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Guerrilla Lit 101

Ten books that are better than The Art of War.

West Point's recently released list of the top 10 military classics is replete with doorstop-sized accounts of conflict from ancient to relatively modern times -- but almost completely neglects insurgency, terrorism, and other forms of irregular warfare. The U.S. Military Academy's list does a fine job of capturing the "horizontal" dynamic of clashes of roughly equal great powers armed with the most advanced weapons. But the history and shape of the world system have been just as influenced by the "vertical" axis -- the unequal struggles that have seen guerrillas, bandits, and commandos waging "wars of the knife" against empires and nations. And it is this latter mode of conflict that has dominated world affairs for the past half-century -- and will likely do so for at least a century to come.

With this in mind, let me supplement the West Point list. For those drawn to West Point's recommendation to read Thucydides, I suggest taking a look also at Sallust's The Jugurthine War. Jugurtha of Numidia (today's northern Algeria) fought a bitter guerrilla war against Rome, some 50 years before Julius Caesar's great campaigns, that Sallust captured with verve. He also spoke to the corruption of Roman character that came with protracted exposure to this kind of fighting.

Hans Delbrück, whose four-volume history of ancient, medieval, and early modern warfare that West Point selected, can be nicely complemented by Lt. Gen. John Bagot Glubb's The Great Arab Conquests. His survey of the sweeping seventh-century victories of Muslim warriors is of the highest analytic and literary quality, a principal observation being that much of the world of that time was shaped by the irregular "pirate strategy" the Arabs adopted. That is, they used the desert as an ocean and came raiding from it, again and again, with startling success.

The West Point list also focuses on several important philosophers of war: the aphoristic Sun Tzu; the turgid, elusive treatises of Machiavelli and Clausewitz; and Jomini's geometrically inspired principles. Jomini in particular, with his emphasis on angles of approach and other seemingly precise formulas, captured the minds of generations of military leaders. His ideas about how to properly mass one's forces and take the offensive remain powerfully prominent in -- if not especially useful to -- current U.S. strategic thought. Irregular philosophers of war are, by comparison, few. Mao Zedong is certainly the best, though his On Guerrilla Warfare is very nearly as vague as Sun Tzu. Yet Mao's key insight for irregulars -- centralize strategy, decentralize operations -- is still the polestar.

For a more operationally oriented study of land battles, West Point chose Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies. This is a curious choice. Col. du Picq was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, but his belief that good morale could overcome concentrated firepower animated French strategic thought up to and during World War I -- with near-catastrophic results. For the period in question, I suggest two alternatives. First, there is Col. Charles Callwell's survey of the many modes of irregular warfare, Small Wars -- find the third edition, the one with the insightful introduction by eminent military historian Douglas Porch. The second book is by John Reed -- also the author of Ten Days That Shook the World about the Russian Revolution -- whose account of Pancho Villa in Insurgent Mexico is one of the finest eyewitness accounts of an insurgent campaign ever written, even taking into account T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Interestingly, the West Point list also includes two naval classics, one each from Britain's Julian Corbett and American A.T. Mahan. They are without question the best in their field, but the works chosen hardly speak to the phenomenon of raiding from the sea -- the principal way of waging maritime irregular warfare. Handily, however, both Corbett and Mahan did write about such matters, the former in his depiction of the life (and value as a sea raider) of Francis Drake and the latter in his Types of Naval Officers, particularly the character study of Edward Pellew.

When it comes to air power, West Point opted for Italian strategist Giulio Douhet's The Command of the Air. First published in 1921, the book called for massive bombing of civilian targets -- with chemical weapons. Douhet's belief in the profound psychological effect of aerial attack attracted legions of followers -- and still does. Yet few such campaigns have ever worked. Better to look at "air raiding" through more irregular eyes, such as those of Orde Wingate. This British general pioneered the concept of "deep penetration" of small raiding forces, inserted and supplied from the air. It is a concept he tried out with some success in Burma during World War II, but his ideas still await full development. Leonard Mosley's Gideon Goes to War -- Wingate was something of a religious fanatic and saw himself much like the biblical warrior -- offers a lucid, but still deep, assessment.

For those counting, you know that I have two choices left. I'll conclude with recommendations that reflect an important debate. Robert Taber's War of the Flea argues that little can stop the weak from wearing down the strong with insurgent warfare; Lewis Gann's Guerrillas in History is a brief but thorough survey that shows how often irregulars have been beaten in the past. Both books were written over 40 years ago, and both remain exceptionally timely. Indeed, Abu Musab al-Suri, al Qaeda's deepest strategic thinker, lectured on Taber at the "university of terror" that used to operate in Afghanistan.

The 10 books I have outlined here -- all quite short save for Glubb and Callwell -- provide nice complements to the West Point list and may prove a bit more relevant to the wars of our time and conflicts to come.

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National Security

Yes, Russia Is Our Top Geopolitical Foe

Why Mitt Romney is right about Moscow.

The boldest gambit of the presidential contest thus far has to be Mitt Romney's assertion that Russia is America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." The GOP candidate first blurted this out months ago, and he has been pilloried by the Dems for Cold War-era "old think" ever since. Some believe this view may even undermine the traditional perception voters have of Republicans being more adept than Democrats at national security affairs.

For all the flak he's taken, Romney reaffirmed his views about Russia last week. He no longer assigns Moscow a number -- much less No. 1 -- but Mitt has made it clear that, in his view, "everything we try to do globally they try and oppose." In particular, he cites the Russians' obstructive behavior when it comes to alleviating the conflict in Syria and the proliferation crisis with Iran.

Longstanding Russian support in the war on terror and the key role Moscow plays in the Northern Distribution Network that sustains the allied intervention in Afghanistan seem to have slipped his mind.

But no matter. Romney is still right about Russia. So far just in his instincts, as it seems he has not yet fully crystallized his thinking. As to the kind of thinking called for, he has made this clear: We must assess the world from a geopolitical perspective. This is most refreshing, given the utter lack of interest today among American institutions of higher learning in the intersection of geography and foreign policy.

The field of geopolitics went into eclipse in the 1940s, in the wake of Nazi Germany's pursuit of a territorially oriented foreign policy based on increasing Lebensraum by force of arms. As an academic discipline, it has never recovered from this malign association in people's minds. One can only hope Romney's Russian gambit stimulates a resurgence of more legitimate interest.

For in classic geopolitical terms -- that is, by giving attention to territory, resources of all sorts, and their influence on beliefs, behavior, and policy -- it is quite clear that Russia is the major counterweight to American power and influence. A huge country that straddles what the great geographer Halford Mackinder called the Eurasian "heartland" is sure to operate with substantial effect in the world. A country with thousands of nuclear weapons, still-substantial armed services, and a cornucopia of natural resources will have its innings in high politics.

Romney's assertions about Russia should be seen less as stale strategic thinking and more as a critique of Barack Obama's looming "Pacific shift," which implies that China has moved into position as our top geopolitical foe. Yet Beijing, in the throes of modernization and heavily weighed down by a massive population, increasingly urgent energy needs, and a troubled political transition -- see: Bo Xilai and other travails of succession -- can hardly be seen as our new No. 1 geopolitical foe.

Furthermore, China's military is still decades away from having any kind of ability to project force over meaningful distances. The 100-mile width of the Taiwan Strait could just as easily be a thousand miles, given China's lack of force-projection capability. Even the quite large People's Liberation Army is full of question marks, with few substantive changes evident since it got such a bloody nose during the 1979 war with Vietnam.

To be sure, the Chinese navy is very innovative, with its emerging swarms of small, short-ranging missile boats. And Chinese hackers are among the best in the world. But these capabilities hardly form the leading edge of a global military power.

So Romney, by keeping focused on Russia, may actually be demonstrating his chops as a geo-strategist. Given Russia's greater capabilities, and intentions so clearly and so often inimical to American interests, the smart geopolitical move now would be for Washington to embrace Beijing more closely, giving Moscow a lot more to think about on its eastern flank. This was a strategic shift that worked well for President Richard Nixon 40 years ago, when he first played "the China card"; it might do nicely again today.

Such an initiative makes sense, given that U.S. trade with China amounts to more than half a trillion dollars annually -- more than ten times the level of Russo-American economic interaction. And Beijing also serves as a major creditor. It simply makes little sense to provoke China, as Obama's announced Pacific shift already has. If Romney is right about the return of post-Soviet Russia as the world's bête noire, then any American Pacific shift should be more about alliance with, rather than alienation of, Beijing.

The biggest downside of Romney's insight into Russia is that, with the truth now out in the open, Moscow might become testier, more willing to act in open opposition to American interests. But confrontation need not be the only way ahead. Recognition of Russia's geopolitical importance might also lead to a more tempered American approach to the world, with less trumpeting about Washington's "global leadership role." This in turn could lead to a better working relationship with Russia.

That Russia and the United States were each destined for greatness in international affairs, their fates intertwined, was noted as early as 1835 by that shrewd social observer, Alexis de Tocqueville. At the very end of the first volume of his classic Democracy in America, Tocqueville said of these two countries: "Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world."

This prediction has been well borne out by the history of the past century or so. Now Mitt Romney is, in effect, arguing that Tocqueville is still right -- and that we neglect his profound insight at our increasing peril.

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