The Face of “Irregular” Battle
The Other Face of Battle is an attempt to bring the kind of Military History that John Keegan pioneered to examples of irregular warfare in American history, using as case studies the battles of the Monongahela in 1755, Manila in 1899, and Operation Dagger Strike in 2010 in Afghanistan. This methodology allows the authors to bring out salient points regarding irregular warfare, in particular with regard to the importance of cultural differences between American soldiers and their opponents in shaping how these battles were fought.
The book is at its best in its early chapter, which examines the infamous defeat of Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock at the hands of a French and Indian force on the Monongahela River in 1755. The authors make a bit of a revisionist argument here, arguing that Braddock came quite close to succeeding, pointing to the impressive logistical effort that the British-American force was able to pull off, to almost beat the French to Fort Duquesne. But their focus, of course, is on the battle itself. The authors argue that Braddock was defeated not by the French militia, who ran away after trying to assault the British column, but by the Native American warriors who in a disciplined manner “[collapsed] the Redcoats’ flank parties and inexorably [wrested] the initiative from the British.” Victory for the Indians was a result of a disciplined military culture that created close tribal ties among the native warriors, combined with superior, dispersed irregular tactics backed by the psychological terror from Indian war cries that caused panic among the defenders, as “invisible enemies” shot down the ranks of the British column. This lead to the collapse of Braddock’s army into panicked individuals, and its flight from the battlefield.
The chapter on the Battle of Manila, in 1899, covers the great success of the U.S. Army when Emilio Aguinaldo’s nationalist guerrilla force attempted a straight-up fight to capture the city of Manila from the Americans ensconced in prepared positions. Again, much is made of
cultural differences between the Americans and the Filipinos, who didn’t even bother to aim when shooting at their enemies, thus suffering heavy losses at the hands of the disciplined, well-trained American regulars and volunteers. The Americans then attacked the Filipinos, and easily put them to flight. As the authors explain, fighting for the Filipinos was a matter of loyalty to the particular patron who had organized their unit. Demonstrating loyalty to the patron by shooting was enough for a Filipino to prove their commitment to the cause, and in any case they had had no training in target practice before the battle. Nor was there any dishonor felt by the majority of Filipinos who ran away in response to the massed charge by the American troops. Moreover, the American defeat of the Filipinos at Manila did not prevent the necessity for a long and difficult counter-insurgency campaign that lasted until 1902.
With Operation Dagger Strike, the reader comes to a war with which they are likely to be at least somewhat more familiar. The battle is also different from the others because it includes an allied Afghan National Army contingent fighting alongside the American troops, so there were cultural differences both between the U.S. Army and the enemy, and also between the American troops and their A.N.A. allies. Moreover, much of the “battle” involved “fighting” against IEDs, so there’s less face-to-face confrontation with the Taliban enemy in this case. In looking at Dagger Strike, the authors emphasize the cultural difference that the U.S. soldiers felt with an enemy that did not “play by the rules” in their opinion, which is of course a given in irregular warfare. Those cultural difference extended to American interactions with the A.N.A. soldiers, whom they felt were undisciplined, uncaring of their own wounded and dead, and likely to be drug users. In addition, the American troops understood that their allies were conscripts, many of whom probably didn’t want to be fighting fellow Afghans, and the situation was not improved by the unwillingness of the Americans to respect Afghan cultural practices and relied on “the shared experience of combat against a common foe [to] forge cohesion in culturally mixed units with divergent conceptions of soldiering, esprit de corps, and the nature of combat itself.”
In interludes between the three principal chapters, the authors try to draw some larger conclusions about the role of irregular warfare in American military history, arguing (correctly in my opinion) that it has been far more prevalent in American warfare than instances of so-called “conventional warfare”, on which much more ink has been spilled. They also develop a theme about the repeated failure of the American military to remember the lessons of irregular warfare between the guerrilla conflicts that the U.S. has fought. In their conclusion, the authors cite this as a major fault of the U.S. military that has contributed to it losing such wars over and over in the 20th and 21st centuries.
While I enjoyed The Other Face of Battle and agree with the importance the authors place on cultural difference as a major issue in irregular warfare, I think they missed an opportunity to extend that cultural study to the most important parts of irregular warfare, counter-insurgency strategy and “winning hearts and minds,” which in my opinion is what is really responsible for the failures of the U.S. armed forces in their recent irregular wars. To discuss irregular warfare in terms of major battles is to miss the point that it is the long struggle between battles, the courting of locals, the establishment of security for the population against the insurgents, and avoidance of unnecessary civilian casualties on which victory or defeat is determined, not on the battles that the authors dwell on. Nor do I agree with them that maintaining a proficiency in irregular warfare will be enough to guarantee victory in future irregular wars. Those wars should be avoided because it is not for the U.S. to win them -- such wars are won or lost through political settlements -- especially when the U.S. acts as an occupying power in opposition to nationalist insurgencies that have the support of the people being occupied, which has been the case in recent irregular wars that America’s armed forces have fought. Regardless, the book is important for its insights into the nature of irregular wars that the U.S. has fought, and will undoubtedly fight in the future.
The Other Face of Battle is worth-while reading read for those interested in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to help bring in the larger, long-term issues that the authors delve into that have helped shape those wars.
Our Reviewer: Dr. Alexander Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews include Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective, Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies, and In the Name of Lykourgos.