A Question of Command Analysis

A Question of Command (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Mark Moyar starts A Question of Command by pointing out that, before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, interest in counterinsurgency was based primarily on historical curiosity. The Vietnam War had persuaded most Americans to avoid such operations. Moyar was one of those curious historians, having interviewed Vietnam veterans about the Phoenix counterinsurgency operation for a book that appeared in 2008. (The veterans generally believed that South Vietnamese units were effective in counterinsurgency operations when they had capable leaders.) In the wake of September 11, counterinsurgency has become important again. One result of this development is Moyar’s own teaching position, which began a few years after the attacks.

For A Question of Command, Moyar selected a representative set of counterinsurgency operations to serve as lessons. From these and his earlier interviews, he draws the conclusion that success in counterinsurgency depends most strongly on leadership qualities. This conclusion contrasts with previous theories, which are generally oriented either toward networking or toward winning over the indigenous population with social reforms and democratization. Moyar emphasizes, though, that these tactics are useful only if performed by capable leaders. His book analyzes the nine example operations in detail to show how they support his thesis. They may have been chosen for this purpose, rather than as a truly representative sample, but there are other examples that support his thesis (most notably the sudden collapse of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba). Also, comments about the war in Afghanistan before the November, 2009, decision to increase the number of troops there often reflected similar tactical views (though these views were not specifically leader-centric).

Moyar identifies ten key leadership qualities. The first is initiative: Local leaders must act aggressively against insurgents, and higher leaders must encourage this. The second is flexibilitya willingness to try new ideas and change them if necessary. Third is creativity: Someone must come up with those new ideas, especially when conventional leaders are confronted with the unconventional nature of counterinsurgency. Judgment is also important: Good leaders must be able to determine which methods work.

The next talent is empathy, the ability to understand how other people think, especially those in very different cultures. Next is charisma, the ability to persuade people in large groups. Seventh is sociability, the ability to persuade people individually. This ability is especially important when dealing with local elites, whose influence in an area can render their support criticial to defeating an insurgency. Local support enables a good leader to develop the intelligence needed to take the war to the insurgents.

The next talent is dedication. There are times when leaders must push hard, work extremely long hours, and take the war to the insurgents in difficult terrain and often atrocious weather. Next is integrity: Fair, honest government is very important to winning over locals who are considering supporting an insurgency (far more so than social reforms). The final talent is organization. This refers both to the ability to maintain discipline in order to prevent abuses (or punish them quickly if they do occur) and to the ability to reorganize under pressure.

The first three campaigns that serve Moyar as case studies of leadership qualities involve the nineteenth century U.S. Army. They are the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Filipino rebellion of 1898-1902. During the Civil War, few Union officers were successful in stopping Confederate and pro-Confederate insurgents for long. Moyar identifies many leadership problems, some of which resulted from the rapid expansion of the Army (a problem that shows up in many counterinsurgency campaigns). He also discusses examples of successes. Perhaps the most successful Civil War counterinsurgency (though limited in area) was Thomas Ewing’s 1863 deportation to Arkansas of pro-Southern people from four Missouri counties along the Kansas border.

After the war, Moyar controversially argues, there was actually a possibility of gradual acquisition of civil rights for African Americans, but the impatience of radical Republicans made such gradual gains impossible, ultimately leading to the degradation of southern culture under the Jim Crow laws. Moyar cites Brigadier General John Tarbell as observing that the Freedmen’s Bureau was rejected by Southerners only where its leaders were corrupt. Forcible imposition of corrupt carpetbag rule and racial equality led to violent insurgencies such as the Ku Klux Klan. A few good leaders, such as Arkansas militia general Robert Catterson and Major Lewis Merrill in York County, South Carolina, used good intelligence to hunt down insurgents ruthlessly. Others eventually succeeded by threatening severe reprisals, encouraging Southerners to await their inevitable political success.

Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo supported the overthrow of Spanish colonial rule in 1898, but he...

(The entire section is 2096 words.)

A Question of Command Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Library Journal 134, no. 17 (October 15, 2009): 94.

MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 2 (Winter, 2010): 95.

The Wilson Quarterly 33, no. 4 (Autumn, 2009): 92-94.