Book Review of Flynn, M. T., & Ledeen, M. A. (2016). The field of fight: How we can win the global war against radical Islam and its allies. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
By David Firester
To begin with, I will say that the book is not exactly what one might expect from a recently retired General. For starters, there were numerous spelling errors, an assortment of colloquialisms and some instances in which the prose took on a decidedly partisan tone. The means of documenting sources was something akin to a blog-posting, in that he simply copied and pasted links to pages, right into the body of the work. I would have liked to have seen a more thoroughly researched and properly cited work. All of this was likely due to the fact that General Flynn released his book in the days leading up to Donald J. Trump’s announcement of his Vice Presidential pick. As Flynn is apparently a close national security advisor to Trump, I can understand why his work appears to be somewhat harried. Nonetheless, I think that the book’s timeliness is useful, as the information it contains might be helpful in guiding Americans’ election choices. I also think that despite the absence of academic rigor, it makes his work more accessible. No doubt, this is probably one of Mr. Trump’s qualities and one that has catapulted him to national fame and serious consideration for the office he seeks. General Flynn makes a number of important points, which, despite my foregoing adverse commentary, gives me the opportunity to endorse it as an essential read.
In the introductory chapter, General Flynn lays out his credentials, defines the problem, and proceeds to inform the reader of the politically guided element that clouds policy prescriptions. Indeed, he is correct to call attention to the fact that the Obama administration has deliberately exercised its commanding authority in forbidding the attachment of the term “Islam” when speaking of the threat posed by extremists who advocate and carry out violence in the religion’s name. As one who suffered at the hands of the administration for speaking truth to power, he knows all too well what others in the Intelligence Community (IC) must suffer in order to hold onto their careers.
In chapter one, he discusses where he came from and how he learned valuable lessons at home and in service to his country. He also gives the reader a sense of the geopolitical context in which Radical Islamists have been able to form alliances with our worst enemies. This chapter also introduces the reader to some of his personal military heroes, as he delineates how their mentorship shaped his thinking on military and intelligence matters. A key lesson to pay attention to in this chapter is what some, including General Flynn, call ‘politicization of intelligence.’ Although he maintains that both the present and previous administration have been guilty of this, he credits the Bush administration with its strategic reconsideration of the material facts and a search for better answers. (He mentions this again in the next chapter on p.42, signifying this capability as a “leadership characteristic” and later recalls the president’s “insight and courage” on p. 154.)
Chapter two of The Field of Fight features an excellent summary of what transpires in a civil war and the manner in which Iraqis began to defect from al-Qa’ida and cooperate with U.S. forces. In this task, he explains for the layperson what many scholars do, but in far fewer pages. Again, this makes his work more accessible. He also works through the process of intelligence failures that are, in his opinion, produced by a superordinate policy failure housed in the upper echelons of the military structure. In essence, it was a misperception (willful or not) that guided thinking about the cause of the insurgency, that forbade an ability to properly address it with a population-centric Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. He pays homage to the adaptability and ingenuity of General Stanley McChrystal’s Task Force 714, but again mentions the primary barrier to its success was bureaucratic in nature.
The main thrust of chapter 3, aptly named “The Enemy Alliance,” is geared toward tying together the earlier assertion in chapter regarding the synergy between state actors like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the like. It has been documented elsewhere, but the Iranian (non-Arab Shi’a) connection to the al-Qa’ida (Arab Sunni) terrorist organization can’t be denied. Flynn correctly points out how the relationship between strange bedfellows is not new in the Middle East. He briefly discusses how this has been the case since the 1970s, with specific reference to the PLO, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, Bosnia and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s. He also references President Obama’s “curious sympathy” (p. 92) for enemies in places such as Venezuela and Cuba.
General Flynn then reminds readers of some facts that have either been forgotten, or virtually unknown, by most Americans. Namely, the role that Saddam Hussein actually played with regard to the recruitment of foreign terrorists, the internal policies of appeasement for Islamists in his army and the support he lent to Islamists in other countries (e.g., Egypt, Sudan and Afghanistan). He also reminds the readers of the totalitarian mindset that consumes Islamist groups, such as al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State. All the while, and in contrast to what his detractors might opine, General Flynn is speaking of Radical Islam as a “tribal cult,” and not taking aim at the religion itself. This chapter is perhaps the most robust in the book and it is the sort of reading that every American should do before they engage in conversations about the nature of political Islam.
Chapter four is a blueprint for winning what used to be called the ‘global war on terror.’ Although such a phraseology is generally laughed at in many policy circles, it is clear, as General Flynn demonstrates, that some groups and countries are locked in combat with us and our partners in the West. Yet, as he correctly points out, the Obama administration isn’t willing to use global American leadership in order to defeat those who see us, and treat us, as their collective enemy. General Flynn’s prescription includes four strategic objectives, which I won’t recite here, as I’m not looking to violate any copyright laws. The essence of his suggestions, however, starts with an admission of who the enemy is, a commitment to their destruction, the abandonment of any unholy alliances we have made over the years, and a counter-ideological program for combating what is largely an ideologically-based enemy strong suit. He points to some of the facts that describe the dismal state of affairs in the Arab world, the most damning of which appear on pages 127-128, and then says what many are afraid to say on page 133: “Radical Islam is a totalitarian political ideology wrapped in the Islamic religion.” Nonetheless, Flynn discusses some of the more mundane and pecuniary sources of their strength and the means that might be tried in an effort to undermine them.
The concluding chapter of General Flynn’s work draws the reader’s attention to some of the works of others that have been overlooked. He then speaks candidly of the misguided assumptions that, coupled with political and bureaucratic reasons, slows adaptation to the changing threat environment. Indeed, one of the reasons that I found this book so refreshing is because that sort of bold introspection is perhaps the requisite starting point for re-thinking bad strategies. In fact, that is the essence of both the academic and practical work that I have been doing for years. I highly recommend this book, especially chapter 3, for any student of the IC and the military sciences.