Friday, December 11, 2009

What we're reading #5

Almost two months since we've done one of these! So here's a rundown on a few things we've read recently, are currently reading, or that are in the stack for the weekend.


I'm in the middle of a very dry, very academic paper in the journal Iranian Studies called "Informal (In)security in Urban Afghanistan", by Stefan Schutte, but I'm really giving serious thought to quitting halfway. I never quit reading things in the middle. Draw your own conclusions.

I've also just begun David Ucko's The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars, which was a birthday gift from my very gracious co-bloggers. I know books like this make SNLII and Gentile crazy; more of The Dominant Narrative!

The most recent issue of Parameters has been going back and forth to work with me for the last two weeks; I'm about to start on "Insurgent Mistakes: Playing for the breaks," by Lincoln B. Krause. Also see that issue for the 50th recitation of Gian Gentile's ideas about the pernicious influence of the COINdinistas. (Or don't. I promise you've already read that article.)

Something I recently read that's getting a lot of play among people who are interested in the training/advising/mentoring angle in Afghanistan: "Getting the most out of the ANA, so we can do less." It was written by Jeff Haynes, a retired Marine colonel and former commander of Regional Corps Advisory Command-Central, and has some interesting and controversial ideas about how to improve training for the ANSF.

And one more from the FPRI crowd: "What Afghans Want," by Andrew Garfield. I recently read an op-ed that was based on this longer piece, so I'm looking forward to it.

Finally, just so you guys know I read about other stuff, too (a good friend of mine recently chuckled that he thought his interests "are a little broader than [mine]" when defending his interest in Harry Potter and Twilight; while I disagree with his specific choices, I winced at the underlying suggestion that I'm not interested in anything but war!): last week I finished Malcolm Gladwell's newest, What the Dog Saw. If you think the book sucks, or if you think Gladwell sucks, or if you think pop science/economics/behavioral psychology sucks, that's fine -- just don't quote bleedin' Steven Pinker at me.

Ok, that's enough for now. Compadres?


I'm working on a few papers right now, so re-reading Paul Brass's Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence - one of the touchstones of the study of social violence and political identity.

Likewise, going back over Kalyvas' The Logic of Violence in Civil War with a fine-toothed comb, picking out where I think more work needs to be done.

Aside from a slew of Kalyvas' papers ( 'Ethnic Defection in Civil War,' 'Bosnia's Civil War: Origins and Violence Dynamics,' 'How "Free" is Free Riding in Civil Wars?', 'Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam'), I'm looking forward to tackling Alex Alderson's 'Comprehensive Approach: Theories, strategies, plans and practice' in NDC Forum Paper #9.

At the top of my pile after all that are Decoding the New Taliban edited by Giustozzi (who, by the way, has yet another new book out - could someone tell the man to stop writing so the rest of us can catch up!?), Ahmed Hashim's Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, and Kimberly Kagan's The Surge: A Military History.

But no 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' for me - clearly that's Gulliver's niche.

Background for me lately has been a lot of Mingus, and a great Congolese rock/soul artist named So Kalmery.


Well, I raided the library at Gulliver's when we were there for dinner so here's what I'll be reading:

La Guerre Probable, by Vincent Desportes and

Writing to Change the World, by Mary Pipher (because Reviving Ophelia was so amazing, if you're still wondering what those teenage years were all about, it really does help).

If the Kalyvas actually came in the mail today then I'll be reading that too.

Plus, I need to read all sorts of boring documents but I won't bore you with the details.


  1. Another interesting post might be what you folks are watching on TV lately. Because rumor has it you, Gulliver, were watching "Real Housewives of Orange County" last night. Take that, Stefan Schutte.

  2. To all other bloggers and those considering blogging: every time you think, "man, I wish my girlfriend was supportive and interested in my writing, even though she doesn't give a damn about COIN!", just think about this.

    And for the record, I was NOT watching. It was on in the background while I was reading. Obviously.

  3. Funny! I never really watch television unless it's a movie or Seinfeld, so I'm not sure what "Real Housewives of Orange County" is, but that is a funny visual.

    Anyway, this is what book groups, writing groups, blogs, etc., are for, right? To find fellow hobbyists or practitioners so that you don't bore the heck out of the significant other! Really, in this scenario, technology is a particular blessing!

  4. Although, I think I am freaking out people in my life by reading Small Wars Journal. It comes so out of the blue considering what I do, and my general background, that there IS some level of freak out involved. I try and calm the situation as best I can....

  5. Ucko's book just wasn't very good. It has nothing to do with the intellectual assumptions within it.

    There are a great many challenging works that I admire, such as those by van Creveld or TX Hammes or others who share my perspective on military transformation in an era of irregular warfare.

    Clio ultimately will judge the value of Nagl's Malaya arguments or Ucko's political science or Boot's curious history, not me. So far, within the COINish community Ucko's book is being treated as sort of middle brow "COIN porn," as Gian would term it.

    Not as bad as Robinson or Ricks, but also not as informed or intriguing as Metz or Smith.

    A good yardstick for how stupid a book about COIN is might be how many times it references bad histories such as what Ricks has put out (eight footnotes).

    Enough said.

    Krause's piece actually was good, but the argument has been out there for awhile and it walks the same path.

    I had seen the draft on the ANA piece earlier, but it's just as unpersuasive now and there's just more out there that's more intriguing.

    Garfield's essay unfortunately is being treated as something of a joke. I mean, he preaches a catholic empathy and then boils Afghanistan down to an essentialist muck. Too bad because FPRI's publications have been uniformly good in discussing our COIN misadventures with complexity. Good editors there.

    His last line actually could be a punchline. Unserious writing.

    More serious discussions about some of these issues can be found at Cow Gurney's JFQ, including what everyone is talking about today: C's Afghanistan.

    An unpersuasive but very well written response by one of our finest combat commanders, Kolenda, is there, too, and the typical poop slop of bumper sticker mush by Nagl.

    Al Paddock, the dean of US Psyops, delivers a good reminder about that, and Dean Cheng from Heritage produces a smart and timely blurb on PLAN.

    I can't say enough about Paddock's contributions to our nation's defense. He's one of those unknown heroes out there, and as you know I don't use the term lightly.


  6. This also is good reading: Rid's lastest for Policy Review which he's put up on his blog.

    And a Max Boot sort of wet dream ( continues with the very funny, over-the-top analysis I admire. I now read it everyday.

    So does Dilegge.


  7. Kimberly Kagan's The Surge: A Military History.

    Also beinig treated as a joke.


  8. Thanks for the JFQ pointer; I'd not seen the new one yet.

    Can you be more specific on your objections about Haynes?

  9. But no 'The Real Housewives of Orange County' for me - clearly that's Gulliver's niche.

    Background for me lately has been a lot of Mingus, and a great Congolese rock/soul artist named So Kalmery.

    Let me clarify that the real background was an uninspiring Ospreys-Munster Magners' League matchup DVRed from last weekend.

  10. MK,

    Excellent choice with the Kalyvas. It informs a lot of the best academic resarch on insurgency, and a personal fave.

  11. Drew - I very much agree. This is my third time reading the book, and this time really picking it apart in a comparative way with Weinstein and Tilly and a few others. I'm also looking forward to tackling Elizabeth Wood's study on the micro-dynamics of insurgency in El Salvador in the near future.

  12. Oh Em Gee

    Information overload! Not that I was going to read any of your suggestions - I have a stack, like 6 feet high, of books to read (both in my own field and outside of it. Plus, journal articles).

    MK, Gulliver, SNLII, other Inkspotters and lurkers et al: What do you guys/gals think of Schmedlap's latest posts on "there are no COIN skills"? (LUN) I think they are incredibly informative.

    *Now you know my little secret: instead of reading stuff, I ask a lot of questions and hope someone will take pity on me and answer one or two, occasionally. Worked for me in school....

  13. MK:

    Good picks in re: Kalyvas and Woods both.


  14. Madhu, until you have watched "Real Housewives," or at the very least "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," you should stop reading anything at all. The latter is SPECTACULAR.

  15. Dr. 90210 is, currently, not playing on E!. That is too bad.


  16. ADTS--I think I saw someone watch Dr. 90210 Extreme (or something like that) at the gym the other night. It was on one of the MTV type channels but I forget which one.

  17. More specifically, Gulliver, I think that the works by Ucko and Garfield blew serious goat.

    The piece by Haynes wasn't bad, but it's been eclipsed lately by more interesting analyses (including by the IG).

    On a more interesting note, I didn't realize that Charles Wolf Jr was still doing defense analysis.


  18. SNLII,
    Hey I like Marine Col. (Retired) Haynes. ;-) Liked his slide and blogger briefing from 2008 too:

    SNLII, remember when I argued that the ANA would fight like heck for Kabul (while they wouldn't for Helmand or Kandahar)? One of the brigades I had in mind at the time was ANA 3-201, the only heavy brigade in the ANA (that Haynes praised.) I was also thinking about ANA 203 and ANA 1-209 being redeployed to defend the capital. ANAAC and the 7 combat commando battalions would also fight. 205th ANA would probably gradually retreat North.

    Gulliver, did you see my notes and thoughts on Haynes?

  19. MK, you dig Kimberly Kagan? Didn't expect that. Her movie was COIN porn.

    She needs to quit with the triumphalism and that over the top music. She doesn't acknowledge the roles of the ETTs (like SNLII) and ISF nearly enough. A little nuance and Iraqi internal politics wouldn't hurt either.

    SNLII, correct me if I am wrong; however if 1st and 7th IADs hadn't proven their mettle in battle, and given Al Anbaris reason to believe they would keep improving in quality over time; Abu Risha and the tribes wouldn't have flipped. Al Anbaris knew that the Marines were a temporary force and unable to protect them long term. Only a long term alliance with a strong GoI and ISF could do that.

    Where did Kimberly Kagan talk about that? MK, you need to hang with a new group of gals. :-)

  20. Anand - I'm going to read the book, not accept it at face value! Couldn't agree more about the movie, though.

  21. That paper is rough... I guess I should have read it before I sent it your way.

  22. SNLII - I was alerted to your bashing of my book and, having now read it, am surprisingly disappointed you did not write more.

    If you are going to discredit someone's work, it would be useful for its author as well as for those interested in the wider debate, to get a sense of what he or she got so wrong. Could I ask you to elaborate, either here or to me directly?

    To Ink Spots team: congratulations on the blog. I tend to visit daily and have linked to you on my own modest contribution to the 'blogosphere'.

  23. I will never bash anything written by David Ucko. He'll come after you!

  24. I fail to fathom while I should include a detailed critique of Ucko's book. The blurb that mentioned it was only a few words and yet I'm supposed to dedicate an essay to it?

    1. I'm not a blogger here.
    2. It presumes the glorified PhD thesis deserves a longer look.
    3. It betrays a certain narcissism within the author to assume that it does. So, Ink Blots ain't about you.
    4. You're arguing with an avatar. What do you want? A book review by "Great Odin's Beard" next? You can put the blurb on the back of your next tome.

    Now I've written more words than the original effort warranted. While I very much admire David Betz and I realize that he appreciates the work, I'm unpersuaded by its trendy importance. Sue me.

    Anand, while I take great pride in the performance of the IAs, I wouldn't suggest that the "flip" transpired because the IAs were progressing in numbers or competence. Rather, one should empathize with the POV of certain Sunni Arab leaders and see the development of the IAs as part of a larger civil war against them that broke their will.

    In that case, JAM and other militias played a greater role than the IAs, but in the long run the ISF obviously will be the deciding factor for pacification and protecting the nation state from external foes.

    Anand, I don't dislike Haynes. I just think that there's more interesting stuff out there right now that would make for better reading by the bloggers.

    A readerly strategy, much like one for war, involves choices. Mao might have traded space for time, but time, alas, is a finite commodity, and in the battle of the books (Swift there), one is likely to see that the vast stretch of shelving is more than one might conquer with even the fastest eyes.

    In my humble opinion (and it's just that, nothing more), there's always better uses for it and if in some small way I might nudge someone to what I think is a better use of it, then bully for me, eh?

    If MK wants to read Kalyvas with the precision of a field researcher peering at nearly microscopic grubs, who am I to stop him? I think Kalyvas is aces, too, but I might pick up the latest by Rid or Hack or whomever because that's probably what Kalyvas is doing, too (hard to fault MK nevertheless because his choice of reading material is superior).

    This is something I don't understand about Gulliver's obsessive hate-lust for Gentile. If you think his argument is the same unpersuasive stuff every time, then why read him unless you're a masochistic sort?

    As the chestnut goes, life is too short. There are others who make different arguments who deserve to be read. Which is why the latest JFQ could be helpful: You can review the ongoing debate over Afghanistan by reading Warner/"C" and Kolenda and (in my opinion) an uber-weak effort by Nagl and judge for yourself.

    I don't care what you decide, but it's one-stop shopping and saves you time!

    My other niggling concern is that now that you've dragooned each other into blogging on COIN and related topics that you feel the need to exclude your reading to only those sorts of topics.

    This, in my opinion, would be a grave mistake. COIN, if nothing else, is a bricolage, so it almost screams for a wide, catholic reading without a mere focus on insurgency or counter-revolution.

    I'm reading prose poems from an undistinguished writer at the moment. It's not particularly good, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with warmaking or those who make wars.

    And it still might prove more rewarding than much of what I've read in those capacities over the past several months!

    Or, when in doubt, just read Flashman.


  25. This is something I don't understand about Gulliver's obsessive hate-lust for Gentile. If you think his argument is the same unpersuasive stuff every time, then why read him unless you're a masochistic sort?

    Mostly it's because I'm a masochistic sort. And in a triumph of hope over experience, I keep imagining that each publication that grants him audience may insist on novelty. I've been disappointed.

    My other niggling concern is that now that you've dragooned each other into blogging on COIN and related topics that you feel the need to exclude your reading to only those sorts of topics.

    This, in my opinion, would be a grave mistake. COIN, if nothing else, is a bricolage, so it almost screams for a wide, catholic reading without a mere focus on insurgency or counter-revolution.

    Agree with you on this, but I didn't know if it would be that worthwhile for me to include rugby memoirs, fiction from the New Yorker and David Foster Wallace novels in the list. That conclusion is probably a result of my efforts to convince myself that this whole blogging thing is an exercise in community education rather than narcissism.

  26. Also, sorry for the grammar mistakes. I have a particularly nasty migraine this morning.

    Thanks, AQI!


  27. It's an excercise, partly, in community building, too. Now, how might that be helpful, eh?

    *One of the things I liked about AM was the mix of high and low, good and bad, although the crazies (was I one of them?) ruined it in the end. The informality allows a wide range of people to be drawn in, and in drawing them in, you create an online community which has many second, and third, order effects. Or is that affects? (I sometimes do that stuff as a joke, Gull and others, don't take it too seriously!)

    - Madhu

  28. My other niggling concern is that now that you've dragooned each other into blogging on COIN and related topics that you feel the need to exclude your reading to only those sorts of topics .

    I wouldn't worry about it all that much. Like Gulliver, I figured people wouldn't be all that interested in some of the unrelated stuff I routinely pick up.

    For example, I read US Weekly because it comes in the mail every Friday (and a relief it is because the Human Rights Watch Report on Congo also landed today so by Friday, I'm sure to need another dose of the inane).

    Plus, I read romance novels. That started years ago because I needed something to take my mind off the Africa Watch report on torture in Kenyan prisons I had to read my first semester of college. I've been addicted ever since.

    This weekend, I also ended up starting to read my birthday present from my co-bloggers, Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun. I just finished the chapter about covering the coup in Zanzibar. I'm enjoying it.

    Finally, I had to do some work reading, including fascinating things like "IMPP Guidelines: Role of the Field, Integrated Planning for UN Field Presences." There's an equivalent document on the role of UN HQ. Seriously, as my boss says, reading that makes you want to gnaw your arm off. It’s awful but I can do so from now on if you want to be warned about UN documents you should avoid if at all possible.