Review of James R. Arnold, Jungle of Snakes: A Century of
Counterinsurgency Warfare from the Philippines to Iraq. New
York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009. Pp. 291. ISBN 978-1-59691-503-9.
title is apt, taken from former CIA Director James Woolsey's
description of the post-Cold War world as "a jungle full of poisonous
snakes," for all the insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists that seem
to have overrun it. In this first decade of our new century there are
active counterinsurgency operations "on every populated continent
except North America and Australia" (6).
is a military historian and author of more than twenty books. He
examines four insurgencies and the campaigns waged against them: the
United States in the Philippines, the British in Malaya, the French in
Algeria, and the United States in Vietnam. In an epilogue, he reflects
on the occupation of Iraq. At the start, he notes: "One inescapable
conclusion is that a counterinsurgency is a long fight. Jungle of
Snakes provides readers with a historical foundation so that
informed citizens can assess how the fight is going" (7).
1898, the head of the Philippine Commission, William Howard Taft,
guessed it would take fifty or a hundred years for the Filipinos to
develop the Anglo-Saxon political principles needed for good
government. After the war was won, the U.S. Senate was still troubled
by "an apparent open-ended commitment of American soldiers and gold to
the Philippines" (250).
Philippine insurrection--which the United States defeated--grew out of
the Spanish American war: when President McKinley decided to keep the
islands after evicting the Spanish, the U.S. Army found a ragtag group
of Filipino revolutionaries opposing American occupation. It did not
seem very problematic: the insurgents were poorly armed, their
leadership weak, and--after an early and disastrous attempt to fight
as a regular army--they scattered into the interior's mountains and
Americans tried to win the population with a "policy of attraction."
Medical programs and the building of schools and roads would show
American benevolence. The insurgents used terror to compel support for
their cause and to discourage collaboration. Lacking collaborators,
the Americans had no intelligence, and consequently little knowledge
of how the insurgency was growing, or that all their good works were
not winning over the population.
run-up to the U.S. presidential election in 1900, "the Philippines
exploded into violence as the insurgents began a general offensive
timed to influence the American election" (40). William Jennings Bryan
ran on a platform opposing McKinley's Philippine policy. The
insurgents recognized the value of trying to influence perceptions,
but the year was 1900, not 1968. In Manila, war correspondents trying
to tell the story were thwarted by strict military censorship, while
the U.S military "exaggerated its accomplishments ... to make it appear
that the war was progressing smoothly" (33). Arthur McArthur, the American
commander in the Philippines, had concluded--four months before the
election--that America's "looming strategic defeat" demanded a "more
stringent policy" and "relied on his censors to keep this information
from the American public" (42, 40).
McKinley's victory in the polls, the crueler war began. Carrying it
out on the remote island of Samar was Brigadier General Jacob Smith:
brigade to wage hard war, telling subordinates the more killing and
burning the better.... He then set to work by ordering the concentration
of Samar's inhabitants into protected zones on the coast. He treated
the rest of the island as enemy territory. Smith sent his forces ... inland, where they killed opponents, real and imagined, burned houses
and crops, and slaughtered livestock. Many of his subordinates
kidnapped civilians and routinely applied physical abuse to extract
intelligence. Eventually a comprehensive starvation policy forced the
insurgents to spend most of their time searching for food. Meanwhile,
uncounted numbers of civilians also perished (54).
measures brought the war to an end. "Before the conflict was over, two
thirds of the entire U.S. Army was in the Philippines" (21). On 4 July
1902, Theodore Roosevelt--president after McKinley's
assassination--declared the war ended. Five years later, "20 percent
of the entire U.S. Army still remained in the Philippines" (70).
Reports of brutality prompted a Senate inquiry into army misconduct.
The American people were disillusioned when they learned what it took
to win the war, "and most were happy to forget about the distant
islands as soon as possible" (66). Also soon forgotten were the
lessons of a long and nasty fight.
Algeria the outcome was different: the French Army won all the
battles; the insurgents won the war. "Algeria was a notable example of
the perils of fixating on the military defeat of an armed insurgency"
(128). Insurgencies are essentially political conflicts, something the
leaders of the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) understood
well. In their war against French colonialism, the FLN relied on an
international political climate that favored self-determination, and
the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam galvanized them.
November 1954, All Saints' Day, the FLN launched seventy simultaneous
attacks around the country, killing seven people and wounding four. It
was "hardly a devastating blow." But in France, the Prime Minister
pledged "massive military reinforcements to restore order" (81). For
two years the French Army conducted large, clumsy operations that
found few guerrillas, but drove many Algerians into the maquis.
Civilians on both sides were slaughtered indiscriminately as the FLN
goaded Algerians into violence and "awaited the predictable French
nature of the war changed as the French buildup brought in veterans
from Indochina, who understood guerrilla warfare and produced results.
The FLN recognized they could not defeat the French army and moved the
fight to the capital, Algiers, where they believed they could paralyze
French rule through terrorism. To that point the war had been brutal;
in the Battle of Algiers, French units "set out to prove that they
were more extreme than the terrorists" (105). In the end, the FLN was
defeated in Algiers, but the fight in the countryside went on, with
more French victories, until the French commander was finally able to
proclaim: "The military phase of the rebellion is terminated in the
French won the shooting war, but press revelations of the army's
brutality and use of torture shocked the French public. Clergy,
politicians, and veterans groups questioned their military's methods.
Political pressure grew inside France and abroad, and "de Gaulle
concluded that the war was being lost because of waning domestic
support and international opposition to colonialism" (122). This broad
opposition was a victory for the FLN's use of the media, aimed at the
United Nations as well as France's allies, to publicize French repression
and brutality. The FLN leaders were not great military strategists,
but they understood how modern insurgencies are won.
Malayan Emergency was a communist insurgency, an "Emergency" because
London insurance companies would not cover damages caused by civil
war. The British were slow to get under way, but in time got
everything right. It took twelve years, but Malaya became the textbook example of the way to defeat an insurgency.
Circumstances in Malaya gave the British many advantages. The enemy
was the Malaya Communist Party (MCP), composed almost exclusively of
ethnic Chinese, who made up thirty-eight percent of the country's
population and had long been at odds with the majority Malays; the
insurgency could never become a nationalist movement. Even though the
MCP was a Maoist party, its leaders ignored Maoist principles,
particularly that "indiscriminate terror against the masses was
counterproductive" (175). Even among the Chinese in Malaya, the MCP
insurgency won "only halfhearted" support (178).
the French, the British stressed operating within the law and winning
the loyalty of the population. They provided security and "convinced
the people of Malaya that they intended to remain until they won"
(176). They rejected the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons, thereby
limiting harm done to civilians. "Lastly, British leaders understood
that winning the war in Malaya would take time and they fully
committed to what one general called 'the long, long war'" (177). At
home, most Britons supported the effort.
successful Malaya campaign influenced America's early strategy in
Vietnam, but the lessons of Malaya were not easily transferred. The
British in Malaya had had complete control of the police, the civil
service, and the military. In Vietnam, the Americans acted in support
of the host government, "a weak reed dominated by an elite minority
that was corrupt, inefficient, and badly frightened" (186). The
Government of South Vietnam had little popular support and no real
control in the countryside. It was called the "Saigon Government" for
were promising early efforts by Malaya expert Sir Robert Thompson and
by U.S. Special Forces and Marines working directly with the people, but
the "American political leadership had come to the realization that
the Communists were winning the war" (194). Their answer was to commit
regular American ground forces to the fight. With the vast deployment
of troops and firepower came large and aggressive search and destroy
missions, where success was reflected in body counts.
[communist] National Liberation Front viewed their armed forces as
tools to gain political goals. American generals saw their armed
forces as tools to destroy the enemy military forces" (231). This
became most apparent early in 1968. Skepticism about the war's outcome
was growing in the United States, and "far better than anyone in the
Johnson administration, the Vietnamese Communists understood the link
among international opinion, American public opinion, and battlefield
outcomes" (212). At the end of January 1968, the Communists launched
the surprise, nationwide Tet Offensive.
outcome of Tet may have been an enormous success for the U.S.
military, but the confidence of the American public was shattered.
What Americans witnessed on their TV screens gave the lie
to what their political and military leaders were telling them. The
Communists were obviously much stronger than they had been led to
believe. Polls showed most Americans now believed the war a mistake.
Though American involvement in the war continued another sanguinary
four years, waning support led to "the political decision to transfer
the burden to the unsteady hands of the Vietnamese" (225).
book's final section, "Reflections on a War Without End," Arnold
briefly ponders the challenges ahead, particularly the increase in
destructive power available to combatants and the effect of modern
communications, a "force multiplier," to spread terror and control
perceptions. "Modern insurgents understand the importance of the media
and manipulate it [sic] with great skill" (240).
Turning to Iraq, Arnold asserts that, "by any measure" (241), the
Surge, assisted by the Sunni Awakening, has accomplished its goals,
but acknowledges it is uncertain what will happen as the U.S. presence
diminishes. Similarly, Afghanistan's future as the fight there
intensifies is "unknowable." We hear an echo from Vietnam when he
notes that Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, "is derisively known as the
'mayor of Kabul' because his rule does not extend beyond the gun range
of his foreign benefactors who provide security in his capital" (242).
quotes analyst Col. John Nagel on defeating an insurgency: "The way
you win a counterinsurgency campaign is that you don't--you help the
host nation defeat the insurgency." Because the one absolute certainty
about insurgencies is that victory requires "a long-term commitment of
blood and treasure," the litmus test for American involvement should
be whether "an insurgency truly poses a mortal threat to the nation"
Jungle of Snakes gives a good foundation to better understand
insurgencies, although it does not enable readers to assess "how the
fight is going." The battle is fought on many fronts, and progress
in counterinsurgency programs is notoriously difficult to measure. Arnold's four case studies are necessarily abbreviated histories of
complex situations. But, in clear and precise prose, he provides a
fairly complete picture of each conflict. The book is essentially a
primer for the general reader, but it will not disappoint specialists
seeking to revisit the basics of the four insurgencies examined. The
bibliography points interested readers to some of the classic works on
insurgency. If the book has a weakness, it is in the final section,
where Arnold reflects too briefly on future challenges and on the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fairness, however, it must be noted that
Jungle of Snakes appeared in 2009, when those conflicts and
American policy concerning them were in flux.