Friday, November 8, 2013


I was asked by the Canberra Times to do a Book Review of David Kilcullen's recent, comprehensive work - Out of the Mountains.

David Kilcullen chief counter-terrorism strategist for the US State Department writer of The Accidental Guerilla fighting small wars in the midst of a big one.

This is it.

As you can read, I'm very positive . . .



David Kilcullen
Scribe Publishing

In April this year the Times Literary Supplement carried an extraordinary review of a book written by a young British officer, Emile Simpson. He’d recently returned from Afghanistan, and the historian Michael Howard compared his book, War from the Ground Up to the seminal military bible On War by Carl von Clausewitz. As Howard had translated that classic, this created an enormous buzz.

Perhaps there is only room for one such sensation each year: because David Kilcullen’s book should have caused a similar stir. This is the mature work of someone who's thought long and hard about conflict. Out on the Mountains deserves to be read (and argued about) by anyone who is interested in the war or the shape of the modern world.

After training at Duntroon, Kilcullen went on to become a lieutenant colonel in the Australian army. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s, it had become difficult to envisage exactly how military force would be used. Kilcullen was propelled to begin investigating the key question in military conflict: the relationship between political power and the use of force.

Academic research in Indonesia was later buttressed with practical experience working in Iraq and Afghanistan as an adviser to the US commander, General David Petraeus. Two earlier books (which, interestingly, Simpson credits with illuminating his thinking) allowed Kilcullen to begin elaborating his theory about how war has changed since the days of the grand conflicts between nation states. This book develops his thinking further, offering real challenges to the very way we conceive of battle.

It’s sometimes difficult to get a grip on the implications of how the world’s changing. Perhaps one way is to think of the last really big amphibious landing; like the ones in World War Two, with Marines charging up the beaches across an opposed shore. We still train to do this today. Kilcullen points out that the last really huge such assault occurred was more than 50 years ago, in Korea.

General Douglas Macarthur had attacked with a left hook, reaching deep behind the Communist forces, catching them off-balance and seizing the capital Seoul. Operationally, the attack worked brilliantly. The Chinese withdrew to face the new threat to their rear; US forces tossed them back over the border and, eventually, a truce was declared.

At first glance it looks as if conventional warfare achieved the desired result, because the North was thrown back. But note: the conflict still hasn't been resolved. The peninsular remains frozen in time. Paralysis isn't resolution. Increasingly, Kilcullen argues, the old verities can no longer be taken as given. The old tactics – double envelopment; the indirect approach; penetration of the centre – have become irrelevant. The centre of gravity has changed.

Kilcullen argues that we must bring a broader understanding of the origins of war to bear on our analysis. He insists that only after we isolate and resolve these causes can we really hope to win. This is where his personal understanding of the technical dimensions of war comes into its own.

The book begins with the dissection of the myriad of motivations behind a small attack on a US convoy in Afghanistan. The commander was travelling to a small village to negotiate with the locals – he was attacked as he returned. Kilcullen emphasises the point is not that the mission was successfully accomplished. The real question is why did the attack occur at all? In this way his book is actually very similar to that of Simpson. Both explore the language of war: both investigate the meaning that can be attributed to violence.

The extra dimension Kilcullen brings is an understanding of the world's changing geography. He points out, for example, if MacArthur launched his amphibious assault today it would become bogged down in street fighting. Villages have become cities; the open plain that was once home to one million people is now inhabited by ten.

Kilcullen’s witnessed and understands the complexity that geography and ethnography bring to each conflict. Inevitably, this means finding overarching principles of war is difficult, if not impossible. The virtue of the approach he takes in this book is that he doesn't seek to be didactic; merely to stimulate thought and debate.

Our previous understandings of the foundations of war can no longer be taken for granted. In this book, Kilcullen explores the dimensions of change. Sometimes he is less convincing than at others, nevertheless Out of the Mountains provides a masterly review of new strategic trends. As such, every officer needs to be familiar with its arguments. Those with intimate experience of war will argue (at times fiercely) with some of the conclusions Kilcullen draws. At least they'll be stimulated. They'll also find it difficult to dispute the broader trends he highlights.

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