Essence of Desperation
Counterinsurgency Doctrine as the Solution to War-Fighting Failures
Lexington Books, Boston, 2018, 170 pages
Book Review published on: April 20, 2018
Why does counterinsurgency (COIN) emerge during periods of warfighting failure and in crisis situations? How is it conceptualized and legitimized? Bryan Riddle, a former Army officer with a PhD in philosophy, addresses those questions in the Essence of Desperation: Counterinsurgency Doctrine as the Solution to War-Fighting Failures.
Riddle explores the emergence of COIN in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to understand how it is employed in the midst of a failing war. He describes how the Kennedy administration used Great Britain’s experience in Malaya and the United States’ experience in the Philippines to institutionalize COIN within the military and government. This was reflected in the Strategic Hamlet Program implemented in the Republic of Vietnam, which was designed to protect the local population while isolating the Viet Cong. Riddle does not offer an assessment of the Strategic Hamlet Program or any role it may have had in our failure in Vietnam. He also does not address the more successful Marine Corps Combined Action Program or the Army Special Forces’ Civilian Irregular Defense Group program. Riddle’s assertion that U.S. COIN died out following Vietnam overlooks its COIN efforts throughout Central America during the Cold War.
Riddle follows the reemergence of COIN in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He describes the role and the emergence of COIN advocates—most notably, Gen. David Petraeus, Lt. Col. John Nagl, and Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen—in placing COIN center stage in military strategy. He compares the provincial reconstruction teams in the two countries with the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support Program during the Vietnam War as that war’s COIN influence on the new COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While it is his stated intention not to address the correctness of the Strategic Hamlet Program, the Iraq Surge, or the Afghan Surge, Riddle misses the opportunity toward furthering the COIN debate. When and where should COIN take center stage in military strategy and policy?
The central themes throughout Riddle’s work are the mysticism and romanticism of COIN. Riddle opines that it is this mysticism and romanticism that has captured the imagination of policy makers, the media, and the public. The discourse of COIN is packaged in the concepts of development, winning hearts and minds, specialized knowledge, and working to improve the quality of life for indigenous populations. He argues that COIN becomes viewed as a constructive versus a destructive form of war. Purveyors of COIN are more than just warriors, they must also be statesmen possessing cultural sensitivity and empathy in protecting indigenous populations. Cultural sensitivity, analysis of tribal structures, the romanticized notions of special operations warriors riding on horses with tribal leaders, and other elements feed into the geostrategic narratives of why and how COIN is performed.
Essence of Desperation does contribute to the ongoing debate on the merits of COIN. It compels the reader to consider the capabilities and limitations of COIN. It reminds us that COIN efforts must address grievances if they are to be successful. Despite its shortcomings, Essence of Desperation is a must read for policy makers and students of COIN.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas