October 04, 2007


Does the much maligned field of Political Science have anything to offer practitioners or analysts of counter-insurgency? My Marine colleagues would be quick to say no and go back to reading First to Fight. Perhaps that's because the academic world is typically much more interested in asking questions than answering them.

But there is one standard academic question that every warfighter and policy-maker should learn to ask themselves: how would I know if I'm wrong? Academics call this falsifiability; leaders call it humility. It's the difference between an ideologue and a problem solver. Either way, it's a pretty serious intellectual undertaking, requiring a lot of history and a dash of theory. Abu Muqawama keeps a great reading list in the column just to the right of his usual pithy banter. Great history. Zero theory. So here's a dash of academia, in the hopes that we'll all put it to good use someday.

  • Hanna Arendt, On Violence and On Revolution. Charlie first read these in college, and has yet to find a better theory of power, violence, and legitimacy. Skip the tomb on totalitarianism, and start here.
  • Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Kalyvas suggests that civil wars (and insurgencies) political support for both sides is created on the ground, not some static opinion drawn from the antebellum ether. (Worth it for the amazing bibliography if nothing else.)
  • Scott Gartner, Strategic Assessment and War. When do senior political and military leaders change wartime strategies? When things are getting FUBAR, and fast. Gartner offers several telling vignettes from WWI convoys to rice tallying Marines in Vietnam.
  • James Scott, Moral Economy of the Peasant. Charlie won't lie, this book is a hard slog. But it reveals the rational decision-making logic of people who live a life of subsistence. They're not crazy, and they're not ignorant. But they parse things differently.

Finally, two friend's of Charlie's offer these suggestions:

  • David Warsh, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. What if the entire way your field thought of the world was wrong? How would you know? And how would you change it? "New Growth Theory" may not be as fun as taking pot shots at the Air Force, but there's a serious lesson here.
  • Mary P. Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma. Never underestimate the power of a detailed and careful comparative history. Burma isn't Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's not hard to figure out why it's still relevant.

What other books help you understand insurgencies, terrorism, and political violence?