Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History

  • Published

Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History by John J. Tierney Jr. Potomac Books, Inc., 2006, 289 pp.

Chasing Ghosts, according to John Tierney, “is a history that covers wars lost in memory while remaining based upon issues that have resurfaced since 9/11.” The author takes us through this study of unconventional warfare in American history, including occasions when Americans utilized this mode of warfare as well as when it was used against us. He has done his job well.

Carl von Clausewitz warns that failure to know and understand the war one is fighting is a recipe for disaster. Unconventional wars are hard to define, and this is America’s Achilles’ heel. We do not know the type of war we are currently fighting so it is near impossible for us to develop an appropriate strategy to successfully wage it. Sun Tzu tells us that it is important to know your enemy but much more so to know yourself. Unfortunately, Americans not only are unaware of who they are but they are also wedded to a paradigm of wars fought face-to-face, or head-on. As a result, Americans see everything in those terms. Should our enemies, or allies for that matter, have different-colored glasses, the United States is in trouble.

Yet US history contains a myriad of excellent examples from which we can learn pertinent lessons that are relevant not only in Iraq but in our war against international terrorism as well. However, in order to learn and apply these lessons, we have to be willing to change the color of our glasses. And this is what US senior leaders are reluctant to do.

As I read this book, I saw principles for success emerge and then echo throughout its 260-odd pages. When the United States has followed these principles, it has been successful in accomplishing national objectives. The scary part is that the inverse is also true; when it has not adhered to these principles, it has suffered defeat. Presently, the United States does not seem to be following these principles, thereby explaining why the situation in Iraq looks rather bleak.

Tierney suggests that one of the most important factors that leads to success in a guerrilla or counterguerrilla war is knowledge of the local landscape. This means not only the geography but also local customs and culture. If one does not already possess this type of knowledge—such as the Patriots did but the British did not during the Revolutionary Warit can be mitigated through the utilization of locals. The US Army did this to great effect throughout the Indian Wars, in the Philippines, and elsewhere. The Marines have been particularly good at identifying tribal and ethnic splits in societies and taking advantage of these to divide and conquer.

Akin to this idea and one that the author repeatedly illustrates is the hiring, training, and employment of indigenous forces, thereby removing the notion of “invader” from the equation. The purpose of such forces is twofold. First, it is to provide localized security, which includes separating the guerrillas from the people. This makes it difficult for guerrillas to gather intelligence, obtain food and necessities, and maintain a source of logistical support. The second function is to use these forces as mobile strike teams designed to keep constant pressure on the guerrillas and thus give them no rest or time to reconstitute their forces.

Furthermore, everyone who reads this book will find several things that will catch their attention. Two things really grabbed my interest. The first has to do with the employment of airpower. In several instances, airpower was used with great success. However, in other situations, such as Vietnam, it was not. A corollary is those instances in which airpower was not available. If one envisions the full capabilities of airpower, the question arises, if I had airpower in (choose your war), how could I have maximized its utility? The answer would, I posit, be intuitively obvious, and one could then adapt the concept to the fight in Iraq, the war on terrorism, or some other guerrilla war. In order to do this, one has to realize that airpower would be in a supporting rather than a supported role. Could senior Air Force leadership accept such a role? I doubt it.

Another attention grabber had to do with my war, Vietnam. In that war all three services had and employed conventional war doctrines. They were not only ineffective but also outright failures. Yet at the same time, the author notes that special forces A-teams were heavily involved in creating and employing Civil Irregular Defense Group units. These units were quite successful wherever and whenever they were utilized—just food for thought.

After reading this book and placing the lessons available in the context of Iraq or the war on terrorism, one is compelled to ask, have we learned nothing about guerrilla war in the past 200 years or so? The answer is not encouraging. As previously noted, Tierney does a marvelous job throughout Chasing Ghosts in illustrating these and other war-winning principles. Politicians and senior military leaders ought to read this book, and it deserves a place on every military professional development reading list. The wars we are now fighting—especially in Iraq—are not lost. We can still win, but we need to change the way we conduct business. This book will help us make the necessary changes in direction.

Donald A. MacCuish, PhD

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."