Book Review: The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War

Lt Col John J McCuen’s 1966 book was allegedly the bases of South Africa’s “Total Strategy”, the apartheid government’s scheme to fight a so-called “Total Onslaught”. If so, it certainly was a good guide on the subject, though the reviewer is not qualified to say to what extent the former establishment stuck to the script or ad libbed.
Suffice to say, America`s travails in Iraq and Afghanistan has caused reinvigorated the study of counterinsurgency which in the West fell into abeyance after decolonialisation and Vietnam. In South Africa it became passé after 1994.
Fashion and political correctness aside, it bears reminding that the subject bears close resemblance to the more aggressive forms of peacekeeping (operations in “non-permissive areas”) now common in central Africa, the central pillar being that hold clichéd phrase “winning the hearts and minds of the local population”. Traditional peacekeeping has, by contrast, more in common with gate guard duty.     
McCuen wrote the book in the run-up to the American war in Vietnam (1965-1973) and drew heavily on the experience of the French in Vietnam (1945-1954) and subsequently in Algeria (1954-1962), the British in Malaya (1948-1960) and the Greeks in their own, nasty, civil war (1945-1948).
The book was dedicated to Captain Donald York, one of the first Americans to die in Vietnam, and nephew of John Paul Vann`s mentor Robert York (for more, read Neil Sheehan`s “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, one of best books this reviewer has ever read).
The author`s thesis is simple and is derived from the teachings of Mao Zedong (Tse Tung), who himself had been a student of The Art of War, attributed to Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage.
In essence he adopts Mao`s four-stage revolutionary strategy but reverses them, turning them into the four stages of counterinsurgency, starting with counter-organisation, counter terrorism, counter guerrilla war and, if things have deteriorated that far for the government, counter mobile war. To this added the “oil spot concept”, which entailed first pacifying government controlled-areas – and keeping them under control, before moving into areas already taken by the insurgents.
The Americans in Vietnam and now, perhaps, in Iraq, persisted with much-hyped sweeps of hostile strongholds while their own allies` base crumbled. McCuen described in detail how exactly this fate befell the French and doomed their possession of North Vietnam by 1953.                               
Important to understanding McCuen is that the four stages happen simultaneously – it is a bit like the “three-block war” of current fashion – not consecutively. There fore the government will always be engaged in counter-organisation (counter subversion) in its base area or the rot will set in.
In the areas peripheral to the bases counter terror and counter guerrilla operations will be ongoing until the insurgency there is beaten back to the organising stage, when authorities will have to remain alive to combating subversion. McCuen also makes the point that counterinsurgency is multidisciplinary – it is not just a struggle between insurgents and soldiers or the police – all of government must be involved.
Of course the best counterinsurgency remains preventing the insurgency in the first place by addressing the concerns of disaffected groups before they turn violent. That said, some can simply not be appeased and or want to impose ideas that are anathema.
But as the saying goes, never underestimate human stupidity – or complacency – and brush up on your counterinsurgency doctrine. Says McCuen: “From knowledge of previous revolutionary wars, it is obvious that counter-revolutionaries have adequate weapons to win. They must, however, recognise these … weapons, choose ones appropriate to the situation and use them properly.”
Lt Col John J McCuen
The Art of Counter-revolutionary war, the strategy of counter-insurgency
Faber & Faber