Review Essay - New Thinking in the Pentagon

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by D. Kilcullen. London: Hurst and Co., 2009. 344 pp., £20.00 paperback, 978 1850659556

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam , paperback edition by J. Nagl. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 280 pp., £11.50 paperback, 978 0226567709

The Gamble: General Petraeus and the Untold Story of the American Surge in Iraq 2006–8 by T. E. Ricks. London and New York: Allen Lane, 2009. 416 pp., £25.00 hardcover, 978 1846141454

Tell Me How This Ends: General Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq by L. Robinson. New York: Public Affairs, 2009. 432 pp., £16.99 hardcover, 978 1586485283

According to Thomas Ricks, the 'Old War' ended on 19 March 2005 – the date on which a marine squad in Iraq went on a killing spree after being attacked. These four fine books are about the profound learning process that is being experienced by the American security apparatus in order to find ways to address the 'new wars' in Iraq and Afghanistan and, indeed, in other parts of the world. The name of General Petraeus is associated with this learning process, although it has to be understood more as a social movement – changed perceptions that have bubbled up from junior-level officers frustrated by what was happening on the ground. One officer tells Linda Robinson that the US army consists of 'Cold War generals, Bosnia colonels and Iraq captains'. General Petraeus' role has been to empower the captains.

Two of the books are by soldiers and they develop the security thinking that underlies this learning process. David Kilcullen and John Nagl have both been deeply involved in formulating the new ideas that were tried out in Iraq after 2006 and are being tried out now in Afghanistan. John Nagl was a co-author of the new counterinsurgency manual produced under General Petraeus' supervision during his stint at Fort Leavenworth prior to taking over the operational command in Iraq. David Kilcullen is an Australian with experience in Afghanistan, East Timor, Thailand and Indonesia, who also contributed to the manual and became General Petraeus' counterinsurgency adviser in Iraq.


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