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Galula and the Maoist Model

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice

SWJ Blog has been featuring Octavian Manea talking to COIN experts about counterinsurgency godfather David Galula:

Interview with Dr. John Nagl

“Counterinsurgencies are after all learning competitions.”

What is the legacy of David Galula for US Counterinsurgency doctrine? Is he an intellectual father?

The most important thinker in the field is probably Mao whose doctrine of insurgency understood that insurgency is not a component or a precursor of conventional war but could by itself accomplish military objectives. The greatest thinker in my eyes in COIN remains David Galula who has the enormous advantage of having studied and seen the evolution of insurgency in France during WW2, then spending a great deal of time in Asia, and really having thought through the problem for more than a decade before he practiced COIN himself for a number of years. His book is probably the single biggest influence on FM 3-24, the COIN Field Manual. David Galula is the best COIN theoretician as Kennan was for containment.

Interview with Dr. David Ucko

What was the role of David Galula in shaping the mind of the US Army or the Army Concept? Could we see him as an intellectual founding father? And what specific beliefs do you have in mind when you assess his role in shaping the organizational culture of the US military?

As certain individuals and groups within the US military again became interested in counterinsurgency, this time as a result of the persistent violence in ‘post-war’ Iraq, one of the more immediate reference points for how to understand this type of political violence were the scholars and theorists who had marked the US military’s previous ‘counterinsurgency eras’, during the 1960s primarily, but also during the 1980s. In the former camp, the thinkers of the 1960s, David Galula stands as an intellectual forefather to much that was finally included in the US Army and Marine Corps’ FM 3-24 counterinsurgency field manual; indeed I believe his book is one of the three works cited in the manual’s acknowledgements. I think it is fair to say far fewer people have read than heard of Galula, and it would be an interesting study to go through his writings more carefully and see to what degree they apply to our understanding of counterinsurgency today. Nonetheless, even at a cursory level, Galula has been extremely helpful in conceptualizing some of the typical conundrums, dilemmas and complexities of these types of campaigns: the civilian capability gaps in theater; the political nature of counterinsurgency; the importance of popular support, etc. These were issues that US soldiers and Marines were confronting in Iraq and struggling to find answers to; Galula’s seminal texts were in that context helpful.

In terms of influencing US counterinsurgency doctrine, perhaps one of Galula’s main contributions is the emphasis on the political nature of these types of campaigns, and – importantly – his concomitant warning that although the fight is primarily more political than military, the military will be the most represented agency, resulting in a capability gap. Galula’s answer to this conundrum is explicitly not to restrict military forces to military duties, a notion picked up on in US doctrine, which also asks the US military to go far beyond its traditional remit where and when necessary. In a sense, this line of thinking is one of the greatest distinctions between the Army’s first interim COIN manual in 2004 and the final version in 2006: in doctrine (if not necessarily in other areas, such as force structure), Galula’s view of military forces filling civilian capability gaps had been accepted. Of course, it should be added that all of this is much easier said than done, and perhaps some of the implications of involving military forces in civilian tasks (agriculture, sewage, project management) have not been thoroughly thought through – do the armed forces have the requires skills, the training, and how much civilian capability can one realistically expect them to fill? Also, the danger with following Galula on this point is that by doing what’s necessary in the field, the armed forces may also be deterring the development of the very civilian capabilities they reluctantly usurp.

How relevant is Galula’s “Maoist Model” of insurgency anymore?

It is certainly possible for a Maoist insurgency to be successful in today’s world under the right conditions. This was proved, ironically, by Maoists in Nepal who managed to shoot their way, if not into power, into a peace agreement with other Nepalese political parties who united with the Communists to topple Nepal’s monarchy in 2006. Conditions were nearly ideal for an insurgent victory: Nepal is a poor, isolated, landlocked nation which had an unpopular and tyrannical king who was, at best, an accidental monarch; and who lacked an effective COIN force in the Royal Army. Nor was India, which passed for the Royal Nepal goverment’s foreign patron, willing to consider vigorous military intervention or even military aid sufficient to crush the rebellion. For their part, the Maoists were highly disciplined with a classic Communist hierarchical system of political-military control and were relatively-self-sufficient as a guerrilla force.

How well does such a “Maoist Model” of revolutionary warfare reflect conditions of insurgency that we see today in Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen? Or in central Africa

Not very well at all.

For that matter, how relevant was “the Maoist Model” for Mao ZeDong in actual historical practice as opposed to retrospective mythologizing and theorizing that lightly sidestepped the approximately 4 million battlefield casualties inflicted on Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army? Prior to the invasion of China proper by Imperial Japan, Chiang Kai-shek’s “extermination campaigns” had a devastating effect on Mao’s forces and had Chiang been free to concentrate all his strength against the Communists, it is difficult to see how Mao’s revolution would have survived without significant Soviet intervention in China’s civil war.

If David Galula were alive today, I suspect he’d be more interested in constructing a new COIN model from empirical investigation than in honing his old one.

13 Responses to “Galula and the Maoist Model”

  1. tdaxp Says:

    Great post!

    My only comment are on tangential details.

    Most of the casualties inflicted by the Japanese on the ‘Nationalists’ were actually on warloards affiliated with the Nationalists – frenemies of Chiang Kaishek who the Chongqing government was glad to be rid of.

    The Extermination campaigns were quite successful, until these warlords assissted the Communists in their escape from the Jiangxi Soviet to Yanan. Beside the ‘made for the newsies’ battles of Shanghai and Nanjing, it is questionable whether the main body of the National Revolutionary Army ever engaged the Japanese.

    The Communists were equally wise (noting that while Japan could be taken down by the USSR or USA, it could not be defeated militarily by Chinese forces). The only red leader foolish enough to attempt to directly engage the Imperial Guandong Army was Mao Zedong, against the wishes of Zhou Enlai and most other Communists. The disasterous and entirely predictable outcome of the ‘Three Alls Policy’ (Kill All, Burn All, Loot All) but an end to that.

    (The only exception to this is if one views General Stillwell’s forces as Chinese, in the sense that he was CINC-China. Guandong retaliation against airfields had a similar effect as their retaliation against villages controlled by the Reds, though — the Party leadership was reaffirmed in its fear of the Japanese.)

  2. zen Says:

    Much thanks Dr. Dan!

    You bring up several good points that go to the political complexity that was China, 1911-1949. Most of this historical detail gets lost in discussions of counterinsurgency theory and we are left with a cartoon image of Chiang vs. Mao that never was, or at best, represented the very end stage of Nationalist collapse and flight to Taiwan. 
    You’re right that the Nationalist "armies" were a hodgepodge of actual, equipped, relatively disciplined Army divisions, moderately reliable to potentially disloyal provincial armies of warlord allies of the KMT (of varying levels of effectiveness) and masses of poorly organized, basically untrained cannon fodder. Chiang was quite happy to hurl these unhappy souls and feared rivals at crack Japanese troops with predictable results, keeping his best troops in reserve ( when that was possible). The Red Army was also a mixed bag and even worse off qualitatively until, again, the end game.
    We speak of "warlords" – and that’s what figures like Chang Tso-lin and the Dogmeat General were, but they also often ruled territories the size, of say, Italy. The term misleads us as to the scale of what was really going on.
  3. slapout9 Says:

    Galula had two models. The second was called "The Bourgeois-Nationalist Pattern-A Shortcut" that is and will become more relevant in the fututre IMO.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Slap,

    very true, and you are right about the future. That model though, has not been the root of neo-COIN’s assumptions
  5. Phil Ridderhof Says:

    It is interesting that the very basis of the question assumes a “model” for counterinsurgency. I go back to Clausewitz (someone always has to), mainly the Book Two discussions on critical analysis. My interpretation of what he wrote was that doctrine (which really are based on models, if you think about it) is most useful at the lower tactical end where actions and patterns are clearly repetitive, allowing for set principles and guidelines.  Moving up in complexity, outside of his own experience, the best a commander can do is to closely study history to see the relationships at play (cause-effect, decisions, etc.). A critical look at history and experience provides the adaptive mind to view the newer situations and try to make sense out of them. This is very different than reading the distillation of that experience and history in a generic model (or doctrine). In a way, doctrine serves as a body of assumptions (harkening to T.X. Hammes article in the new “Infinity Journal”). We use the doctrine to “fill in the blanks” of the situation we see, expecting it to provide insight.   Coming back to Galula, the value he had was to closely study his own experiences and make sense of them at the time. I believe he would be the first to adapt his thinking to newer situations, rather than try and shoehorn his older thoughts into problems they obviously wouldn’t fit.

  6. gian p gentile Says:


    You nailed it, Brother!


    ps; Galula, get over him, he is not the cipher of success at modern coin draped in the muse of history

  7. slapout9 Says:

    This article caused a big stir when it was first published a few years ago. Galula was pretty good at identifying the models the enemy was using in the end his own COIN theory just wasn’t worht that much. Maybe Luttwak had (has) a better idea?

    Link to article "Modern War: Counter-Insurgency as Malpractice "by Edward N. Luttwak


  8. zen Says:

    Greetings Colonels!
    You wrote:
    "My interpretation of what he wrote was that doctrine (which really are based on models, if you think about it) is most useful at the lower tactical end where actions and patterns are clearly repetitive, allowing for set principles and guidelines.  Moving up in complexity, outside of his own experience, the best a commander can do is to closely study history to see the relationships at play"
    I like that. It is a very wise use of history and an intellectual approach that would tend to generate insights.
    "A critical look at history and experience provides the adaptive mind to view the newer situations and try to make sense out of them. This is very different than reading the distillation of that experience and history in a generic model (or doctrine)."
    CvC does not get the credit that Ranke does in furthering history as a profession but he should ,and your approach is along the lines that he advocated, respectful of history but cautious of the inherent limitations.
    BTW you might want to peruse this blog roundtable series on Clausewitz sometime; it ended up being reviewed later at Bassford’s Clausewitz.com. Allegedly, Nimble Books intends to publish it as a softcover but it is at least a year overdue and I have my doubts it will ever see the light of day.
     Unlike Gian, who teaches history to cadets who are already young adults, my students are fairly impressionable adolescents, albeit bright ones. I try very hard to wean them away from applying concepts or theories rigidly as formulas or recipes and think instead in terms of using them as tools or lenses ( microscope, telescope, sunglasses etc. is the analogy I use) to see things that are non-obvious from a first impression. I tend to also stress practices in discussion of historical scenarios that will generate more creative answers. This is more of a stretch, intellectually, for my students than it probably is for Gian’s who are more mature, but it is a good exercise nonetheless for them to try.
    Hi Gian,
    Much thanks brother!
    I am not, as you have probably guessed, anti-COIN . It’s not a strategy but it is is a good operational technique for the right circumstances, just not all circumstances. Aside from that, one of my pet peeves is the habit academia has of "freezing" thinkers in time and crystallizing their ideas as they were at the time of their deaths.  While some philosophers are that rigid, most demonstrated curiosity, innovation and emprical skepticism – they would have kept on learning if they had lived longer. Galula seems, from my inexpert glance, to have reasoned from his circumstances rather than from dogma and if that was his method he’s draw different conclusions from changed circumstances were he alive now.
    But not everyone at SWJ agreed 😉

  9. Lexington Green Says:

    This post addresses precisely the point that Phil Ridderhoff raises, and may be of interest:


  10. Phil Ridderhof Says:

    Thanks and that does track closely to my opinions. I draw a lot from Jon Sumida’s work ( Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered , and Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War).

  11. Lexington Green Says:

    I have not read Sumida.  The Clausewitz Roundtable had as a ground rule that the contributors would read On War as if it were a "found object" and let the author speak for himself, and avoid secondary literature and the downstream historical record.  You have to put on some mental "blinkers" to do it that way, but I think it is helpful to seeing Clausewitz clearly.  Also, reading every single word of the book is helpful.  You get a rounded picture of Clausewitz and his expertise and his concerns, which just reading the parts we find interesting two centuries later would not show so clearly.   

  12. The Post-COIN Era | Wings Over Iraq Says:

    […] historical roots are not without flaw, sure.  FM 3-24 drew flak for drawing heavily upon Cold War-era insurgencies, which tended to be nationalistic and […]

  13. Is 4GW Dead?: Point-Counterpoint and Commentary « Attack the System Says:

    […] irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead […]

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