David Kilcullen
Pages: 272 | Buy this book

No cable-television talking heads here. The armchair chicken hawks have been scattered. This is one of the sharpest and most incisive minds on modern warfare getting deep in the weeds on what it takes to win today's wars. And more important, how to do it.

What's the Big Deal?

For the better part of the 20th century, the U.S. built a military aimed at fighting off Hitler's armies or staring down the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. But for at least the past few decades, those state-vs.-state wars have become less and less frequent. Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, and several other conflict-ridden areas around the world), the name of the game is counterinsurgency: beating down enemies of the state while winning the hearts and minds of the everyday people. It's a challenge of the highest order, and for at least the foreseeable future, it's the kind of war the U.S. is going to be fighting.

One-Breath Author Bio

Kilcullen rose through the ranks of the Australian Army. He's a Ph.D. and became one of Gen. David Petraeus's senior advisers in Iraq. His book The Accidental Guerilla demonstrated his thorough grasp of today's wars, and nowadays he's teaching at Johns Hopkins and serving as a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The Book, in His Words

"This book is intended for counterinsurgents—civilian and military students and practitioners of counterinsurgency—and for the general reader interested in understanding today's conflict environment ... This is a snapshot of wartime thinking" (page ix).

Judging by the Cover

The stamp-embossed cover and near-pocket-size trim make for ingenious packaging. With photos, diagrams, and maps throughout, this is a book for the field—you can almost see it stuck in a camouflaged backpack in Helmand province. One small quibble: why not print lines on the blank pages as a place to make notes?

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Last call for Kool-Aid. In decades past, many have criticized the military-industrial complex for not only being insular, but also refusing to accept criticism. Iraq changed that. Though some brass and certainly then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were slow to publicly admit the real magnitude of the insurgency in the early years of the Iraq War, by early 2006 a movement was transforming the way the military thought about itself. The RAND Corporation (a government think tank) launched an Insurgency Board. Minds at Small Wars Journal ran "something of an underground network for the [counterinsurgency] community, connecting key players, quietly prompting change, and providing a forum for discussion" (page 21). In addition, generals like David Petraeus, Peter Schoonmaker, and William S. Wallace cast off hubris and opened themselves up to criticism and rethinking firmly held positions. It not only sparked a radical shift in the way soldiers would be fighting on the ground, but it fundamentally altered the course of the war.

2. In counterinsurgency, there are no rules ... wait, there are two ... actually, scratch that, there are 28. Early on, Kilcullen drives home the point that success comes by changing with the environment: "counterinsurgency is at heart an adaptation battle." But then there are two rules that apply everywhere: tune everything you do to the local situation and, at basically all costs, protect the innocent. Beyond that, the book offers guidelines; what began as scribbled notes in a Pentagon City Starbucks became Kilcullen's Twenty-Eight Articles, which he calls "tactical fundamentals" soldiers can rely on when they're dropped into a situation where "there are no universal answers, and insurgents are among the most adaptive opponents you will ever face" (page 29). Some of the gems might even double as life lessons: "Rank is nothing: talent is everything," "Avoid knee-jerk responses to first impressions," and "Practice deterrent patrolling." OK, not so much the last one.

Unmissable quote: "During a tour in command of training efforts in Iraq in 2004, General Petraeus likened building the Iraqi army to constructing an aircraft in flight—while being shot at" (page 20).

Build Your Library

In subject and philosophy, this book grows directly out of the Army's freakishly popular Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, which was downloaded more than 600,000 times in the 24 hours after it was posted online in 2006, Kilcullen reports.

Swipe This Critique

There's one massive problem with counterinsurgency: it's not colonialism, so when you win, the domestic government has to take over. Which means that backing unreliable, cranky, or corrupt regimes (images of Hamid Karzai spring to mind) can very easily mean immeasurable amounts of blood and treasure being spent in vain. Kilcullen acknowledges the fact that "counterinsurgency mirrors the state" (pages 154–161), but any policymaker reading this book has to stop and think that geopolitical strategy must precede the tactical guidance that Kilcullen offers. Because no matter how successful counterinsurgent soldiers prove to be, the real endgame will always be played by the locals. And in many cases, that's one hell of a wild card.

Factoid File

Insurgencies are nothing new. On the contrary, they've left far more of an impression on history than more conventional state-on-state wars. By one estimate, since 1816 there have been 464 wars, only 17 percent of which involved traditional armies of multiple countries battling each other. Some 83 percent were either civil wars or insurgencies (page x).


Prose: Swift, to the point.

Jargon: For as sharp a book as this is, it's still infested with militaryese: i.e., "tailored system analysis" and "combat action monographs."

Construction: First are the rules, then case studies from Afghanistan, Indonesia, and East Timor zoom in from 50,000 feet to just inches from your nose.