The Proverbial Contest

The purpose of this posting is to alert the Small Wars Journal community about an excellent new book by Dr. Jeff Record of the Air War College faculty. Professor Record is no dilettante in this arena; he served in Vietnam as a province advisor before embarking on an academic career, which has been distinguished by a steady stream of short but potent books. His Dark Victory about the 2003 invasion into Iraq is a powerful indictment of the Bush Doctrine and the Administration's conduct of the Global War on Terrorism. It is must reading, as is his The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam which the readership would find fascinating in light of Operation Iraqi Freedom due to the similar delusions in our decision making and weak partners in both wars.

This latest effort, Beating Goliath: Why Insurgencies Win explores the nature and components of victories by the weak over stronger states. Professor Record examines a total of eleven insurgencies/small wars from the American Revolution to Iraq. His opening chapter explores three major previous works that have attempted to ascertain the most important variables in David's success in the proverbial David vs. Goliath context. Andrew Mack's notable "Why Big Nations Lost Small War" attributed defeat to the asymmetric levels of political will and interest involved. David usually plays for higher stakes—survival—against a major power. Another key contributor, Dr. Ivan Arrequin-Toft argued that the interaction of opposing strategies was the key. In How the Weak Win Wars, he contended that "strong actors will lose asymmetric conflicts when they use the wrong strategy vis-í -vis their opponent's." This important work sought to explain how major powers employing an inappropriate direct approach would generally lose against a weaker side taking a more Fabian or indirect approach. Finally, Record finds Gil Merom's How Democracies Lose Small Wars persuasive. Merom examined three cases studies of democratic states and found that democracies lose because they "find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory." Merom's work is controversial and Record deftly points out the weaknesses of the methodology and conclusions, which focuses excessively on the security component of insurgency and overrates "barbarism" for discriminate applications of force.

In the second chapter Dr. Record explores the key variable that he believes the literature to date has not focused—external assistance. He finds that external assistance is material (no pun intended) to David's success and consistently correlates with insurgent victory. Apparently, slingshots and round stones are not enough. I found this to be a detailed and insightful chapter, but wished that the author had explored the importance of modern forms of external support in the form of Diasporas and the internet.

Having identified the most significant component of David's victory, Record next examines the ongoing contest in Iraq and America's prospects. He uses a comparative assessment of Iraq and the Vietnam War to conduct and frame his analysis. While he is pessimistic about Goliath's chances, he does note that the Iraqi insurgents have no lock on success. Neither their size, appeal nor external support is nearly as impressive as the NVA or Viet Cong. His overall evaluation bears quoting:


The military dimensions of the Iraq War bear little comparison to those of the Vietnam War, which was a much large conflict against a much more powerful enemy. That said, the United States faces in Iraq the same two daunting political challenges it failed to surmount in Vietnam: fostering the creation and survival of a legitimate, indigenous government and sustaining American domestic political support for the war.

He also identifies and assesses the influence of distinctive features of the American way of war on the U.S. forces' performance against the Iraqi insurgency. This section of the book relied extensively upon Colin Gray's recent Strategic Studies Institute monograph, and I suspect that effort was influenced by Professor Gray's strategic realism and emphasis on looming threats in Asia. These two chapters also build upon the perceptive critiques of the distinguished military scholars Tony Echevarria and Fred Kagan. The former is a critic of the American "Way of Battles" with its Jominian linearity and its confusing winning battles with the attainment of strategic and political objectives. Professor Kagan's superb Finding the Target is likewise cited in support Record's devastating critique of American Way of War that too often sees the enemy as a target set that can be destroyed and that equates hitting targets with victory.

Professor Record finishes with six conclusions--all but the last are sound.

• The stronger side usually wins: the best strategy, there is to be strong.

• Weaker side victories are exceptional and almost always rest on some combination of stronger political will, superior strategy, and foreign help.

• External assistance is a common enable of victorious insurgent wars, though certainly no guarantee of success.

• Modern democracies have limited political tolerance for protracted overseas wars against irregular enemies.

• For the United States, the impact of anticipated and incurred casualties on political will is a function primarily of military action's perceived costs, benefits, and chances o success.

• America's political system and Jominian approach to war greatly impede U.S. success in counterinsurgent warfare; accordingly, the United States should avoid direct military involvement in foreign internal wars.

Record's grasp of American strategic culture is sound, and while I agree that strategic culture is important, I also believe it evolves (to quote Dr. Gray) and America has won irregular contests in the past in the Philippines and I believe that it can again as long as initiatives like the new counterinsurgency manual take root. To paraphrase Sir Michael Howard, America's armed forces better get used to this form of war, it's the only war and only form of peace we shall see for a generation.

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