Expert's Picks

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."

The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein , by Sandra Mackey, 2002. The U.S. Army Command and Staff College considers this book an important "account of the forces that produced Saddam's dictatorship." The book addresses the absence of an Iraqi sense of national identity and common purpose, and it considers the Baathist rule of terror and the destruction of the country's middle class.

The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present and Future , by Kerim Yildiz, 2004. An up-to-date account that explores what the Kurds want, both inside Iraq and in the context of the broader international community. Recent reports from Kirkuk and Mosul indicate the Kurds are not as compliant as the United States had hoped.

The Arab Mind , by Raphael Patai, 1973. Often derided in academia, this book made several lists but was both praised ("a good introduction to Arab culture and psychology") and pilloried ("the author portrays the Arabs too stereotypically"). The same controversy is present in reviews online.

The Shi'is of Iraq , by Yitzhak Nakash, second edition, 2003. This is a comprehensive history of the country's Shiite majority and its troubled relationship with the Sunni minority, which dominated the country under the Baath and now drives the insurgency. U.S. commanders remain concerned that the Shiites may respond in kind to continuing Sunni violence, tilting the country toward civil war.


Understanding Islam remains one of the key concerns for military leaders.

Islam: A Short History , by Karen Armstrong, 2000. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded American troops in the Middle East, once argued that "a fundamental rule of counterinsurgency is to make no new enemies." Ignorance of the religious and cultural beliefs of a society makes such mistakes inevitable -- and dangerous. Armstrong's book is a strong antidote to ignorance.

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror , by Bernard Lewis, 2003. Controversial in its conclusions, Lewis's book explores Middle East history and tensions between Islam and the West. Lewis, an emeritus Princeton historian widely respected in conservative circles, places a particular emphasis on Islamist extremism and its implications for the United States.

Those who compile these lists hope that the books they endorse will give our troops in Iraq the mental strength to defeat an extraordinarily complex urban insurgency. Unfortunately, it is a rare commander who allots training time for reading; soldiers from privates to generals are supposed to do that on their own time. But it may be some of the most valuable training they get. The Pentagon would do well to come up with an expert and germane reading list of its own. ยท

T.X. Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, served as an infantry officer. He is the author of "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," a study of the evolution of modern insurgency.

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