If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
Ultimately, a real understanding of history means that we face NOTHING new under the sun.
Australian Defence Personnel deploying to take up embedded positions within Headquarters Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve often ask me what they should read before deployment. These officers and senior non-commissioned officers are keen to prepare themselves for the unique and challenging operational environment that awaits them. To meet this need, I have chosen four books and a reference handbook. These works prioritise “knowing the enemy,” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, “knowing yourself,” the coalition, and understanding the regions recent history.
Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror by David Kilcullen.
Kilcullen’s book educates the reader about the adversary and to a lesser extent the region’s recent history. Published in March 2016, there is no better account, which I have read, of the origins of ISIS. A student cannot understand ISIS without appreciating the evolution of al-Qaeda and this is the start point of Killcullen’s book. He provides a detailed account of strategy and operations to counter al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2003 until the United States (US) military forces withdrew in 2011. Kilcullen explains the role of al-Qaeda’s network for moving foreign fighters through Syria into Iraq and how this aided the growth of ISIS: In August 2011, experienced Islamic State of Iraq fighters were moved into Syria to take advantage of the civil-war. It was from these small groups that the army of technicals, trucks, artillery pieces, and captured armoured vehicles invaded Iraq in 2014. These were rapidly allied with commercial drones, bulldozers and communications to form combined arms teams. Kilcullen describes the invasion as, ‘more than just a military defeat. It was the collapse of the entire post-Saddam social and political order…’ There were many factors that contributed to this collapse and he turns his razor-sharp intellect to each in turn: describing the importance of internet connectivity, which shifted the threat from deliberately planned expeditionary attacks by formal organizations like al-Qaeda, toward ad hoc networks of radicalized individuals connected on social media and the competing interests of the different sectarian groups. The book concludes by describing three potential strategies for countering violent Jihadism.
The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama by Bernard Trainor, Michael Gordon.
This book neatly fits into all three categories, making it my second priority. It is not a quick read but the reader is rewarded for their effort through a comprehensive account of the US-led intervention in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Trainor and Gordon have produced an extremely well researched and written history that affords insight into factors in the current conflict that endure from before 2011 and those that have recently emerged. For example, the town names in the Middle Euphrates River under the grip of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 are still relevant today but in contrast there were no longer battles between coalition forces and Shi’a Militia Groups. In fact these groups were the coalition’s indirect partners as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces countering ISIS. The latter chapters of the book are the most relevant as they describe the establishment of the Iraqi constitution and some of the rulings of the Iraqi Judiciary on how to interpret that constitution. The formulation of US strategy and the relationship of this theatre of operations to Central Command (CENTCOM) are also informative. Overall this is an essential account of the war in Iraq. My favourite quote from the book, cited as General Petraeus quoting Lawrence of Arabia, highlights the enduring nature of western intervention in the Middle East ‘Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them.’
The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist.
This book almost fits into all three categories, but Iran is not the enemy of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. Iran is competing for influence in Iraq and Syria. The US has a complicated history with Iran, first as a friend and then as an implacable foe, both of which influence and inform contemporary US policy. Understanding these perceptions is important and Crist is an expert teacher. This book is also a detailed history of the wider gulf region. Crist starts his exploration in the early 1970s when President Nixon devised a new economy-of-force plan for Persian Gulf security. The plan rested on two staunch anti-communist powers in the region: the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia. Next came the Carter Doctrine, where for the first time Persian Gulf oil was declared vital to US national interests. The Carter Doctrine led directly to the formation of CENTCOM and the reactivation of the famed Third Army to command its divisions for the Middle East and counter the perceived threat of Soviet influence.
Crist’s work details the key facets of the US support for Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq War and the global impact of the more than five hundred ships Iran and Iraq attacked during this period; lost or damaged tonnage equal to half that lost in the Atlantic during the Second World War. Crist’s analysis includes the unsuccessful US intervention in Lebanon that led to Iran’s establishment of Hezbollah. Crist educates the reader on the Iranian outlook describing it as a ‘function of history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium on survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious, and xenophobic.’Again, the latter chapters of the book are the most relevant as they deal with Iranian influence in Iraq and sponsorship of Shi’a Militia Groups in the years after 2003.
The relevance of War from the ground up to ‘knowing the enemy’ and ‘knowing yourself,’ will not be obvious on your arrival into the Combined Joint Operations Area. War from the ground up is hard work, but equips the reader with a powerful theory of war. It provides a framework for understanding how to ‘fight’ in 2018. Simpson argues that the outcomes of contemporary conflicts are better understood as the way power is perceived by audiences through the application of a variety of means, both violent and non-violent. Before the experience of this deployment I was accustomed to manoeuvre – moving to a position of advantage and using judicious violence to destroy the enemy. Now, at the operational level of war, I see military actions in terms of their likely political interpretations local, national, regional and international audiences. Simpson expresses this simply as ‘the outcome of an action is usually better gauged by the chat at the bazaar the next day, and its equivalent higher up the political food chain, than body counts’. The implication is that there needs to be different messages for different audiences, but they must nest and be credible.
Simpson explains that military activity has two possible connotations: the first is the actual use of organised violence, typically by armed forces; the second is the way in which this force is understood by an audience, particularly the enemy. Therefore, a campaign’s main effort could focus on the perceptions of the population of a town, a region or a country. Understanding this framework helps planners deduce where military action can reinforce or change a perception of the target audience. Simpson also helps define strategy as ‘the dialogue, between desire and possibility’. His interpretation of strategy is matched by the creation of a supporting strategic narrative, which proposes to its audience a structure through which to interpret actions.
Simpsons work is not for the faint-hearted or for the time poor officer who reads in increments of 15 minutes. The book requires analysis, reflection and re-reading. However, the descriptions of the possibilities of military action in this book have assisted enormously in navigating a very complex operational environment.
This handbook will smooth your transition into a US (Army) led headquarters. Fortunately for Australian’s our doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures are very similar to the US forces. There are still subtle differences in how we plan and the language of acronyms. Armed with this handbook you are able to prepare yourself for the Military Decision Making Process (vice Military Appreciation Process) before you arrive and to have a guide for translation from American to Australian. For instance if you are asked to ‘define the COMREL’, on day two of your deployment, page 4-10 of BSS5 helps you with the five command relationships and the four inherent responsibilities the US Army uses.
Armed with these five books will ensure you face NOTHING new under the sun, and that you can add value to the rich coalition of 71 nations in Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve from day one.
About the Author: Mark Mankowski is an Australian Officer deployed to Headquarters Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and a passionate advocate of Professional Military Education. His interests are continuously learning about the nature and character of war, developing battlefield intuition through simulation, and establishing the key factors responsible for effective Air-Land Integration. He is studying a Masters Advanced in Military History with the Australian National University.