#Reviewing Black: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History. Jeremy Black. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016.

There have been a great many books published on the subjects of insurgency and counterinsurgency since the inception of the Global War on Terror (or “current, ongoing overseas contingency operations”, if you prefer); a number of these have focused on the U.S. Army’s mistakes in Vietnam or on the efforts on the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeremy Black’s recent contribution, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History, offers more insight; it is a comprehensive history of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare that is not limited in scope to the efforts of Western powers.

Early in the work, Black demonstrates that insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare are not new military concepts; “the intention is to show that insurgencies have happened across organized human history and are therefore far from being a characteristic of modernity.”[i] Discussion of the ancient world is limited to the first and second chapters, where the purpose of the inclusion of this material is to demonstrate that insurgency is not a phenomenon exclusive to modern – or Western – warfare. The narrative takes the reader around the globe and from the ancient world to the modern at a rapid pace once the reader begins this compelling and engaging work, it is difficult to put down. Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History offers a uniquely international perspective as Black leads the reader from continent to continent, giving attention first to the small wars of ancient Asia and Africa, building up to those of Europe and its colonies.

In terms of Western wars, Black’s analyses of the American Revolution and Civil War are concise, and tie the events of those conflicts into the global politics of the respective time periods. In the preface to the book, the author notes that “The wide definition of insurgency and, thereby, of counterinsurgency warfare offered in this book may surprise and even irritate.”[ii]  This definition contrasts somewhat with existing scholarship on the subject. For example, Galula perceived revolutionary war to be “primarily an internal conflict, although external influences seldom fail to bear upon it.”[iii] Regarding politics, Black invokes the muse of Clausewitz early in the work, pointing out that insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are themselves the results of internal politics, or as Galula observed, “The conflict results from the action of the insurgent aiming to seize power – or at splitting off from the existing country…and from the reaction of the counterinsurgent aiming to keep his power.”[iv]  While discussing the American Revolution and the Civil War, Black uses the terms insurgency, insurrection, and civil war interchangeably, thus granting a degree of legitimacy to the insurgencies in small wars.

As Black’s narrative moves through the ages, he illustrates the small wars of the 19th century as laying the groundwork for the large-scale global conflicts of the 20th.  America’s quasi-colonial expedition to the Philippines and the European colonization of the Middle East and Africa gave the armed forces their first tastes of counterinsurgency warfare. World Wars I and II are perceived as being the foundation of insurgency and counterinsurgency operations later conducted in Algeria, Malaya, and Vietnam, as France and Great Britain struggled to maintain control over their pre-war colonies.

...while the lessons learned in the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations of the past cannot be easily overlaid onto future small wars, they must not be neglected...

Previous works on the topic of counterinsurgency are considered in Black’s discussion of the modern military and its involvement in counterinsurgency warfare. Black comes to similar conclusions as Andrew Krepinevich, Jr., and John Nagl: the United States military’s response to insurgencies has consistently been reactive rather than proactive.  However, unlike Krepinevich, Black’s historiography differs in the sense that the narrative is not limited to analysis of one war, and furthermore, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency is much more general than Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.  Those powers that have formerly been successful in counterinsurgency are not exempt from criticism, despite relative successes in Algeria, where the French won the fight, but lost the support of the populace through the use of torture and Malaya, where the French and English conduct of COIN operations on the modern battlefield has been essentially ineffective.[v]

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency is a thought-provoking addition to the bookshelf of any stakeholder in counterinsurgency warfare. The author is well-read in the works of Clausewitz, Mao, and Galula, and provides keen insight into the operations planned and conducted by contemporary counterinsurgents like General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal. In his conclusion, the author adopts the theories of General Odierno, who argued in 2012 that, in the future, state actors would be engaged against “regular military and irregular paramilitary or civilian adversaries, with the potential for terrorism, criminality, and other complications.”[vi] Black also adopts the ideas of military officer and author David Kilcullen, as he concludes by discussing wars fought on the hybrid battlefield in megacities and littorals; he anticipates that future wars will be fought against combinations of state and non-state actors in huge urban areas. Exponential increases in population, changes in the global economy, the growth of megacities around the world, and the use of technology by non-state actors will all be factors in how wars – small and large – will be fought in the not-so-distant future.[vii]

Black’s work is broad in scope, like a survey course into what has been referred to as the graduate level of warfare. Despite the author’s excellent research and analysis, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency anticipates the systematic resolution of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan embraced by the Obama administration. Events since the publication of the book, however, have unfolded in such a way that conflicts in these areas appear to be escalating.  Perhaps the most important observation the author offers, though, is that while the lessons learned in the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations of the past cannot be easily overlaid onto future small wars, they must not be neglected.

Brian Christopher Darling has served in the United States Army in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar. He has written for NCO Journal. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Army National Guard, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[i] Black, 11.

[ii] Ibid, xi.

[iii] David Galula. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Greenwood Publishing Group (2006).

[iv] Ibid, 1.

[v] Lou DiMarco. “Losing the Moral Compass: Torture and Guerre Revolutionnaire in the Algerian War,” Parameters, 36, 2 (Summer 2006), 63-76.

[vi] Raymond T. Odierno. “The U.S. Army in a Time of Transition: Building a Flexible Force,” Foreign Affairs, 91, 3 (May/June 2012), 7-11.

[vii] David Kilcullen. Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla. Oxford University Press (2015)