Book review: Mark Moyar’s A Question of Command

The latest issue of the Journal of Military History contains, among a great many things, a review I wrote of Mark Moyar’s latest book, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (Yale University Press). Given the amount of discussion of Moyar’s book online (here, here, and here), I asked and received the journal editor’s permission to reproduce the review here. You can find the full text below, as well as in volume 74, number 1 of the Journal of Military History.


Mark Moyar, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil war to Iraq

Reviewed by David H. Ucko

In A Question of Command, Mark Moyar argues that “counterinsurgency is a ‘leader-centric’ warfare,… in which the elite with superiority in certain leadership attributes usually win” (p. 3). These leadership attributes are gleaned through nine historical case-studies: initiative, flexibility, creativity, judgment, empathy, charisma, sociability, dedication, integrity, and organization. Moyar argues that, together, they produce the ideal counterinsurgency commander and, more forcefully, that it is the quality of leadership that determines the outcome of any counterinsurgency campaign.

Moyar helpfully underlines the importance of good leadership and the demands placed on a commander in counterinsurgencies. The case-studies are thoroughly researched and engaging. Moyar also strays beyond the over-cultivated campaigns of Malaya and Vietnam to explore settings rarely seen in the counterinsurgency literature, such as the American Civil War and the Reconstruction of the South. Throughout, Moyar illustrates how good leaders, and the sacking of bad leaders, has made the difference. A forceful conclusion is that raising security forces is not a numbers game: host-nation forces require competent commanders to have a positive effect. In the conclusion, Moyar usefully elaborates on the leadership practices derived from his case-studies and indicates how these lessons may be used, today and tomorrow.

The case-studies emphasize the role of leadership far above the conflicts’ political context. This is perhaps unsurprising, as Moyar argues that “major social, economic, or political changes” have ‘historically had much less impact’ on a conflict’s outcome than leadership (p. 4). At times, however, the analysis appears slanted to prove this contention. Progress, at any level, denotes good leadership; upsets, or good decisions implemented badly, mean poor leadership; and if the counterinsurgents are failing, it is because they are “still held back by a shortage of good leaders” (p. 181). Ultimately, the explanatory power of ‘leadership’ depends on its definition. Yet as the leaders in A Question of Command range from heads-of-state, senior officials and corps commanders to lieutenant-colonels and captains, the conclusions drawn lack precision. Leadership explains everything, but also nothing.

The somewhat forced focus on leadership, not as an important factor, but as the decisive variable in the outcome of campaigns, also sidelines counterinsurgency’s intensely political nature. The chapter on El Salvador, for example, ascribes the outcome there to leadership factors yet barely mentions the critical role played by the Cold War’s passing. Also, a solution in El Salvador was not to be found purely in professionalizing the military, but by addressing a century-long history of socio-economic bifurcation, requiring the ‘negotiated revolution’ of the Chapultepec process (and even then, the results were uneven). Similarly, Gen. Templer was an exemplary leader in Malaya, and good commanders helped defeat the guerrillas there, but absent an appropriate strategy, these examples of superior leadership would mean little: critical in this instance was the British willingness to leave Malaya and the formation of a new Malaysian state in which ethnic Malay and Chinese populations could coexist. Here and elsewhere, the political essence of counterinsurgency loses out to overly personalized stories of individual leadership, important and fascinating though they may be.

This brings us to Moyar’s theory of leadership, where detail is regrettably lacking. If the ten leadership attributes are truly the winning formula behind counterinsurgencies across time and space, some elaboration might have been useful. Why exactly ten attributes? Why not ‘decisiveness’, ‘boldness’, ‘courage’ or ‘intelligence’? What constitutes a leader and how are we to understand the effects of leadership when good leaders coexist with bad ones? Moyar snipes at the Army for being less adaptive than the Marine Corps, yet provides no indication of how these services deal differently with leadership issues. How does the recent FM 6-22, Army Leadership, play into the debate? Space that might usefully have been allocated to these questions is instead devoted to historical case-studies, which, for their richness, do little to justify the categoricalness of the ten leadership attributes listed in the introduction.

Moyar’s book might have been narrower, focusing on the development and shared characteristics of counterinsurgency commanders, both American and foreign. Such a focus would have greatly added to the literature, without necessitating the bold claims of newness that accompany the elaboration of ‘leader-centric’ warfare. Yet Moyar does not seek to add to the literature but to displace it. He effectively challenges the emphasis in FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, on “social and economic programs” as “counterinsurgency tools” (p. 283). Too often, however, the critique disappoints, as it misconstrues current doctrine. Moyar claims that FM 3-24 sees security forces being used “only to protect the population from exploitation” (p. 3), when it really envisages a full range of military and civilian tasks. He claims that ‘recent theorists’ believe that ‘counterinsurgents should use as little force as possible’ (p.2), when the language in FM 3-24 and elsewhere is consistently of employing appropriate levels of force. Moyar finally plucks one sentence from FM 3-24’s appendix regarding outreach to women, and uses it to deride the manual’s softness and naïve devotion to do-goodism. In the same spirit, Moyar presents a thinly veiled and inadequately defended faith in the use of overwhelming force, approvingly citing one commander’s advice that ‘the more violent you seem and the more scared they [the population] are, they more they cooperate’ (p. 245). In absence of greater elaboration, this challenge to the extant ‘consensus’, such as it is, is a step backward rather than forward. In fact, Moyar’s ‘leader-centric’ approach to counterinsurgency can readily justify a return to an ‘enemy-centric’ paradigm rather than create a new one.

Moyar provides a useful illustration of the challenges of leadership and of developing leaders for counterinsurgency. Its historical analysis is valuable, though occasionally slanted; the author’s phrasing when he tells us he is out “to find supporting evidence from a wide range of cases” may be unintentionally revealing (p. 3). As an exposition of new counterinsurgency theory, or as a defense of a ‘leader-centric’ paradigm, A Question of Command is unconvincing, falling somewhere between historical analysis and theoretical deliberation.

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  • Jeff says:

    Moyar seems to miss the obvious point that the most important leadership is not that of the foreign counterinsurgent but rather that of the domestic political class.

  • David Ucko says:

    Hi Jeff. In all fairness, Moyar does discuss domestic political leadership, perhaps mostly in his chapters on El Salvador (Duarte vs. Cristiani), Vietnam (Diem) and the Philippines, but also when discussing Afghanistan. It is an important aspect of the debate that is often missed, but not so much in Moyar’s book.

  • David Mitchell says:

    I found Moyar’s book to be very well researched and informative. However, I couldn’t help but get annoyed at his constant claim that “leadership” is more important than all other aspects of counterinsurgency. Yes, leadership is extremely important, but it is not the sole factor. Moyar also tends to dismiss the “hearts and minds” school of thought in favor of “good leadership,” yet when he attempts to define “good leadership” he reverts to many of the aspects listed in the Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual (which he also dismisses several times). I don’t find these two aspects mutually exclusive; however, I am under the impression that Moyar believes they are.

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