Expert's Picks

Iraqi soldiers on joint patrol with U.S. Marines, June 12, 2005, in Fallujah, Iraq
Iraqi soldiers on joint patrol with U.S. Marines, June 12, 2005, in Fallujah, Iraq (Chris Hondros / Getty Images)
By T.X. Hammes
Sunday, July 17, 2005

The heaviest responsibility a commander will know is taking his soldiers to war. How can he arm their minds as well as their bodies? A former U.S. Marine Corps colonel and expert on insurgencies culls the best books from various military reading lists.

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu wrote down one of the first known lessons on war, The Art of War. Somewhat more recently, Maj. Gen. James Mattis wrote in the Feb. 2004 Marine Corps Gazette, "We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years, and we should take advantage of the experience of those who have gone before us. . . . Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy's will are not allowed the luxury of ignorance of their profession." The study of books is one antidote to that ignorance. What books are military leaders recommending that U.S. soldiers read to gird themselves for today's struggle in Iraq?

To answer that question, I looked at a wide variety of reading lists -- from that of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all the way to online lists compiled by men and women in command. A pattern emerged: the more senior the staff or service school, the less relevant the lists. These institutions continue to focus on conventional war. In contrast, the lists produced by those facing or returning from deployment to Iraq are directly applicable. They recognize that Sun Tzu's ancient caution to "know your enemy and know yourself" is no longer enough. In an insurgency, one must understand the population and culture as a whole. Thus the best lists emphasize three broad areas for preparing to serve in Iraq: insurgency, Iraqi history and culture, and Islam. What follows is a list of the most highly recommended books in these three categories.


Clearly, counterinsurgency warfare is an old problem, as reflected by the age of some of the best books here.

Small Wars Manual , U.S. Marine Corps, 1940. A practitioner's guide, this book made almost every list. It highlights lessons identified by Marines in the "Small Wars" of the early 20th century. From the political/strategic level to tactical operations, it provides shrewd guidance for those pitted against insurgents. Despite the section on packing mules, it remains painfully relevant today.

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice , by David Galula, 1964. Although now 40 years old, this remains one of the most useful books on counterinsurgency ever written. A practitioner rather than an academic -- he observed wars in Greece, China and Algeria -- Galula starts with the understanding that insurgency and counterinsurgency are distinctly different types of wars and then explores how a counterinsurgent can succeed. (See excerpts on page 8.)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph , by T.E. Lawrence, 1926. The Marine Corps's Small Wars Center of Excellence praises this autobiographical account of Lawrence of Arabia's attempts to organize Arab nationalism during World War I. It lauds its "penetrating insights into Arab culture and politics, with implications for future developments in the 'Thrice-Promised Land.' " Although dated, Lawrence of Arabia's elegant masterpiece was the second most recommended book on the "Inside the Pentagon" reading list compiled from a survey of active-duty officers.

Another of Lawrence's works, the bluntly practical Twenty Seven Articles (1917), is also frequently quoted. In particular, practitioners have come to value his caution, earned out of painful experience spurring Arab troops to fight the Ottoman Empire. "Do not try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence warned. "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them." Twenty Seven Articles is widely recommended as a kind of Cliff's Notes for conveying some of the insights of Seven Pillars .

Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse , by Bard E. O'Neill, second edition 2005. Col. H.R. McMaster of the 3d Armored Cavalry, currently serving in Iraq, noted that "O'Neill provides a framework for analyzing insurgency operations . . . a good book to read first in insurgency studies."

Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife , by John A. Nagl, 2002. Another recommendation from McMaster, who wants his soldiers to learn as they fight. In so doing, they would be following an old example. "Nagl argues," McMaster told his troops, "that Britain's military had an organization that allowed it to learn from its mistakes and eventually defeat the communist guerrillas in Malaya."


Insurgencies have everything to do with governance, and good governance requires an understanding of local conditions and cultures. Grasping the historical complexities of Iraq is the challenge these books address.

The Modern History of Iraq , by Phebe Marr, revised edition 2004. McMaster notes that this book, by a leading Iraq scholar, "focuses on several important themes: the search for national identity in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state; the struggle to achieve economic development and modernity in a traditional society; and the political dynamics that have led to the current dire situation in Iraq."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company