An Irregular Reading List

Welcome to our irregular warfare reading list. As anyone who reads this blog understands, continual study is necessary both to confront the dangers posed by the modern security environment and to understand irregular conflicts of the past. A deliberate course of reading is an essential component of that continual study. However busy our personal or professional lives may be, finding time to read and think is vital to our professional development.

To that end, the following books may help readers to improve their understanding of past irregular conflicts and the body of knowledge developed by past theorists, as well as insight into the future of irregular warfare. No particular view point is endorsed by the selection of these book–except that understanding received wisdom is vital to all, whether to apply that wisdom or to challenge it.

In no particular order:

Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency by Roger Trinquier

French officers who served in Indochina, like the author, Roger Trinquier, fought fierce rear-guard actions against ideologically motivated insurgents in the 1940s and 1950s to a far greater extent than their American counterparts later faced in Vietnam. The lack of coherent strategic direction from Paris in the chaotic years of the Fourth Republic left the military with the task of making political decisions in the field.


Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula

Indispensable to any irregular warfare reading list, this book examines the strategy and means to defeat insurgent or guerrilla movements based on the author’s first-hand experience in China, Greece, Indochina, and Algeria. Galula defines the laws of insurgency and outlines the strategy and tactics to combat such threats. Drawn from the observations of a French officer who witnessed guerrilla warfare on three continents, the book remains relevant today as American policymakers, military analysts, and members of the public look to the counterinsurgency era of the 1960s for lessons to apply to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot

Invisible Armies presents an entirely original narrative of warfare, which demonstrates that, far from the exception, loosely organized partisan or guerrilla warfare has been the dominant form of military conflict throughout history. New York Times best-selling author and military historian Max Boot traces guerrilla warfare and terrorism from antiquity to the present, narrating nearly thirty centuries of unconventional military conflicts.


Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl

Invariably, armies are accused of preparing to fight the previous war. In Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl—a veteran of both Operation Desert Storm and the current conflict in Iraq—considers the now-crucial question of how armies adapt to changing circumstances during the course of conflicts for which they are initially unprepared. Through the use of archival sources and interviews with participants in both engagements, Nagl compares the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 with what developed in the Vietnam War from 1950 to 1975. 


The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth by Mark Mazzetti

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mark Mazzetti argues that the most momentous change in American warfare in recent years has taken place not on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the corners of the world where large armies can’t go. The Way of the Knife is the untold story of that shadow war: a campaign that has blurred the lines between soldiers and spies and lowered the bar for waging war across the globe.


On Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong

Another clear must have to any irregular warfare reading list is the seminal work of Mao Tse-tung. On Guerrilla Warfare is widely considered to be one of the greatest books of all time amongst revolutionaries. On Guerrilla Warfare is required reading for various courses and curricula. And for others who simply enjoy reading literature on warfare, terrorism, revolutions, and the like, this book by Mao Tse-tung is highly recommended. On Guerrilla Warfare should be considered for inclusion into everyone’s personal library.


The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One by David Kilcullen

David Kilcullen is one of the world’s most influential experts on counterinsurgency and modern warfare who influenced America’s decision to rethink its military strategy in Iraq and implement “the Surge.” In The Accidental Guerrilla, Kilcullen provides a remarkably fresh perspective on the War on Terror. Kilcullen takes us “on the ground” to uncover the face of modern warfare, illuminating both the big global war (the “War on Terrorism”) and its relation to the associated “small wars” across the globe: Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Pakistani tribal zones, East Timor and the horn of Africa. Kilcullen sees today’s conflicts as a complex interweaving of contrasting trends–local insurgencies seeking autonomy caught up in a broader pan-Islamic campaign–small wars in the midst of a big one. He warns that America’s actions in the war on terrorism have tended to conflate these trends, blurring the distinction between local and global struggles. He claims that the US had done a poor job of applying different tactics to these very different situations, continually misidentifying insurgents with limited aims and legitimate grievances–whom he calls “accidental guerrillas”–as part of a coordinated worldwide terror network. This book is a must read for everyone concerned about the war on terror.


Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla  by David Kilcullen

When Americans think of modern warfare, what comes to mind is the US army skirmishing with terrorists and insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan. But the face of global conflict is ever changing. In Out of the Mountains, David Kilcullen offers a look at what may happen after today’s wars end given the challenges and opportunities that four powerful megatrends–population, urbanization, coastal settlement, and connectedness–are creating across the planet.
Kilcullen argues that conflict is increasingly likely to occur in sprawling coastal cities; in peripheral urban slum settlements developing in many regions of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia; and in highly connected, electronically networked settings. He suggests that cities, rather than countries, are the critical unit of analysis for future conflict and that resiliency, not stability, will be the key objective.  This deeply researched and compellingly argued book provides an invaluable roadmap to a future that will increasingly be crowded, urban, coastal, connected and dangerous.


Counterinsurgency  by David Kilcullen

Counterinsurgency brings together the most salient of David Kilcullen’s early writings on this vitally important topic. Here is a picture of modern warfare by someone who has had his boots on the ground in some of today’s worst trouble spots-including Iraq and Afghanistan-and who has been studying counterinsurgency since 1985. Filled with down-to-earth, common-sense insights, this book is one of the definitive accounts of counterinsurgency, indispensable for all those interested in making sense of our world in an age of terror.


Going Big by Getting Small: The Application of Operational Art by Special Operations in Phase Zero by Brian S. Petit

Going Big by Getting Small examines how the United States Army Special Forces apply operational art, the link between tactics and strategy, in the non-wartime, steady-state environments called “Phase Zero,” and how those Special Forces offer scalable and differentiated strategic options for US foreign policy goals. This book analyzes light footprint special operations approaches in Yemen, Indonesia, Thailand, and Colombia. When a large military presence may be inappropriate or counterproductive, Colonel Brian Petit makes the case for fresh thinking on Phase Zero operational art as applied by small, highly skilled, joint-force teams coupled with interagency partners. This book fills a gap in the literature of how to adapt the means, method, and logic of US military foreign engagements in a diplomacy-centric world with rapidly shifting power paradigms. Going Big by Getting Small is not a yarn on daring special operations raids nor a call for perpetual war. It is the polar opposite: this book contemplates the use of discreet engagements to sustain an advantageous peace, mitigate conflict, and prevent crises.


Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War by Lindsay A. O’Rourke

In Covert Regime Change, Lindsey A. O’Rourke shows us how states really act when trying to overthrow another state. Using an original dataset of all American regime change operations during the Cold War, O’Rourke argues that the conventional focus on overt cases misses the basic causes of regime change, as this accounts for a mere ten percent of regime change efforts. O’Rourke provides substantive evidence of types of security interests that drive states to intervene, including offensive operations aiming to overthrow a current rival, preventive operations seeking to stop a state from taking specific actions, hegemonic operations try to maintain a hierarchical relationship between the intervening state and the target government. Her dataset allows O’Rourke to address three foundational questions: What motivates states to attempt foreign regime change? Why do states prefer to conduct these operations covertly rather than overtly? How successful are such missions in achieving their foreign policy goals?


If you know of a book that simply must be included on any irregular warfare reading list, please send us a note here, and tell us why you think your book should be included. We’ll update this list regularly, including new submissions as they come in.

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