Sunday, 5 December 2010

Book Review: Senator's Son

Three things happen when I get into a grind at work, I read a lot less, I focus on any one particular book less (I've got about 4 sitting partially read on my shelf) and the quality of what I read diminishes rapidly. So it was a pleasure to have a week off and actually get to some reading done. The one book which stood out was Senator's Son by Luke Larson, having read ZenPundit's review of it some time back its been on my shelf (the imaginary shelf in my Kindle) for quite a while and I finally got to it.

Senator's Son is one of the very few books which I've read that actually contains some real military thought. Ender's Game is one of the others. Written from the perspective of a group of soliders operating in Ramadi and although fictional is based on the experience of the author and soldiers, particularly Marines, who he knows and has worked with.

Its a difficult book to read, ultimately it paints an uncomfortable tale of the early days of US involvement in Iraq, unable to really get to grips with the insurgency. The reaction of the Marines is to fall back on fighting tactics which don't apply to the environment. This is neatly summed up by one of my favourite John Boyd quotes:
When I was a young officer I was taught if you have air superiority, land superiority and sea superiority, you win. Well in Vietnam we had air superiority, land superiority and sea superiority, but we lost. So I realised there was something more to it
As the Marines struggle to initially recognise, and then adapt their behaviour to, what Boyd realised in Vietnam, the story progresses. The key realisation they have is that the war in Iraq is not a war about shooting people, its a war about people and winning their support. Over time they adopt new and novel ways to do this, honing their understanding of how Iraqi's do business and building lasting structures to help them.

The book also deals with the difficulties of men on the ground who have to operate within the restrictive strictures of organisations which are very distant from their reality. At various points military commanders force them to undertake unnecessary risks in order to please his whims, and the Marines are faced with the loss of funding after a Government department seeks to take control of local reconstruction projects, again putting lives at risk.

Strangely, almost perversely, this book makes the case for the military as a nation building organisation, if properly organised and motivated. In the book the Marines are a self organising organisation, they stumble their way towards understanding and over time achieve it and use it to bring safety and security, which is ultimately to their own benefit, as well as for the people of Ramaldi.

The word which best sums up this book to me is 'believable'. The characters truly operate in the way people would in these highly stressful, challenging conditions. Most of them struggle deeply to go beyond their training, feeling that it puts their lives at risk and isnt their job. They are a parable of the fundamental flaws in both British and American operations overseas.

This book is a real achievement, taking a difficult and dry topic and translating it into a real story, which intrigues and fascinates at every step. The historical narrative remains intact, and the impact of key players on those on the ground, something which deepens the story.

This is an elegant and well written book which perfectly encapsulates the many issues which confront us as we move still further into the world of irregular warfare. As the US gears up to enter Yemen, and the Afghanistan conflict shows no real signs of drawing to a close, it'll be increasingly important to understand that we're not trying to kill enemies, we're trying to change minds.
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