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Dirty Wars – A Century of Counterinsurgency

Simon Robbins
Dirty Wars, written by Simon Robbins, is a potted global history of established nations’ response to guerrilla warfare - counter insurgency - from the nineteenth century to present day. The main lesson that I’ve taken from reading this book is that whilst there’s nothing new under the sun, that doesn’t stop nations being surprised by the same thing happening over and again. Supposed inventors of the new way to combat X appear to have mostly regurgitated the lessons their forefathers learnt, only after having learnt them themselves – the hard way.

The book is broken up along national lines, with chapters detailing the backgrounds, key personalities and strategies from a variety of nations: Portugal, France, Russia, Nazi Germany, India, China, Israel, and of course the US and UK. Areas I found fascinating were firstly the coverage of Nazi counter insurgency policy, written from the point of view of the Germans rather than from the “brave partisans” angle I’m more used to, and secondly, the devastating Portuguese experience (their colonial war in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique being something I was aware of but not au fait with the details).

The coverage of the UK COIN experience from the Khyber Pass to Omagh I found to be extensive and relatively unbiased (to my admittedly biased eye); the description was reasonable of Ulster, although hardly earth shattering. Earlier campaigns are also dealt with in a dry but accurate manner.

The recent US/UK experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan are dealt with in a stand-alone chapter which, whilst pulling no punches, failed to get to grip with the underlying issues. However the authors has put together a workman-like precis of the campaigns to date.

Dirty Wars” is an interesting book in which a wide ranging subject matter has been sensibly broken down into logical areas, and cogently described. The informed reader is not going to learn much that is novel or controversial, but what he does read is likely to be accurate. There is use of eye witness accounts, enough to set the scene without overly intruding into the narrative. The breadth of the topic is such that of necessity, not everything is covered in fine detail, and some chapters left me wanting more. The style of writing is not what I’d call engaging, certainly not a book I’d read for light relief – then again, the author is an archivist at the Imperial War Museum, so what you get may be dull in places, but it’s reliable.

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Overall, this is a book that I would happily buy; informative and wide ranging, it approaches the subject methodically and deals with complex and emotive issues in a logical manner. I’m more than happy to have it on my shiny new bookshelves.
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