Book Review:

April 1, 2011

A Question of Command

Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq


Published By: Yale University Press

On: October 20, 2009

Buy Here $30.0

Reviewed By: Daniel Justin Clark


US-led combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred an unprecedented resurgence of study on counterinsurgency strategy. Former US Marine Corps Command and General Staff College Professor Mark Moyar proposes an unflinching new theory on the topic in his latest book, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq.1 Moyar, best known for authoring a revisionist history of the Vietnam War, studies counterinsurgency theory through the same revisionist lens. Moyar argues that the current theory of population-centric counterinsurgency is misguided. Rather, his own theory suggests, the combatant commander with the strongest leadership will prevail in any conflict.

This review will argue that Moyar’s approach to counterinsurgency, which he calls “leader-centric,”2 lacks the causal logic necessary to reach the comprehensive conclusions posited by the author. It will show that although Moyar highlights qualities that are indeed important to any counterinsurgent, his argument would be stronger if he considered military leadership as a key complement to doctrine, resources, and other considerations rather than as a sole deciding factor. The work, then, has potential to be a helpful tool to new counterinsurgents but, disappointingly, falls flat. This review will first provide reasons for this conclusion as well as a discussion of the population-centric approach to counterinsurgency that the author disputes in order to provide a frame of reference. It will then analyze two specific instances where the author’s research or logic proves insufficient. Finally, the prescriptive portion of the author’s analysis will be assessed, and corrective recommendations for the argument will be offered.

Author’s Intent and the Book’s Strengths

Ostensibly, the purpose of Moyar’s work is to assist the counterinsurgent where the official field manual falls short. The author’s aim was to bring more emphasis to the leadership aspect of counterinsurgency. Yet he mistakenly believes that the military views leadership as one of many equally important aspects of the strategy. “Counterinsurgency experts who acknowledge the importance of leadership in counterinsurgency often treat it as a factor that is fixed and thus not worthy of much attention,” he writes.3 Moyar’s objective is thus to define the characteristics of successful counterinsurgents and prescribe the method for identifying them.4

Moyar’s work does make some limited positive contributions to the burgeoning field of literature on counterinsurgency. The book’s case studies are clearly written and would be helpful to an inexperienced counterinsurgent leader by providing a broad historical frame of reference for the field. These studies also clearly frame the stylistic differences between effective and non-effective counterinsurgent leaders. Furthermore, Moyar’s analysis of host nation viability for effective leadership as a determining factor for success has merit. This effort to develop counterinsurgency leaders within the US military certainly has intrinsic value.

Leader-Centric vs. Population-Centric Counterinsurgency

Yet Moyar’s leader-centric approach is a by-product of his flawed understanding of insurgent warfare. He defines counterinsurgency as “a contest between elites in which the elite with superiority in certain leadership attributes usually wins.”5 He reaches this conclusion by reviewing nine counterinsurgencies, from which he derives ten essential leadership traits: initiative, flexibility, creativity, judgment, empathy, charisma, sociability, dedication, integrity, and organization.6 It is disappointing that Moyar does not enumerate his method for arriving at these supposed all-encompassing leadership qualities but instead simply contends that these attributes constitute the real decisive factor in winning conflict. “Major social, economic or political changes, to which population-centric theorists attach much weight,” he argues, “have historically had much less impact.”7

Moyar even maintains, without further explanation, that “[t]he most valuable attributes did not vary from case to case despite wide variations in the nature of the insurgents and counterinsurgents.”8 He fails to explain why other leadership qualities, such as perseverance, aggression, cultural awareness, self-awareness, and discipline, are not included in his list of leadership qualities. Without specifying his methods or explaining his omission of other seemingly important leadership qualities, the research and prescriptive recommendations come across as rushed and incomplete. Furthermore, the end product of a list of leadership qualities, some of which are simply inherent and cannot be learned, does not empower a counterinsurgent leader with any concrete tools or guidelines to implement in the field, despite this being the book’s ultimate purpose.

The population-centric approach to counterinsurgency that Moyar attempts to refute has been studied widely and used successfully in conflicts from Columbia to Malaya to Oman. This strategy has been adopted and implemented by the US military and is the framework within which FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency,9 the US Army and Marine Corps Field Manual, was written. This approach centers on separating insurgents from the populace, instilling legitimacy in the contested government, and providing remedies to economic and governance grievances that motivate the insurgency. Establishing security is the key determinant in the early phases of the insurgency, so that other tasks have the space and time to be implemented.

Flawed Understanding of the Established Strategy

To the informed military reader, the author’s credibility can be called into question in the book’s opening remarks. In the preface, the author reveals his incomplete knowledge of, or perhaps disregard for, the substance of FM 3-24. Here, Moyar claims that the manual “makes no mention of empowering quality American or host-nation commanders.”10 However, FM 3-24 makes direct reference to empowering commanders—at all leadership levels—in several clear and concise instances:

1-145. Successful mission command results from subordinate leaders at all echelons exercising disciplined initiative....Higher commanders empower subordinates to make decisions within the commander’s intent.

1-146. Local commanders have the best grasp of their situations...[H]igher commanders owe it to their subordinates to push as many capabilities as possible down to their level. Mission command encourages the initiative of subordinates.11

This inaccuracy and lack of knowledge of FM 3-24 strongly damages the author’s argument. When faced with such a significant inaccuracy, the reader begins to question the veracity of the work from the outset. Throughout his work, Moyar continues to look at leadership methods and tactics as two independent variables, when in fact they are strongly interdependent.

Selected Case Studies and Flawed Causal logic

In his case study on Malaya, Moyar praises British general Sir Gerald Templer12 for winning the Malayan conflict through sheer dynamism of character. Yet for Templer and most counterinsurgency scholars, the Malayan conflict is considered one of the defining conflicts of a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency. Although I concede that Templer was a transformational leader, he also had a keen intellect and devised effective strategies. It was these strategies, coupled with his leadership, that constituted Templer’s recipe for success.

Great Britain also made significant investments coinciding with Templer’s acceptance of the helm, which Moyar mentions: “Churchill asked...[Templer] to take the job, telling him he could have whatever he wanted, including fine civilians and soldiers for the most important leadership positions in Malaya.”13 Securing the best and brightest for the conflict was a reversal of the prior British approach of treating Malaya as a backwater. Templer was given complete authority over the entire operation, which was vital because unity of command is a tenet of the population-centric approach. Yet, Moyar attaches no weight to the importance of these investments in the campaign’s ultimate success and continues to focus solely on leadership.

Furthermore, Templer wrote a common tactical doctrine, the Conduct of Anti-terrorist operations in Malaya,14 which had decisive strategic results,15 but Moyar simply claims that “the importance of this manual has been exaggerated.”16 He ignores its use in militaries across the world. I argue that Templer was indeed a great leader but also that his vision in developing and successfully implementing population-centric strategies is a testament to his leadership.

Moyar’s habit of ignoring new leaders’ successful implementation of population-centric strategies continues throughout the book. Time and again, the case studies give examples of weak leaders replaced by more capable ones who turn the counterinsurgencies around. Moyar is correct in pointing out that leadership is vital to success, and that these leaders were transformational. In the end, however, the author fails to recognize the significance of these new leaders’ creation of better command teams and implementation of sound population-centric strategies in order to generate more successful outcomes.

In a second case study on the Vietnam War, Moyar’s version of events is quite controversial. Following the same line of reasoning he put forward in his revisionist history of the war, Triumph Forsaken,17 Moyar extols Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership qualities and argues that the war was going well until the military coup that led to his execution in 1963.18 the facts simply do not support this view. As a Catholic in a Buddhist country, Diem was increasingly disconnected from the populace; a government-sponsored intimidation campaign against the religious leadership further undermined him. Diem’s own brother ran death squads and had several ranking military commanders murdered.

Further, Moyar argues that a Buddhist monk conspiracy directed through the media had undue influence on officials in the US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that this conspiracy ultimately led to US support of the coup. It is true that Diem was a strong leader who had more control of the country than his successors, and there is no question that the coup was lethal to the US mission. Nevertheless, the larger point that Moyar misses is that the coup was inevitable due to Diem’s untenable position. Realizing that a coup was inevitable leads to the conclusion that the war was lost before it began. The Vietnam War provides many productive lessons on counterinsurgency; the idea that Diem’s leadership was the key to victory is not one of them.

Misinterpretations and Potential Repairs to the Theory

In six of the nine case studies analyzed by Moyar, success is determined not only by a change of leadership, as Moyar suggests, but also by the counterinsurgent government’s simultaneous increase in investment of both personnel and financial commitments in the fight. This can be seen in the recent examples of the coalition surges in both Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2010. In these cases, the counterinsurgent government realized that it was losing, replaced leadership, and increased investments to correct failing strategies. Moyar never makes this fundamental connection between the additional resources dedicated to the conflict and the positive outcome that follows.

Moyar is, however, on to a promising line of inquiry in his quest to define the ultimate attributes of counterinsurgent leaders. Future wars will likely take the form of insurgencies, and the military would benefit greatly from a thorough study in this vein. Where Moyar fails to succeed centers on the scope of his argument. Successful counterinsurgencies take bright, flexible leaders that inspire outside-the-box solutions. There are several historical examples of strong leaders succeeding where weaker leaders had previously failed. The more capable leader did not win in a vacuum, however. New tactics, techniques and procedures were implemented in every example, often corresponding to significantly larger investments. Military re-organization was necessary to harmonize efforts and direct energies in the right direction.

Moyar could strengthen his argument by using it to complement and augment rather than refute the current population-centric strategy. Counterinsurgencies are a multidimensional, highly dynamic type of warfare, and there is no exact solution set. If Moyar had used his efforts to reinforce this existing approach and add depth to the current strategy, his ideas would have been more constructive and well received. The two strategies are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are quite complementary.

Researching host-nation suitability for successful operations is another instance in which Moyar’s work could be used to make concrete contributions to the field of counterinsurgency. Host-nation leadership and leadership potential should be a heavily weighted variable in the calculus of whether to become engaged in a counterinsurgency. Historical case studies point vividly to the issues created when a host nation has no institutional knowledge or history of competent leadership. Comparing host nation political elites who are associated with successful counterinsurgencies with those who are not would reveal vital predictive qualities and significantly aid counterinsurgent practitioners.


The final section of the book contains the prescriptive elements of Moyar’s thesis. Here, his work takes on added relevance and is more measured than in the case studies. Moyar recommends that the Army and Marine Corps use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test to screen officer candidates for the necessary traits of an effective counterinsurgent.19 He contends that one important pair of personality traits stands out: sensing personalities focus solely on concrete facts gained through their given senses, whereas intuitive personalities focus on abstract, big-picture issues. The latter, Moyar posits, are better suited for combat leadership.

Yet there are limits to this proposed policy on the fielded force. The military is currently under such strain by a two-front war that precious resources such as volunteer officers cannot be dismissed simply for not matching a personality profile. Here, a structured population-centric approach is the most feasible strategy, as it provides direction to leaders who may not come by counterinsurgency naturally.


Ultimately, A Question of Command does not achieve the goals set out by its author. Moyar tries to replace doctrine with abstract, intangible leadership qualities as the prescription for success. He continually ignores the population-centric tactics used by the leaders examined in the book. Success is ascribed to the genius of the leader at the expense of all other factors. But in practice, just as the best doctrine with a weak leadership does not ensure victory, the best leaders with the wrong approach cannot expect success.

Moyar should have used his talents to augment the current population-centric strategy with research and policy prescriptions related to leadership development. His significant skills as a historian would have been better utilized researching successful leadership styles and the doctrine followed by leaders as a complementary set of factors. Further efforts to identify characteristics of host nations that lend themselves successful counterinsurgencies would have concrete results. If Moyar had followed this line of investigation, the US military would have a serious work on counterinsurgency leadership to lean on for insight into the enormous challenges that it faces. Instead, readers are left with a nearsighted and flawed attempt to supersede the combined experience and knowledge of history’s most esteemed counterinsurgency strategists.

Notes & References

  1. Mark Moyar, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), Kindle edition. References appear as Kindle locations rather than page numbers. 
  2. Ibid., 121-125. 
  3. Ibid., 167-172.
  4. Ibid., 176-180. 
  5. Ibid., 121-125. 
  6. Ibid., 188-230. 
  7. Ibid., 138-143. 
  8. Ibid., 180-185. 
  9. US Army and US Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency, Field Manual (FM) 3-24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5 (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army: December 2006).
  10. Moyar, Question of Command, 55-57. 
  11. US Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency. 
  12. This name is spelled “Gerald Templar” in Moyar’s work. 
  13. Moyar, Question of Command, 1688-1692. 
  14. The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya, Third Edition (British Army, 1958). 
  15. Moyar, Question of Command, 1793-1798. 
  16. Ibid., 1779-1784. 
  17. Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 
  18. Moyar, Question of Command, 2342-2345. 
  19. Ibid., 3579-3583.
Daniel Justin Clark is an M.A. candidate at SAIS Bologna Center, concentrating in Strategic Studies with a focus on Latin America. He is a former United States Army infantry officer and served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.