After commanding a combat unit for the first seven months of my Vietnam tour, this reviewer was reassigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, as an adviser for my last five months in the country. I received no training, instruction, advice or orientation in preparation for this abrupt shift in duty from leading a U.S. Army outfit to advising South Vietnamese counterparts. Moreover, far from being in a mercifully quiet backwater, the unit I advised was hotly engaged in the horrifically bloody operation to recapture Quang Tri in northern South Vietnam after the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive. It was a situation hardly conducive to quiet reflection or leisurely study to help me “ease into” a new and unfamiliar job. The situation gave a personal meaning to the phrases “hitting the ground running” and “on-the-job training.” I would have greatly benefited had something like David Donovan’s excellent Counterinsurgency book been available.
Counterinsurgency is a concise, clearly written, compact book that presents the fundamentals of counterinsurgency and, most important, contains a wealth of practical tips for Americans working as advisers with host-nation counterparts.
David Donovan (the pen name of Terry T. Turner, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia) is the author of the very well-received 1985 book Once a Warrior King: Memories of an
Officer in Vietnam, his superb memoir recounting a 1969-70 Vietnam tour as a Military Assistance Team commander and senior district adviser in a remote part of the Mekong Delta. Now, nearly five decades after his Vietnam tour, Donovan draws on his “counterinsurgency experiences of long ago followed by several decades of reflection” to produce a thoughtful explanation and analysis of a type of warfare that confronts—and which by all indications will continue to confront—today’s U.S. armed forces.
In effect, Donovan has created an excellent handbook on a vitally important subject. In unambiguously plain English, and in barely 200 pages of text, the author covers the material that both national policymakers and lower-level practitioners—as well as the American public at large—must know and understand about counterinsurgency. Typically, articles and books on this subject have been written by academicians or think tank specialists with little or no practical experience in executing the extremely difficult task of conducting counterinsurgency operations in the field.
Donovan, on the other hand, has firsthand knowledge and uses examples from his own experience as a counterinsurgency operator (as well as those of several other former American advisers in Vietnam) to reveal and illustrate the various principles and numerous points he examines. The personal anecdotes from his 1969-70 adviser tour are extremely useful in clarifying the points Donovan makes and illuminating the principles he brings out. They lend authenticity and authority to his consistently insightful analysis.
Admittedly, Counterinsurgency provides neither a “magic formula” nor a “silver bullet” for defeating insurgencies. Nor does it present any startling revelations that other analysts might have overlooked. But in addition to being a well-organized, straightforward, easily digested explanation of the overall subject, Donvan’s book reinforces the undeniable fact that conducting successful counterinsurgency operations is a hard, incredibly demanding, grinding process that to be successful requires total and long-term commitment from the political, military and public sectors of both the host country and supporting countries, principally the United States.
Donovan’s Counterinsurgency is a “must read” for anyone involved in—or just interested in—counterinsurgency operations. I wish I had this book back in my day.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s April 2017 issue.