The Soul of Armies

The Soul of Armies

Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK

Austin Long

Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2016, 288 pages

Book Review published on: April 14, 2017

Does a military organization’s culture determine the way it approaches counterinsurgency? This is the question Austin Long sets out to answer in The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK. Long, a political scientist, explores the development of the military cultures of the British army, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, and, separately, the U.S. Army Special Forces from their early days and how that affected their actions in recent counterinsurgency operations. Using Vietnam, Kenya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Long explores the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and its application in these conflicts.

Long posits that military cultures develop around the formidable experiences that shaped the force’s identity. For the U.S. Army, the Civil War shaped its culture as a firepower intensive, large-unit force. The marines, Special Forces, and British army all had their formidable experiences in small-unit actions shaping their approach to counterinsurgency thusly.

Long claims that in Vietnam, the U.S. Army employed multibattalion actions and massive firepower despite counterinsurgency doctrine to the contrary. The marines, except when in contact with main force units or forced by the Army, focused on population-centric missions in conjunction with locals. Even when the Army sought to co-opt these efforts, it attempted to enlarge them significantly until they were no longer effective. Special Forces acted similar to the marines. He further offers that the British army acted within civilian control using population-centric techniques in Kenya. To this point, his argument is relatively solid.

However, when Long gets to Iraq and Afghanistan, his argument gets weak. He readily acknowledges that he does not have enough sources to back his research and decided to use his personal experience as an analyst and advisor for Multinational Forces–Iraq to fill the gap. He seemingly tailors his evidence to fit his narrative. He assigns all credit for the development of the Sons of Iraq to the marines despite it being an initiative fostered by an Army brigade. In attempt to demonstrate that even during the “Surge” the Army stuck to its roots, he describes a handful of large operations and claims that this was the norm outside of Baghdad without much evidence. He also overlooks or excuses large-unit Marine actions to make his point. His account of Afghanistan highlights just a few actions of the Army across a fifteen-year conflict, making it tough to accept his premise. Due to this, his argument is not convincing.

In the end, Long admits that nothing the marines, Special Forces, or the United Kingdom did with respect to counterinsurgency had any significant strategic impact on Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, but still judges their methods superior. His argument is not satisfying, and it is fair for a reader to wonder why this is so if the record of each is similar. Still, Long’s book is thought-provoking as the reader journeys through the development of military culture and makes the reader consider how cultural bias may play into planning.

Book Review written by: Maj. Darrell E. Fawley III, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas