Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 22:14 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 22:14 | SYDNEY

My books of the year


Mark O'Neill

22 December 2008 13:59

I am envious of the diversity in Allan’s reading list. Almost all of my reading this year has related to my day job. Much of it happened on various interminable waits for aircraft, sitting around sundry helipads in Iraq. I quickly realised that the prudent modern military commuter in a war zone always leaves room in his rig for a book to fill in those long, slow hours. Slim paperbacks fit nicely into the pocket on your body armour next to where the ballistic inserts go.

My book selection this year was driven by three motivators: getting a good handle on the Iraq war, and research for both my forthcoming Lowy Paper and my UNSW dissertation. So it will perhaps be no surprise that the majority of my favourites have a counterinsurgency theme. 

The one I enjoyed most was a re-read of Frank Kitson’s Bunch of Five. As well as sage advice on the practicalities of COIN from a man who was both practitioner and theorist, Kitson serves up a no nonsense ripping yarn of a British Officer fighting his nation’s small wars in the sunset of an empire. Look for a copy in your library, as it is out of print and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lead to second hand book dealers realising a hefty premium on any copy that they can get their hands on.

For my ‘best’ book about the Iraq war this year I share John Nagl’s view and find it hard to go past Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends. While I found Robinson quite weak when she indulges in combat narration, her contacts and insight produce a good narrative about the development and implementation of the ‘surge’. For a truly engrossing story about combat in Iraq, it is hard to look past Bing West’s No True Glory, which is far better than his more recent offering, The Strongest Tribe. West is at his best when dealing with soldiers and their stories; he loses focus and appears polemical when he attempts to deal with strategic issues.

Moving away from Iraq, I found Brian McAllister Linn’s The Echo of Battle an excellent insight into the mindset of the US military. Throughout the book, I found myself having those 'yes, you’re right' moments, as the author nailed another accurate depiction of an element of American strategic culture. Linn, a history professor from Texas A&M, was previously known for his excellent work on the Philippines conflict at the turn of the last century. With this book, he successfully lays claim to mastery of far wider subject matter expertise. It would be fascinating to see a similar critical study of Australian strategic culture done to the same standard.

My ‘recreational’ read of the year was Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa. On leave from Iraq and getting re-acquainted with South Africa, I picked it up in Jo’burg while  enroute to the Kruger Park. Pakenham brings a clear perspective to the mendacity of the European powers during Africa’s colonial era that helps one better understand many of the issues of the continent today.  

Finally, my most overrated book of 2008. In my field, it is hard to go past the US Army’s Field Manual (FM) FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. Despite breathless tributes by journos and commentators who have obviously never read it, it is simply not a good manual. It is long, boring and not written in language that soldiers use – not a great recommendation for a book that is trying to tell soldiers how to win in counterinsurgency.  

Not that it is likely to be an issue – in the seven months that I served at the Counterinsurgency Center in Taji, Iraq, I polled every class that I taught about whether they had read it. The highest ever response was 20% of the class.  If, as some have claimed, FM 3-24 is partially responsible for the turnaround of the US Army’s fortunes in Iraq, it is a truly remarkable achievement, since by my reckoning 80% of the soldiers fighting the war have not read it.