Mark Moyar has a reputation for going against the academic grain. One of his previous books, "Triumph Forsaken," is a full-throated, unapologetic defense of assassinated South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and US involvement in Vietnam in general. His inability to land a tenure track position at any American university despite his glittering resume (summa cum laude from Harvard, D.Phil from Cambridge), presumably because of his conservative viewpoints, has been the subject of debate in the academy - and a civil lawsuit.
In this, his most recent piece, on the hot topic of counterinsurgency, Moyar takes aim, indirectly, at the celebrated US Army / Marine Corps COIN Manual published in 2006, which focuses on population centric doctrine as the touchstone for a successful COIN campaign. The author's main thesis is that good leadership - defined as a combination of charisma, creativity, sociability, flexibility, empathy and morality - is just about the only thing that really matters. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, "It's not about the book" -- it's about the man. Moyar uses nine case studies, all of which but one (Malay Emergency) were US experiences, to demonstrate his point, both in the positive, examples where good leaders made all the difference, and the negative, where the lack of such leadership led to failure, often despite the use of population centric COIN best practices.
Moyar has dug up some great quotes from legends to support his case. One of my favorites comes from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who was asked by Winston Churchill to opine on the situation in Malaya at a time when things were particularly bleak for the British cause. Monty's plain spoken response is a gem and encapsulates Moyar's central argument: "To determine what must be done is only half the answer, and the easiest half; that of itself will not achieve success. In all this welter of trouble 'the man' is what counts. The second half of the answer is to produce good men, really good men, who have the courage to issue the necessary orders, the drive to insist that those orders are carried out, and the determination and will-power to see the thing through to the end." The end result was the selection of Sir Gerald Templer, the COIN leader par excellance, according to Moyar, a man who almost single-handedly turned around the entire campaign for the British.
Two other quotes of note come from Vietnam, Moyar's academic specialty. Robert Komer, the head of COORDS and a leader Moyar describes as effective but hampered by his abrasive style, once said, "I started out looking at Vietnam as a problem in resource allocation, and ended up looking at Vietnam more as a problem in getting the right Vietnamese in the right jobs." (For the record, this review is being submitted from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I'm serving with the NATO forces in a counterinsurgency role, and based on my ground level experience here, I couldn't agree more.)
The next comes from General Creighton Abrams, a COIN leader of rare skill, according to the author, on par with Templer, even. "Leadership - where that's good, they're good. Where it's mediocre, they're mediocre. Where it's piss poor, they're piss poor. It's just that simple. We've had some very dramatic examples here of where one man has changed - one man, just the commander, and in a month and a half's time you've got an entirely new outfit. Used to be flat on its ass, wouldn't go anywhere, couldn't fight. Only changed one man - transformed the whole thing."
But for every Templer and Abrams - or Ramon Magsaysay (Philippines / Huk), General David Petreaus (Iraq), General Carlos Vides Casanova (El Salvador), Brigadier General Franklin Bell (Philippines Insurrection), or Major General Henry Halleck (US Civil War Missouri occupation) - there are numerous uninspiring or failed COIN leaders, many of whom proved their leadership abilities in other capacities, such as conventional warfare or political administration, such Philip Sheridan (Texas and Louisiana during Reconstruction), Sir Henry Gourney (Malaya), General Elwell Otis (Philippines Insurrection), Ambassadors Elbridge Dubrow and Henry Cabot Lodge (Vietnam), and Lt. General (ret.) Jay Garner and Ricardo Sanchez (Iraq).
There's no denying that good leadership is important, perhaps even critical, in COIN operations. But what highly competitive group endeavor doesn't require strong leadership as a sine qua non for success? Is there any Fortune 500 corporation or championship athletic team that gets by on "best practices" or individual talent alone? I don't think so. There were aspects of this book that reminded me of another highly acclaimed historical piece on counterinsurgency, John Nagl's "Eating Soup with a Knife." Nagl's central thesis is that armies that exhibit traits of a "learning organization" are more effective at counterinsurgency that those that don't. No surprise there. Likewise, is it really surprising that armies with strong, charismatic, empathetic and inspiring leaders perform better than those with out?
Moyar concludes with a number of recommendations based on the insights from his nine case studies. Paramount and most peculiar is a call for the focused military recruiting of certain personality types, specifically those with INTJ personalities on the Myers-Briggs scale. I certainly guffawed when reading this section, although my opinion was slightly muted by the fact that I'm an INTJ currently in a COIN role in southern Afghanistan, so it was a modest personal fillip. Moyar's core argument is that the military is a naturally sensing-judging organization and tends to attract and promote sensing-judging personalities, rather than the intuitive-thinking types most critical, in his opinion, to COIN leadership.
Moyar's other recommendations are more level-headed. He emphasizes the need in selecting credible leaders of quality for the military and civil leadership of the host nation security forces at the expense of quantity, even if that means welcoming back men from the old regime or with questionable backgrounds. Furthermore, the author notes that one of the primary jobs of the military commander is to constantly assess his leadership team, promoting and firing commanders frequently in accordance with their performance. He frequently highlights how effective COIN leaders like Templer, Magsaysay and Petreaus were always on the go and visiting the field, while the COIN failures like Otis, Gourney and Sanchez spent most of their time cooped up in an office behind a pile of paperwork. Finally, Moyar stresses the criticality of empowering traditional elites to the greatest extent possible. He frequently equates the US experience in Iraq to the federal government during Reconstruction (he says the preferred analogy to post-war Germany is flawed), where local elites were dismissed wholesale and replaced with largely incompetent outsiders with an innate hostility to the indigenous population and where significant social and economic programs, including elections, contribute little and have the potential to be extremely damaging. Indeed, Moyar has strong words for elections in COIN strategy. "Democracy in counterinsurgency is like dynamite in a coal mine, capable of reshaping the environment to the user's advantage or of destroying everything, the user included."
In closing, Moyar's clarion call for leaders of substance and dedication in undeniably valid. His case studies are mostly well done, although the one on Iraq is long and occasionally acerbic in tone, while the case study of Afghanistan is light and superficial. I must say that the urgency I know feel to identify Afghans, particularly local Pashtuns of ability and traditional leadership status, has been heightened after reading this book.