Editor’s note: MWI Non-Resident Fellow has gathered a broad collection of books that, together, help to conceptualize the many challenges posed by insurgencies. The books he has identified are below.
Insurgencies, guerrilla warfare—whatever we chose to call this type of violence, it is, by far the deadliest threat to those who serve in uniform. Since the middle of the last century, over a quarter of a million Americans were killed or wounded in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And those are just the big ones. As tragic as these figures might be, an even deeper tragedy might be the forgotten lessons that could prevent future casualties.
Every time America wades into a counterinsurgency, those on the ground pay, in blood, for priceless knowledge in the art of how to fight. And yet, every time, that priceless knowledge seems worthless when it comes to future study. The post–Vietnam retreat to the Fulda Gap left the post–9/11 military completely unprepared for Afghanistan or Iraq. As a senior Iraq strategist told me, “I deployed with two duffle bags; one for my gear and the other with books I had to read.” On the subject of Afghanistan, an MWI colleague confessed, “We barely knew anything about the Soviet experience.” That experience is now almost old enough to vote, and yet, despite the nearly two-decade experience with counterinsurgency, the center of strategic gravity is even now, shifting right back to conventional, set-piece combat.
What will this amnesia mean for America’s future warfighters when—not if, but when—they suddenly find themselves stuck in another massive, messy, lethal insurgency? How many casualties will be counted while future strategists hurriedly dust off the lessons of the last two decades? When it comes to guerrilla warfare, America’s military can no longer afford on-the-job training. At the very least, there needs to be a collective repository for the lessons of guerrilla warfare. That is why the Modern War Institute has begun working to compile a new COIN library.
The books on this list vary greatly, from overall theory to scalpel-thin tactics. They also include unconventional subjects such as communication, geography, and psychological analyses. This list is intended to be a seed for future submissions. Additional titles and subjects are always encouraged. All books listed below are available at the Modern War Institute library.
These titles include (*denotes an audio version):
1. John Oller, The Swamp Fox: How Frances Marion Saved the American Revolution*
An unconventional man fighting an unconventional war. Adopting Native American methods, adapting to an ever-changing battlespace, Marion fought as hard and smart as any Vietcong or mujahedeen. Marion’s story reminds us that even in large, so-called “conventional” wars, there is always room for asymmetry.
2. Mao Tse-Tung, Mao Tse-Tung on Protracted War
This is probably the most famous guerrilla of all time, and given China’s impact on the world today, he’s without a doubt the most influential. Mao doesn’t waste words because he can’t afford to. He was a peasant writing for peasants. He knew how to inspire, terrify, and manipulate them by the millions.
3. Charles River Editors , Marshal Josip Broz Tito: The Life and Legacy of Yugoslavia’s First President*
Mao may have led the biggest guerrilla campaign, but Tito arguably led the best. Unlike Mao, who waited out the Japanese, Tito faced Hitler head on. Also, unlike Mao, Tito had to unite several ethnic groups with ancient, murderous hatreds. This particular biography may be short, but it paints a broad enough picture of history’s most remarkable partisan.
4. Ernesto “Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare
Dilettante. Adventurer. Fraud. Che was all of those things. He liked the glamor of kicking over governments but never stuck around for the drudgery of building one. He also had the good sense to get himself assassinated before wearing out his welcome on the world stage. Like Steve Jobs, Che teaches that style can conquer substance, that a little passionate rhetoric, coupled with an iconic image (like a famous photo), can endure and inspire well beyond the grave.
5. T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom*
This guy has a lot to teach, and not just about starting a Middle Eastern insurrection. Charismatic communicator, adroit anthropologist, Lawrence was everything you’d want in a master guerrilla fighter. And yet, he’s not the only hero in this story (although he might argue otherwise). The British Army, as an institution deserves its fair share of praise for being open enough to embrace an outlier like Lawrence.
6. Junichi Saga, Confessions of a Yakuza
While not technically an insurgent, this twentieth-century Japanese gangster has a very prophetic chapter on his beginnings at the end of World War II. When he talks about the chaos following defeat and the piles of discarded, unguarded military equipment, it’s hard not to think about Iraq.
7. Hiroo Onada, No Surrender
The autobiography of a Japanese soldier who refused to surrender, this is the profile of a fanatic, and explores the limits of human endurance.
8. Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla
While the author of this book never personally pulled off a successful revolution himself, his book endures for two reasons. First, it inspired an entire generation of leftist guerrillas both within the United States and around the world. Second, he is one of the first partisans to focus entirely on cities. As more of our species migrate to growing megacities, we need to prepare for some of those cities to become the battlefields of the future.
9. Vo Nguyen Giap, The South Vietnamese People Will Win
The fact that this man fought the US military to standstill should be enough to put him on this list. But what should make Giap required reading is that he was not just a guerrilla fighter but an unparalleled wizard of the “grey zone.” While masterfully commanding both regular and irregular military forces, he also managed to orchestrate a global, and ultimately victorious, propaganda campaign.
10. H.K. Wachanga, The Swords of Kirinyaga
As a former Mau Mau, Wachanga outlines the anatomy of Britain’s victory in Kenya. Reading Wachanga’s honest, no-holds-barred account begs the question: What if we had a database of first-person narratives from every guerrilla, victorious and defeated, starting with the question “In your opinion, what happened?”
From the Counterinsurgents
1. David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice
One of the first theoreticians of COIN. Like Heinz Guderian with tanks or Karl Doenitz with submarines, Galula crystalized and codified this “new” way of war.
2. David Petraeus, The U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual*
This scholarly tome doesn’t just distil an ocean of research from various times and places (the bibliography alone is enough to make your head spin). FM 3-24 also represents the one key element any army—any nation—needs in order to survive: the willingness to change. The fact that this book even exists proves that America’s guardians had the courage to change course.
3. David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla*
One of the Jedi Masters of COIN, Killcullen lays out every aspect of the challenge. From the biggest to the smallest, from the overarching, geopolitical blowback of globalization to the scalpel focus of gaining an individual’s trust.
4. John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam*
A contrast of America’s failed policy in Vietnam with the British success in Malaya. As Americans, it’s hard to admit that we don’t have all the answers and even harder to admit that sometimes others do.
5. US Marine Corps, Small-Unit Leader’s Guide to Counterinsurgency*
COIN at the tactical level. Short, sweet, and packed with invaluable information, including twenty-eight fundamentals by David Kilcullen.
6. Matt Zeller, Watches Without Time*
No grand strategy. Just the story of a soldier in Afghanistan. For those of us who’ve never been over there, or worn the uniform, this book has the potential to do for the “Long War” what Remarque did for the “Great War.”
7. David Hackworth, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior
This is what happens when we don’t listen. Hackworth, who learned how to “out G the G” in the jungles of Vietnam was ignored, ostracized, and eventually, forced to leave his first love, the US Army. What might have happened if he had been taken seriously? Where would we be today if his ideas had become doctrine?
8. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Ashley’s War*
This is what happens when we listen. America’s greatest strength has always been its willingness to change. From the Tuskegee Airmen to the Navajo Code Talkers to the introduction of women in combat, our courage to shed tradition and reinvent ourselves proves that we will never be left on the trash heap of history.
9. Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy*
The story of France’s defeat in Southeast Asia. A meticulously researched account of France’s trial in Southeast Asia written in the early to middle stages of America’s “long national nightmare.” There was no excuse to ignore this book in the ‘60s and there’s no excuse to ignore it now.
10. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope*
Not the first guy you’d think of in a counterinsurgency setting, but his experience as a community organizer in Chicago mirrors those of too many platoon leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq. When it comes to fighting corruption, bureaucracy, threats to personal security, and an old guard threatened by change, the parallels are obvious. Reading Obama’s book begs the question of what other parallels are out there in nonmilitary situations, and what we can learn from them.
11. Robert M. Gates, Duty*
The memoir of a former SecDef. COIN from the top down. Gates talks about what it was like to replace Rumsfeld in the darkest days of Iraq/Afghanistan. He takes the reader through his battles with the press, the administration, the DoD bureaucracy and, finally, battlefield enemies like al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
From the Scholars
1. Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face*
Counterinsurgents are going to need to communicate effectively with a variety of groups; from Congress, to the press, to the partners of a host country. Alda’s book pulls on his work with the Center for Communicating Science, helping some of the world’s worst communicators (scientists) explain their research. These methods can work for anyone, and they can be as valuable as basic marksmanship.
2. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty*
While most guerrillas might just be ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, there is the occasional, genuine psychopath. This book helps identify those individuals who are genetically hardwired for malice. And not just those on the other side. At present, the US military has no psychological screening program for new recruits. This book can help change that. Baron-Cohen’s methods can be a critical first step in targeting both the irreconcilable terrorists we face as well as the potential massacre makers hiding in our midst.
3. Joseph T Hallinan, Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception*
File under “Grey Zone Information Warfare.” Hallinan’s book is a study in mass psychology, specifically when it comes to mass delusion. Since America has inexplicably surrendered the art of messaging to our enemies, we need to start playing catch-up.
4. Moshin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist*
A novel of radicalization. The story walks us through how an educated, well-to-do, sensitive moderate eventually becomes a terrorist. Radicalization is one of the vexing issues of our time, and while this book doesn’t have all the answers, at least it puts a human face on the questions.
5. Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything*
File under “The Big Picture.” Honest, societal soul searching. Brooks argues that, as a country, we have degraded our public institutions to such an extent that the last lifeboat of public trust is the Department of Defense. That means more responsibilities for an already overstretched military with a learning curve that wouldn’t exist in any specialized civilian agency.
6. Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography*
While it’s easy to think that technology has “flattened” the world, Kaplan reminds us that we still live on a physically diverse planet. He describes how the shape of our land shapes the course of history. This book should serve as another lens for looking at any country going through an insurgency, be it an island like Sri Lanka, or a long, jungled strip like Vietnam?
7. Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath*
File under “Duh!” Who doesn’t know that underdogs can win, that supposed weakness can be a strength? The greatest value of this book may be the name on the cover. Despite Gladwell’s trumpeting of David, he has become a societal Goliath. Today’s thinking class loves to read and quote his work. Bottom line, when trying to make a case to Washington suits, it might not hurt to say “As Malcolm Gladwell shows…”
1. Jeremy Black, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History*
A broad survey of several dozen guerrilla wars going all the way back to… well… the beginning. If you don’t know anything about COIN and want somewhere to begin, this is it. Black discusses philosophy, tactics, culture—pretty much everything you need to know at first glance.
2. Daniel Moran, Wars of National Liberation
Another overall study in the vein of Jeremy Black. Unlike Black’s work however, Moran’s work is shorter, simpler, and, yes, illustrated. And don’t discount that last point. It’s one thing to read about a Haganah fighter, another to see the actual Auschwitz tattoo on his arm. From Franco-Algerian civilians manning barricades to a Palestinian rebel throwing a nail-studded potato, these pictures put the “heart“ in “hearts and minds.”
3. Declan Power, The Siege of Jadotville
This is more than just an obscure story of Irish UN peacekeepers caught up in the Congo’s civil war. It’s the story of hybrid warfare. Through a masterful, international propaganda campaign, the Katangan rebels ensured that these Irishmen were isolated, surrounded, and finally assaulted by overwhelming odds. Anyone reading this book would be hard pressed not to imagine a similar scenario playing out today.
4. The Osprey Collection
File under multi-page flashcards. These are great if you’re looking for the barest guides to various COIN wars and warriors. Titles include: The Viet Cong Fighter, Viet Cong and NVA Tunnels and Fortifications of the Vietnam War, The Seminole Wars 1818-58, Tribes of the Sioux Nation, Apache Tactics: 1836-86, Tito’s Partisans: 1941-45, The Zulus, Russia’s War in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Cave Complexes 1979-2004, The Indian Mutiny, The Boer Commando, Boer War 2: 1898-1902, The Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection: 1898-1902, Chinese Civil War Armies 1911-49, The Malayan Campaign: 1946-60, The French Indochina War: 1946-54, Resistance Warfare: 1940-45, Partisan Warfare 1941-1945, Soviet Partisan 1941-44, and Heroines of The Soviet Union: 1941-45.
5. Time Life Books: The Second World War Series
One level deeper than Osprey, these are great intros to the small wars that followed the big wars. Some are also examples of what happens when we get it right. The Aftermath: Europe and The Aftermath: Asia are nothing less than American nation building at its very best. The last volume, The Rising Sun, is on this list for one specific photo. It’s on page one in the chapter “A Doomed Way of Life.” It shows a Frenchman, in pristine colonial white, riding through a swamp, on the back of a Vietnamese servant.
6. Peter Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology: A very short introduction*
As the title says, culture is critical in the battle for winning popular support. The US Army COIN manual even has a whole section on it (3-36). Anthropology is the science of culture and this book introduces the reader to the basics of that science.
7. Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd: A Study In The Popular Mind*
Okay, fair warning, this guy is definitely a product of his time (he actually thought women were as irrational as children and animals). However, Le Bon made a big impact on the way leaders lead. He broke down how crowds think, act, and can be influenced. If used for good rather than evil (Mussolini was a big fan), Le Bon’s work can be an important asset in the effort to win hearts and minds.
8. James H. Willbanks, Thiet Giap! The Battle of An Loc, April 1972
Before there was Mosul, there was An Loc. Willbanks examines the scenario where Vietnamization worked, at least on the tactical level. Granted, An Loc was a conventional, set-piece fight with the NVA, but the relevancy applies to scenarios of host-nation support.
9. Gordon Weiss, The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers*
A soup-to-nuts biography of the Sri Lankan insurgency. Politics, economics, religion, Weiss outlines how these threads all weave together to craft the tapestry of an uprising. Weiss also lays out the bitter price of victory. From ethnic cleansing to the erosion of a fledgling democracy, this conflict should be seen as a stark warning of what the West should and should not be willing to sacrifice in order to defeat an enemy.
10. Mark Bowden, Hue 1968*
The massive, detailed, thoroughly researched telling of the most brutal battle of the Vietnam War. This book is packed with lessons for the future, from the breakdowns of diplomacy, to toxic leadership, to the weapons and tactics necessary for urban combat. No matter what discipline you’re coming from, no matter what you’re looking to learn, there’s something to be gleaned from Hue.
11. S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quannah Parker and Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History*
No doubt the Iroquois Federation would take issue with this title, but the fact doesn’t change that the Comanche nation was a force to be reckoned with. Adaptation is the key to this story, specifically the introduction of horses. Embracing these new animals, developing new ways to utilize them, transformed this obscure southwestern nation into some of the greatest cavalry warriors since the Mongols. What does that say for other new tools and what they might do for today’s obscure groups?
12. Alec Russell, Big Men, Little People: The Leaders Who Defined Africa
Sometimes you’re working with these guys, sometimes you’re against them. But COIN and despots are unfortunately intertwined. This book is a good cross section of African tyrants and would-be tyrants. Culture aside, these bully boys have enough psychological variety to be recognized in any part of the world.
13. Donald R. Morris, The Washing of the Spears
Little Big Horn’s got nothing on Isandlwana. In this battle, the best army in the world, armed with technology centuries ahead of their foe, ended up being massacred to a man. A study in tactics, logistics, topography, planning, and above all, hubris.
14. Adam Seftel, Uganda: The Bloodstained Pearl of Africa and its Struggle for Peace
A classic case of missed opportunity, of blowing that critical chance to end the cycle of violence. Can we learn anything from this neglected, ravaged little country? Can we draw any parallels between the chain of mistakes that spurned the Lord’s Resistance Army and our experiences around the world?
15. Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage*
A look back at the violent, radical left of America’s 1960s and ‘70s. This book should be seen as a conversation starter on why some insurgencies fail.
16. Peter Baxter, Mau Mau: Kenyan Emergency
Part of the Africa@War series. A step above the Osprey Series, this short work details a successful counterinsurgency. The defeat of Mau Mau uprising breaks a lot of myths surrounding guerrilla campaigns such as the necessity of massive troop and material commitments (Kenya was won on a shoestring), the need for more brutal methods (the most successful intel was gathered with carrots, not sticks), and finally, that guerrilla wars need to be wars at all. This book details how the defeat of Mau Mau was conducted along civilian law enforcement lines. Something to think about when we look back on the early days of our “Global War on Terror.” Other books in the Africa@War series include Biafra, Congo Unraveled, France in Centrafrique, Great Lakes Holocaust, Zambezi Valley Insurgency, and Somalia: US Intervention.
17. Annie Jacobson, The Pentagon’s Brain
The story of DARPA (and our obsession with technology). Jacobson goes into the heart of America’s real life “Q,” the weapons, the programs, and people who love them to death. From a COIN point of view, it’s easy to see how our national worship of the technology has gotten us into a lot of trouble. Just the section on McNamara’s Vietnam sensor fence should warn us against trying to solve human conflicts with machines.
18. Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
A graphic memoir of a Vietnamese refugee. This is what “hearts and minds” is supposed to be about. One heart, one mind, and a journey of three generations. Bui takes us through the story of her family in Vietnam during French imperial rule, through the civil war, and finally, to the alien planet of the USA. If ever we needed a reminder of the people behind the PowerPoint presentation, this is it.
19. Ben Steil, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War*
Remember when soft power made us a world power? Remember when winning the peace was as important as a war? Steil guides us through the herculean task of rebuilding a shattered continent (and neutering insurgent groups waiting in the wings).
From Colleagues and Contributors
These titles were recommended by Liam Collins, John Amble, and Isaiah (Ike) Wilson III.
- James Spies (ed.), Chewing Sand
- Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare
- Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War
- Gil Merom, How Democracies Lose Small Wars
- Roger Trinquier, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency
- Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962
- C.E. Callwell, Small Wars, Their Principles and Practice
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War
- United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual 1940
- Gerard Chaliand (ed), Guerrilla Strategies: An Historical Anthology from the Long March to Afghanistan
- Isaiah Wilson III, Thinking Beyond War: Civil-Military Relations and Why America Fails to Win the Peace
- Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism
- Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping
- Eitan Azani, Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God
- Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger, Jewish Terrorism in Israel
- Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel
- Walter Laqueur (ed), Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind
- Assaf Moghadam, The Roots of Terrorism
- Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns
- Michael Taylor (ed), Rationality and Revolution
- Barbara F. Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars
- Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province
- Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency
- Gen. Tony Jeapes, Codename Operation Storm
- Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War 1899-1902
- Robert W. Komer, The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect: Organization of A Successful Counterinsurgency Effort
- Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency
- Jean Larteguy, The Centurions
- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
- Janine Davidson, Lifting the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War
- Boaz Ganor, The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers
- Bing West, The Village
- John J. McCuen, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War
- Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War
- David E. Johnson, The Importance of Land Warfare: This Kind of War Redux
- Gian Gentile, David E. Johnson, et al, Reimagining the Character of Urban Operations for the U.S. Army
- Gerard Chaliand, The Art of War in World History
- Ian F.W. Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies: Guerrillas and their Opponents since 1750
- Julian Paget, Counter-Insurgency Operations
- Robert E. Harkavy and Stephanie G. Neuman, Warfare and the Third World
- Rahael S. Cohen, David E. Johnson, et al, From Cast Lead to Protective Edge: Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza
- David E. Johnson, Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army 1917-1945
- David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza
- David L. Anderson, Columbia History of the Vietnam War
- John P. Cann, Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War 1961-1974
- Walter Laqueur, Guerrilla Warfare: A Historical & Critical Study
- Walter Laqueur, The Guerrilla Reader: A Historical Anthology
- Timothy J. Lomperis, From People’s War to People’s Rule
- Robert W. Komer, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.-GVN Performance in Vietnam
- David E. Johnson, Doing What You Know: The United States and 250 Years of Irregular War
- Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Jan Angrstrom, Rethinking the Nature of War
- Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict
- John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down
- Seth G. Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan
- David E. Johnson, M. Wade Markel, and Brian Shannon, The 2008 Battle of Sadr City: Reimagining Urban Combat
- Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian, Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare
- Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism: from Revolution to Apocalypse
- Ivan Arreguin-Toft, How the Weak Win Wars: A theory of Asymmetric Conflict
- Angel Rabasa, Lesley Anne Warner, et al, Money in the Bank: Lessons Learned from Past Counterinsurgency (COIN) Operations
- Sebastian Junger, War
Image credit: Capt. John Landry, US Army