25 December 2009

A Question of Command--initial thoughts.

I need to caveat this by saying that I haven't made it all the way though Mark Moyar's "A Question of Command: Couterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq" (the link permits you to follow along at Google Books). However, I've jumped around from chapter to chapter in the book, and I have to say that although I like the premise of Mark Moyar's new book, it has some shortcomings in its execution.
In the first chapter of the book, Moyar asserts that there are ten leadership characteristics common to successful counterinsurgency leaders. Moyar goes on to state that it is leadership--not necessarily the tactics--which makes all the difference in counterinsurgency. Which, of course, is one of those "no-kidding" claims. As you read the narratives of ten different counterinsurgency campaigns, you realize that it takes leadership in order to decide which tactics to use in counterinsurgency. Indeed, viewed in this light, one might make the claim that leadership is critical in all forms of war--certainly a valid point, but one of those statements that nearly everyone in the military assumes is true.

Nevertheless, an examiation of leadership in COIN environments is a decent enough premise. Had the book simply provided leadership vignettes of, say, ten counterinsurgency leaders and discussed their adherence to or deviation from the ten leadership principles, it would have been excellent. Instead, we also see some half-hearted and ill-concieved bashing of the US Army's Counterinsurgency doctrine thrown about and not enough emphasis on actually examining the leadership attributes.

From pages two to three in this Google Books version, we see Moyar's assaulton straw-man versions of the two extremes of counterinsurgency: the population-centric or "velvet glove" approach (advocated by COINdinisas such as John Nagl) and the enemy-centric or "mailed fist" approach (advocated by COINtras such as Gian Gentile). Truth be told, few fall squarely into either camp. FM 3-24, the Army's official counterinsurgency manual, even notes that counterinsurgency is often a judicious use of both the velvet glove and the mailed fist, grossly dependent upon the situation. In an (albeit extreme) example, FM 3-24 notes that civil tasks, such as developing schools are irrelevant if guerrillas are are pouring through the perimeter of the FOB. It takes both approaches, dependent greatly upon the counterinsurgency environment.

So if this isn't a book on counterinsurgency per se, it must be a great book on leadership, right? Well, on that point, it seems to fail again. Reading through the chapter on leadership in the Civil War, we are treated to a few leadership vignettes. While I acknowledge that one can learn quite a bit from those who have failed in life, the characters Moyar selects for analysis are baffling.

Early in the chapter on the Civil War, we are treated to a leadership vignette of Major General John Fremont, a section which covers some three pages (omitted in the Google Books version, although you can see bits of it here). Fremont did absolutely nothing during the Civil War, demanding that the people of Missouri build him a mansion, where he sat for the vast majority of his time in service. Fremont surrounded himself with sycophants and cronies, and embezzled gross amounts of money from the Union. Thank you, Mark Moyar, for letting us all know that staying in a mansion and embezzling tons of money is bad for counterinsurgency efforts. Seriously, how could one argue against this?

But let's move on to successful counterinsurgents. On page 23, we are treated to two successful counter-insurgents (according to Moyar): Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Obviously, we would do well to examine their methods and leadership style in full. Unfortunately, Grant and Sherman together get a grand total of one paragraph's worth of attention (bottom of page 23, top of page 24). It's hardly enough to draw a detailed character analysis of either of them, so we basically have to take Moyar's word for it when he says that Grant and Sherman "were endowed with some of the key counterinsurgency leadership attributes, such as initiative, dedication and organizational skill". How do they do this? This book is almost useless as a book on leadership unless we're provided with some explanation of the individual characters and how they display--or don't display--the ten leader attributes.

Seriously, I should have just opened the book to the prologue and read the ten counterinsurgency leadership attributes (Google Books omits #1 and #2, but you can read the rest here) and be done with it. Its use as a book on leadership and as a book on counterinsurgency is rather flawed. And I'm not the only one who thinks so, either. (Thread at SWJ)

Thoughts, reviews? I might need to read more of this in order to develop my opinion more fully--this post from Toby Bonthrone at Kings of War kind of sums up my attitude at this point:

There’s a good chance that people who read or hear of Moyar’s book won’t be able to get over their initial intuitive response: arguing that leadership is important to victory is like arguing that sex is important to procreation.

Similarly, the ten traits he identifies could come from any management book, because it is quite hard to argue that initiative, flexibility, etc. are less than vital in any human endeavour ranging from managing a multinational firm to getting laid (and who doesn’t believe they have most of those traits?).

Yet for that reason, one also can’t disagree with Moyar’s argument. It rings true down to the lowest levels. To more or less reiterate some of Moyar’s points and ultimately tie it in with the more standard COIN debate:

Additonal reviews are greatly welcome.


Peter said...

The Civil War engagement described below took place about 20 miles from where the Pentagon now stands.

Loudoun Co., October 19, 1863

GENERAL: I did not receive your letter of instructions until late last Tuesday night, on my return from an expedition below.

I collected as many men as I could at so short notice, and on Thursday, 15th, came down into Fairfax, where I have been operating ever since in the enemy's rear.

I have captured over 100 horses and mules, several wagons loaded with valuable stores, and between 75 and 100 prisoners, arms, equipments, etc. Among the prisoners were 5 captains and 1 lieutenant.

I had a sharp skirmish yesterday with double my number of cavalry near Annandale, in which I routed them, capturing the captain commanding, 6 or 7 men and horses. I have so far sustained no loss. It has been my object to detain the troops that are occupying Fairfax, by annoying their communications and preventing them from operating in front. Yesterday two divisions left Centreville and went into camp at Fox's Mill. There are three regiments of cavalry at Vienna. I contemplate attacking a cavalry camp at Falls Church to-morrow night.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
JNO. S. MOSBY, Major



Respectfully forwarded.

Major Mosby and command continue to do splendid service.

J.E.B. STUART, Major-General

Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 29, Part 1, pp 492-493

CJWilly said...

I know nothing about Mark Moyar except he is the author of a critically panned, unreconstructed "stab-in-the-back" book on Vietnam. Communists at the gates of Sydney and whatnot.

Starbuck said...

Thanks for the comments!

David Ucko said...

You may be interested in my review of the same book in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Military Affairs. I'll post it to my blog when it has been published. Thomas Rid also has a review along the same lines as yours in Policy Review: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay&essay_id=554062

Anonymous said...

Journal of Military History - not Affairs.

Starbuck said...

Thanks for dropping by!