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Out of the Mountains Notes

4 months ago

A mysterious tagline hooks the reader within the first few sentences, offering an intellectual mystique of the content within. A personal anecdote, given from the first-person tense centers the reader in some faraway land, where a description of a furrowed brow, a sweaty palm, or a glaring sun is never too far away. Already the reader is getting a taste of the pseudo-intellectual world of defense writing, the thick volumes of which are captured in supposedly candid photos of the political elite, who are all too pleased to let the world think the ideas captured within its pages are the utterances of all-knowing strategic oracles, yet not containing anything of the sort…..this is modern defense literature.
For those of you who actually finished this book, congratulations. This was no small feat. However, at the risk of laying it on a bit thick, trudging through the trenches of Kilcullen is not for the faint of heart.
David Kilcullen is probably one of the most influential personas in the world of warfare doctrine, as understood by politicians and decision makers. The reason for the foreboding introduction is that over the years, Kilcullen has established a bit of an unspoken reputation throughout the defense world, as he is basically the epitome of America's ideological and military failures in 40 years of desert warfare. Kilcullen was a special advisor to General David Petraeus, and served under Condoleezza Rice. So right up front you know that when you crack the pages of this book, you are delving into the heart of the beast of the ideology that drives the military industrial complex.
Out of the Mountains is a relatively simple book, despite the challenging read. Kilcullen's thesis can be summed up rather easily; Future conflicts are likely to be low-intensity and be largely fought in coastal, impoverished, population-dense cities. As such, one of the major aspects of this style of warfare will be the Competitive Control of the local population, a battle between the US military and the local insurgent force for the "hearts and minds" of the local populace.
That's basically it. Review done.
…..well, not quite. As should be painfully obvious to anyone, these ideas did not really come to fruition or work out super well. Kilcullen published this book in 2013, at the height of the Small Wars theory, when "low-intensity conflict" was the latest hot topic buzzing through military circles. This was the idea that large, near-peer wars were a thing of the past, and that smaller, almost unnoticeable proxy wars were the way forward. In other words, most military thinkers were sold on the idea that grand amphibious and airborne assaults like Normandy were no longer going to work, but rather a dozen tiny Vietnams were the way of modern war. During this time we saw a lot of radical shifts in doctrine that we now know were incredibly stupid.
The very next year, the 2014 invasion of Ukraine started casting doubts on whether or not this grand collection of theories was correct. And think tanks started thinking. ALL of Kilcullen's works are based heavily on the "low-intensity conflict" idea, which itself is based on attritional warfare. Instead of outmaneuvering an opponent on the battlefield, military thinkers of the COIN years were committed to breaking the will of the enemy by wearing them down.
Well, maybe we can start to see the problems with this line of thinking, which undermines Kilcullen's book. It's not that he's wrong, it's that (in classic fashion) he leaves out the big picture, instead focusing on small vignettes to prove a point…and rather ominously, shape US foreign policy.
These days, we can see the obvious error of this line of thinking, and that it resulted from decades of complacency going back to the Korean War. In 2024, the "small wars" or "low-intensity conflict" theory is certainly not dead, but it's on life support…and Russia put it there.
The re-invasion of Ukraine in 2022 shattered many million-dollar think tank reports, and has embarrassed many a RAND analyst. Nobody saw it coming, being blinded by the hubris of groupthink. But now we know better, and are looking back at past decisions.
Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to remove tanks from the US Marine Corp.
Maybe it wasn't such a great idea to scale back airborne operations.
Maybe we should have maintained those airfields in the south Pacific.
Maybe we shouldn't have spent so much money on unmanned systems that immediately get shot down.
Maybe it wasn't worth it to build one highly-advanced tank, for every three T-72's Russia can build.
Maybe we should have focused on warfighting instead of political theatre.
The list is endless….and brought to you by the influences of many Kilcullens.
Thus the somewhat malicious atmosphere surrounding this book. Though extraordinarily difficult to describe, it's not the Kilcullen is wrong, one would be hard pressed to find a factual error in any of his books. It's that there is little attempt to encapsulate the basics of how policy should be formulated. A major problem of most of Kilcullen's argument is best illustrated by the unspoken assumptions in virtually every paragraph. Such as:
"The US is going to war here so we have to find a way to make our actions seem plausible retroactively"
"The CIA has absolutely no influence over anything, and is totally not the reason why most insurgent groups exist in the first place."
Half the time reading through this book I thought to myself "bro, you’re talking about defeating an enemy that the CIA spooks at the next base over literally created and funded". Almost all of the case studies mentioned in this book are basically self-licking ice cream cones…the reason combat is going to be in poor, population-dense littoral cities is because in 2013 Kilcullen thought the US had interests there, not because the locals want to throw a war for the hell of it. Makes for a great RAND paper, or military TED talk, but not so great for understanding the future of warfare.
Starting off with flawed premises, assuming the US is going to invade some place (without examining the "why"), and completely ignoring that the US creates most of their own enemies themselves, well, this is the perspective that most modern warfare writers are coming from. Especially those that have a personal hand in shaping policy.
All in all, I would not discount Kilcullen entirely; after all many of the case studies presented in the book are good bites of conflicts that most people have never heard of. The book is certainly worth finishing on that basis alone. However, leaning on these ideas too much is probably not the best move, as we know from how the means of warfare have changed today. Counterinsurgency as an idea shaped the doctrine we have today, and unfortunately as Russia and China expand their influence the US is largely complacent and unprepared for even a slightly-more-hot proxy war, as evidenced by the war in Ukraine. Near-peer warfare is back on the menu, or so most militaries around the world think. This leaves little room for the small wars theories of the past, even though we should probably be considering the implications that decades of COIN will have here at home.

So what do you think?
Is the idea of Competitive Control still valid today?
Is Kilcullen correct in that small, poor, population dense, cities are going to be hotbeds of insurgency, or is there a better way to describe it?
Or is Kilcullen rather ominously describing exactly what is occurring here at home?


Lionmarshall @lionmarshall3m3 months ago

If cities are organisms, large and complex, i wonder the outcome of forcing smaller 15 minute versions? Perhaps a bonus outcome beyond easier control is easier eradication of said organism.

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Tim B @grunt11b4m4 months ago

Thank you for giving me something to ponder

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Martin Bowman @martin_bowman4m4 months ago

I never thought it of his book as a critique of the COIN modern theory. In the sense of understanding how the Westen military establishment thinks

I thought it was largely the extension of Jominian theory when school doesn't model reality. But it's mostly because you have to go beyond Jomini into Clausewitz and beyond to see warfare as something where our outcome expectations will be in alignment with our performance outcomes.

Systems of systems theory is great for engineering a car or water system, but falls short of success in war. Team of teams or system of biology doesn't help but obfuscates what can be explained by plain English.

Like Cocaine, plus money, plus guns equals chaos where violence finds its own equilibrium.

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Martin Bowman @martin_bowman4m4 months ago

Thanks. This is definitely different then I was thinking

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