is to put down an insurgency--like eating soup with a knife.

8.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
The author, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a nut, but his book is worth reading for its account of how a poorly equipped Arab insurgency (of which he was part, though not as a big a one as Westerners believe) was able to attack and help defeat a big, ponderous Western-style military. I started this book several times but was put off by his baroque style. It was only after I was in a 1st Infantry Division convoy that was bombed on the west bank of the Euphrates in April 2004 and I remembered that most of Lawrence's war consisted of attacking the enemy's supply lines that this book started making sense to me.

9.
The Portable Kipling by Rudyard Kipling
I carried the Viking Portable Kipling with me on my last trip to Iraq, earlier this year. Call him an imperialist if you like, but his story "The Head of the District" is built on a powerful understanding of the interplay of radical Islam, tribalism, and terrorist techniques such as decapitation. And no American has yet written about fighting in Iraq remotely as powerfully as in his "Mesopotamia," in the same volume.

10.
Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer
This 1968 novel provides great insight into the self-image of the U.S. military. The hero, Sam Damon, is stolid, dutiful, and somewhat inarticulate. This book is widely read even today by Army officers and effectively has become the Army's new testament. Its old testament is, of course, the American Civil War.