Christopher Harmon, Classics of Counterinsurgency

When faced with an insurgency, how do we learn about it? Soldiers and officers need practical advice, and often show close interest in past practices which clearly succeeded or clearly failed. On the other hand, historians and cultural specialists have a bent for insisting on the uniqueness of a thing. Questions and challenges come with any recommendation of any reading about the past, or about theory, or about “lessons learned.” What does the past teach? When can past experience be a dangerous guide about what to do now? The nature of war is eternal, and yet, might the character of an individual war be even more important? Vietnam shows that the character of one war may change over time, and change again, and it did. More recently, we keep hearing Al Qaeda described as a “global insurgency?” What do the words “global insurgency” mean, since insurgencies of the past have usually been national or local? Finally, given the “global war on terrorism,” is counterinsurgency theory of use in that effort, or is counterterrorism much narrower, with its own lessons?

This is a short critical bibliography, including: lead recommendations; notes about a few of the newer books; and references to specific cases studies. Readers must look elsewhere for the rebels’ side of the story; this list only sketches the counter-insurgents’ side.


  • Asprey, Robert. War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1975.Released as two volumes, and returned later in one. The Marines’ War College built it into curricula. A bold attempt to cover the world history of guerrilla wars, including Alexander the Great, Roman pacification in Spain, the French Revolutionaries’ war against monarchists and other foes in the Vendee, and scores of other cases. Counterinsurgency coverage is good on the strategic and operational levels, but with heavy emphasis on military affairs, not other aspects of grand strategy.
  • Callwell, Charles E. Small Wars: A Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers. London: Lionel Leventhal/Green Hill Books, 1990.Published in 1896 and then often revised, as for 1906. Description and analysis are both impressive in this near-encyclopedia of Europe’s colonial wars. Emphasis on intelligence, distinguishing cultural attributes of different enemies, etc. The larger lesson is that overwhelming force is recommended to “awe” an uncivilized opponent, which may bring the argument into conflict with the CNN age, as well as the arguments on minimal force offered by authors such as T. R. Mockaitis (below).
  • Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.One of many titles in a rich 1960s series by this publisher, this title explores both insurgency and the steps required to counter it. About as close as any title comes to being short and comprehensive. It is of course focused on Communist enemies, and one must ask how much that affects its advice for Iraq. In use by the School of Advanced Warfighting (U.S. Marine Corps).
  • Gwynn, Sir Charles W. Imperial Policing. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd. 1934, etc.It is perhaps foolish to recommend a book I’ve not read, but here’s an exception: This volume has an enormous reputation and was of significance to British officers and students of history during the 20th century. After opening chapters on “The Nature of the Army’s Police Duties,” and “Principles and Doctrine,” Gwynn studies Amritsar in 1919, Egypt the same year, and many subsequent British campaigns, closing with Palestine and Waziristan.
  • Haycock, Ronald, ed. Regular Armies and Insurgency. Totowa NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979.Obscure, and very short, yet one of the best collections on major historical cases, including essays on Malaya, Algeria, and Vietnam, and less-known fights in Mexico and Ireland. Alistair Horne’s essay on the French in Algeria versus the FLN is recommended for those without time for his lengthy volume A Savage War for Peace.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62. New York: Viking, 1977.The best book on this past war. Horne’s thick account has long been a staple in military education, held a spot on the Marine Corps Commandant’s reading list for officers, and was recently reprinted (with a new forward) because of intense interest since the Iraq war began in 2003. Some readers may avoid detailed sections on French politics. The heart of the book is about the Algerian insurgents and French policy, strategy, and operations in theater. The deployment of a half million men, air power, naval patrols, and lines of fixed barriers helped make military success. But France’s deep political divide with Algerians, and failures in civilian-military relations, cost her the war. Anyone working through this tome will understand completely why Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks has taken the time to master this text.
  • Lansdale, Edward G. In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.The author was utterly unique, passing from the advertising business into WII, the OSS, CIA, US Army, and US Air Force, retiring as a major general. His understanding of, and skill with, Filipinos grew and paralleled his close work over many years with Ramon Magsaysay—the Defense Secretary who became President. This autobiography offers a case study in rendering advice while having little to no American footprint. Success in the Philippines led Lansdale to take a less-happy, far smaller part in the Vietnam War. Air Force officer Kevin Smith once showed me some of Lansdale’s further papers and texts for lectures at military schools, as well as two articles in Foreign Affairs; at times much criticized, “The Quiet American” was an American hero and a sage in this field.
  • Leites, Nathan, and Charles Wolf Jr. Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1970.Deep thinking, rather than obvious policy direction. An influential title—I encountered devoted readers in Andrew Marshall’s Net Assessment Office of the Pentagon, and it features in an advanced course on counterinsurgency at West Point. A very difficult book and not one to be recommended for the new student of counterinsurgency.
  • Paret, Peter. French Revolutionary Warfare form Indochina to Algeria: The Analysis of a Political and Military Doctrine. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.Author of at least two books on guerrilla war, Paret later went on to help Michael Howard with the definitive edition of Clausewitz’s On War. This little monograph is good on the war in Algeria, psychological operations, and civil affairs. It’s narrowness in topic is a virtue, for the author gets at depths most leave untested.
  • Thompson, Robert. Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam. Houndmills UK or London: Macmillan Press, 1987.A 1966 classic, short, often reprinted, and central to professional military education in many US schools, past and present. Thompson was a practitioner, especially in Malaya. He offers five basic rules which merit close study, and much advice on hearts and minds, intelligence, and concepts such as strategic hamlets. He understands the roles of terrorism within insurgency in a way many later authors may not. He addresses insurgent “shadow government”—which, again, many modern authors either do not understand or do not bother to address.
  • U.S. Marine Corps. Small Wars Manual. Government Printing Office, 1940. Frequently reprinted.Growing out of work by Samuel Harrington and other officers in the 1920s and 1930s, this was a guide to foreign intervention, counter-insurgency, and stability operations, based upon inter-war experience. Its publication was immediately overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II with all its massive conventional military operations. The manual never fully emerged from the intellectual shadows, even when badly needed during the Vietnam War. But nor did the thick volume lose its deep wisdom and prudence. It is also an encyclopedia of tradecraft—some of which is still useful. The manual is in limited use in some U.S. military schools.
  • West, Francis “Bing.” The Village. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.This reads like a good novel and details how one “Combined Action Platoon” worked in the Vietnam War. In a very experimental mode, which raised controversy and still does, U.S. Marines lived, fought, and took casualties alongside Vietnamese counterparts, all the while training them. West is also the author of a short historical study of USMC performance in Vietnam, and two books on the Gulf Wars against Iraq.

Part B: Three Newer Books of Uniqueness & Value

  • Corum, James S. and Wray R. Johnson. Airpower in Small Wars. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.Sophisticated, expansive studies in which operational air forces are just one part of the story. Old wars in Central America; classic CI campaigns of the early Cold War; southern African wars; Latin American conflicts, etc. Both authors are respected teachers at graduate-level accredited US military schools.
  • Mockaitis, Thomas Ross. The British Experience in Counterinsurgency, 1919-1960. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Information Service, 1988; © Mockaitis, Thomas Ross.Surprisingly, this 400-page, unpublished PhD typescript is better than most on counterinsurgency. It might be the best book on which to start. Mockaitis is an American student of British principles and methods, and the student emerges as a superior teacher. Three main approaches helped Britain prevail, when it did: minimum force; close cooperation between all branches of civil government and the military; and willingness to dispense with conventional tactics and to decentralized small-unit tactics. The author’s subsequent books include Peace Operations and Intrastate Conflict: The Sword or the Olive Branch. Westport, CN: Praeger, 1999. Mockaitis edits the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies, perhaps the best of its kind.
  • Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.The author is a serving army officer who holds a doctorate; he has been lecturing widely on this volume, and was profiled for it in The Wall Street Journal. The book title comes from T.E. Lawrence’s comment about how difficult and intellectual guerrilla war is. Nagl’s 2nd edition is the best because it carries a long preface on his recent combat experiences in Iraq. Apart from the two country studies, there are more general sections on how armies learn, and don’t learn, in counterinsurgency.

Part C: Case Studies of Counterinsurgency

Some come to this subject with a sense that guerrillas usually win and states usually yield. This pessimism is partly due to early post-WWII history and partly to myth. Certainly the defeats for states have been many; the losing governments include Chaing Kai Shek’s China, Vietnam under French protection and then under American too, France in Algeria, and Britain-forced to withdraw from Palestine and Cyprus. That said, there have also been many successes. Britain prevailed in Iraq in the 1920s. Greece defeated the guerrillas of the late 1940s, when Athens had American aid. Britain clearly won in Oman and Malaya, and has probably won in Northern Ireland. The U.S. saw through two victories in the Philippines—a century ago, and then in the early 1950s. Counterinsurgency in El Salvador—despite debate, ridicule, and moral indignation—was a remarkable success; that is true for the Salvadorans, for the few American combat advisors, and for the many departments of the U.S. government which lent immense aid.

There is another category of counterinsurgency victories which may merit little study by Americans and other democratic peoples now, because their main feature was brutality. Some of the worst examples are Russian and Soviet practices which conquered—and kept down—adjacent populations as their empires expanded.

African Wars

  • Cann, John P. Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961-1974. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1997.Unusual for its English-language treatment of these foreign campaigns, and its focus is a prelude to wars of the 1980s in Mozambique and Angola. Dr. Cann, a former naval officer, served until recently as a low intensity conflict specialist at Command & Staff College, Quantico, Virginia, and his book has gained notice and honors in Portugal.
  • Kitson, Frank. Bunch of Five. Low Intensity Operations. Etc.British Army veteran Kitson wrote these (and other) books on southern African wars and also advised the British on Northern Ireland. Among his contributions to the field are open discussion of pseudo gangs—”fake” guerrilla units, created by government police forces or armies, to kill or capture insurgents while sowing disorder and distrust among the state’s enemies.

Algeria’s War with France

  • Aussaresses, Paul. The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957. New York: Enigma Books, 2002.The Algerian War demonstrates the folly of torture, and France is still contorted over its legacy and the loss of the war. Some old men are confessing before they die, and this general offers one such vivid account. It caused uproar in France.
  • Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace. See above.


  • Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA: A History. Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1993.A comprehensive history of the struggle during the 20th century which gives due weight to British policy and performance.
  • Geraghty, Tony. The Irish War: The Hidden Conflict Between the IRA and British Intelligence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.The author of a fun paperback on the famed Special Air Service (Who Dares, Wins) turns his talents to the study of the complexities of Northern Ireland—in four hundred pages. The emphasis on intelligence in low intensity conflict is welcome, as is the revealing material on the handling of incidents of excessive force or charges thereof. The persistence of the British, and their success, are remarkable…yet a further chapter in the story could need writing one day.


  • Komer, Robert W. The Malayan Emergency in Retrospect: Organization of a Successful Counterinsurgency Effort. Santa Monica CA: RAND, 1972.Komer is a bright and fiercely-independent mind. A veteran of civic action and aid programs in Vietnam, he here studies the earlier British success.See also above for the book by Robert Thompson, and an essay by Anthony Short in Haycock’s Regular Armies and Insurgency.

The Philippines: 2 Case Studies

  • Linn, Brian McAllister. The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1989.The U.S. won a war against nationalists, but it was neither easy nor pretty. There were no end of mistakes in the beginning. At the end, there was a brilliant pseudo-gang success that captured the leader Aguinaldo; that operation is as little-known as it is important.
  • Greenberg, Lawrence M. The Hukbalahap Insurrection: A Case Study of a Successful Anti-Insurgency Operation in the Philippines—1946-1955. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1987.Written by an Army major and superior for its clarity and concrete advice. 150 pages. The perfect teaching implement at the graduate level, this paperback is well-known to officers at the Marines’ School of Advanced Warfighting and Command and Staff College, in Quantico. VA.
  • Valeriano, Napoleon D. and Charles T.R. Bohannan. Counter-Guerrilla Operations: The Philippine Experience. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962.How combat and larger efforts appeared to a Filipino officer and an American ally in the field. Very tactical and operational in focus.
  • See above for Lansdale, Edward. In the Midst of Wars.

Vietnam (U.S. war)

  • Blaufarb, Douglas. The Counter-Insurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, 1950 to Present. London: Free Press, 1977.A title that is never missing from a counterinsurgency bibliography. Read at West Point for its handling of CORDS, etc., in Vietnam.
  • Krepinevich, Andrew F. Jr. The Army and Vietnam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.A powerful volume, and possibly a classic in the badly-crowded field of Vietnam studies. It directly challenges Harry Summers’ understanding of the ground war. Sees the U.S. Army as failing to adapt, learn, and deal with an enemy who usually fought unconventionally. No student of counterinsurgency should neglect to read chapters 6 – 8.
  • West, Francis. The Village. See above.
© Christopher C. Harmon