Book review: The Accidental Guerrilla

Upon handing in the first draft of my master’s thesis, my supervisor subtly criticized my magazine-influenced writing style. He gave me an invaluable piece of advice concerning academic writing: “Keep it dry. Nobody is going to read this for pleasure.” I recalled this advice while reading David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One.

The Accidental Guerilla book coverReleased around this time last year, The Accidental Guerilla has been recommended to me a number of times by readers of ComingAnarchy. I have not taken the time to read any reviews of the book simply because I did not want to influence my impressions, which are generally good, but I do not think the book offers any new insights to a crowd such that reads ComingAnarchy.com. That said, it is worth the read (at least, the first and last chapters are).

First let me say that this book reads like a PhD dissertation, or a government white paper: “Drier than a dead dingo’s donger” as our Australian mates would say (Note: Kilcullen is an Aussie). Only rarely does Kilcullen spice up the text with anecdotes from the field, which is a shame for such a travelled person. But this book is supposed to be a type of policy prescription rather than a memoir. And the sparse writing leads to a very tight argument. The book is well-structured, if not well written. One stylistic niggle of mine was the overuse of the modifier “extremely” (and its variants). The extreme use of this extremely expressive word annoyed the hell out me, extremely. But I digress…

The Accidental Guerilla is fundamentally a criticism of Bush-era foreign policy, specifically the over-emphasis on counter-terrorism (CT). Kilcullen’s argument is that terrorism should be reduced to a nuisance, and be managed thusly, freeing up military assets for other, more important, global issues. But that does not mean backing out of our responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kilcullen is a (small “c”) conservative when it comes to the use of military power, which he feels has been used far too loosely in the “war on terror” (of which he is very critical). Needless to say, he was opposed the invasion of Iraq, a point he often brings up in the text. Kilcullen is a conservative foreign policy realist, which puts him at odds with big “C” Conservatives of the Dick Cheney variety.

Kilcullen is also critical of what he terms “traditional counter-insurgency theory”. This is problematic since he does not offer a solid definition of “traditional” COIN, and often states that COIN changes depending on the situation. Nevertheless, Kilcullen goes on to promote his own very anthropological, sociological approach to COIN. This is by no means a new approach, and seems to be a repackaging of older theories of COIN with a flash new label. “Accidental guerillas” are simply fighters defending their homes within the broader context of the war on terror, where foreign soldiers are blowing up foreign terrorists on their land. Kilcullen’s argument is that these fighters far outnumber the actual terrorists, and if we understand their grievances, and let them be, we can reconcile: violence would be reduced and the “virus” of Salafi terrorists would be rejected, and more readily destroyed. Simply put, it is a population-centric approach to COIN.

For close readers of COIN and CT theory, I do not think this book will offer any new insight. Kilcullen’s contribution though is an excellent overview of the “social work with guns” theory of COIN, as well as a succinct presentation of the realist arguments for non-intervention and conservation of military power. These are all arguments that have been aired since before the Iraq war. There are a few interesting nuggets, including some of the details on the execution “the surge” in Iraq. More important are his case studies of Indonesia and southern Thailand, a welcome contribution in a field that tends to focus on the Middle East and north Africa.

The last few pages, where he presents his policy ideas, is really where practitioners can sink their teeth in. Lots of debating points there. For example:

  • develop a new lexicon to better describe the threat (rather than UW, COIN, irregular warfare etc)
  • discuss a new grand strategy (have an ARCADIA conference on terrorism)
  • balance capability (Why is DOD 210 times bigger than USAID and State?)
  • identify new “strategic services” (ie. a new OSS)
  • develop a capacity for strategic information warfare (our old friend Matt Armstrong will like this)

I look forward to seeing the debate this book sparks, as there is value in discussing all of the above proposals even if you give short shrift the rest of the book.

To conclude, I thought the book good, and worth the read, but by no means revolutionary. It might not serve as a good introduction to the war on terror, or COIN theory since it only approaches the armed social work, but is a solid, incremental step in the academic field of guerilla warfare.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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8 Responses to Book review: The Accidental Guerrilla

  1. Scott S. says:

    Glad to read and reviewed it. Agree across the board. It is dry, which is a shame because Kilcullen is an interesting speaker. However, he probably was more interested in his ideas being digested by people who make policy than by those who just talk policy (or just talk). A less pop title may have helped redirect. I also encouraged friends to read the first and last chapters—these are where the valuable insights are best contextualized.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I think Kilcullen’s main point — that we face spontaneously radicalized and localized guerrillas more often than not — seems pretty solidly established by his long exposure to counterinsurgencies. He’s absolutely on target about the critical importance of “soft power” in dealing with insurgencies.

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  5. Jason says:

    I had much the same thoughts in my review. A little too academic, but with some good ideas in the end. Certainly worth reading, the case studies are very interesting if nothing more to give the reader more depth in understanding irregular warfare operations.

  6. Grammarian says:

    One niggle. Is “extremely” an adjective or an adverb?

  7. Younghusband says:

    Ah yes. Thank you Grammarian. extreme = adj. extremely = adv. Text has been changed.

  8. Ross Wherry says:

    Kilcullen’s book doesn’t appear revolutionary on the surface because it reinforces the thought of those of us who have been charged with setting up a local government or a rural economy after the insurgency has been reduced to a nuisance. He reiterates what the civilian side of CT and CN have known since long before the Army discovered it. I can speak for Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and El Salvador, where armed force trumped the more subtle approach of security plus governance plus viable economics.