19 February 2012
Book Review: Losing Small Wars by Frank Ledwidge
In 1990, I wrote a term paper for my high school AP US History class comparing the Malayan Emergency to the American experience in Vietnam. My optimistic thesis was that if the United States had only learned something from the British victory in Malaya, we could've won the war in Vietnam. (I probably cribbed the idea from an incomplete reading of Noel Barber's War of the Running Dogs).
Little did I know that I was ahead of the curve, and that a succession of academics would make that same case into a cottage industry during our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I shoulda gone for that PhD...) At the tender young age of 17 I became a full-fledged believer in the British "way" of fighting guerilla warfare. So, naturally after the last 11 years, I was eager to read Losing Small Wars for an evaluation of the GWOT from the British point of view.
I got much more than I bargained for. Frank Ledwidge, a former British Army intelligence officer (with service in Iraq and Afghanistan) and currently a lawyer, lays out an impassioned critique of the British art of counterinsurgency in theory, history and practice. Page by page, he stripped away my illusions about the British military's adeptness at small wars, and deconstructed some cherished illusions I had about counterinsurgency in general.
The quotes in the above illustration (from TE Lawrence and Maximillien Robespierre) sum up the bottom line of Ledwidge's book very succinctly. Additionally, Ledwidge attributes the British Army's poor showing in the GWOT to a bloated corps of senior officers, short regimental tours in theater (making continuity of mission impossible), an inability to project influence beyond the wire, and a bad habit of backing the wrong indigenous actors in any given area of operations as the causes for their failure.
Ledwidge describes the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan as being a "self-licking lollipop". Its only mission, protecting itself from problems of their own creation. (That would've made a more interesting illustration, actually.)
Agree with it or not, it's a stimulating book and a great addition for any COIN bookshelf. I look forward to reading Rob Dover's rebuttal against the book on Kings of War .