The American experience with counterinsurgency goes back over one hundred years and one would expect that the expertise gained over that time should have shown itself as the United States began its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It did not. Too many lessons had to be learned over again losing both time and opportunity. In Counterinsurgency, David Donovan addresses the key issues relevant to counterinsurgency and provides discussions based on personal experiences with decades of thought given to them afterward. Personal vignettes from his own experiences and from the experiences of others are placed throughout the book to illustrate points being discussed with real-life examples. Counterinsurgency will be useful to both the counterinsurgency planner and the advisor in the field, but it is also a book for the general reader who wants to understand the complexities of counterinsurgency and the implications that come with it.
In the early chapters Donovan advocates The Test, five questions that should be asked by policy planners, and he outlines The Program, five requirements for counterinsurgency success. Donovan also clearly presents The Challenges, five significant issues faced by counterinsurgency planners and by advisors in the field.
Donovan focuses a lot of attention on counterinsurgency advisors, who are key players in any counterinsurgency effort. They transmit knowledge and values to their counterparts, a job that requires appropriate personnel selection and advanced training. In a separate chapter, Donovan enumerates “Donovan Dozens” for advisors, four lists of a dozen rules each that are pertinent to different aspects of counterinsurgency.
Donovan is no Pollyanna. He is quite clear about the too-common failure of counterinsurgency programs and the key factors that cause it. Relatedly, he uses the metaphor of the Potemkin village, i.e. facades put up to make things look better than they are, when discussing critically the tendency for over-optimism when considering and implementing counterinsurgency campaigns.
The year is 1950. Murphy Station is a rural American byway strung out along three hundred yards of U.S. 319 in southern Georgia. Its main attractions are two country stores, two Baptist churches, and a graveyard. In Murphy Station, steam locomotives still run the rails, sex is never mentioned in public, and religion is at the core of the community. From what David hears, the biggest threats to America are communism and racial integration. He accepts that message because he has never heard anything different.
Through his elementary school years David runs the gamut of boyhood experiences from mock battles in the woods to tentative explorations with girls in the first flush of puberty. He also learns the social rules of the American apartheid. African-Americans, Negroes at the time, were said to be uneducated and unmotivated. David notices that that is not a universal truth and comes to realize that a number of things he has been taught about the need for segregation are not true.
By the late 1950's, the civil rights movement is challenging the entire social code of the American South. In 1960, David watches President John Kennedy's inaugural address on a school television. He is captured by the young president's charisma, and understands the banners of Camelot to read, help the poor, lift the fallen, free the oppressed. Through his high school years David pays little attention to social issues, but when he goes away to college his experiences confirm that the days of "blacks in back" are over.
All of those years lead to service in the U.S. Army and to Vietnam where David learns that intense effort and good intentions can end in failure. Resolving to move on, David heads for a career in science always remembering the life that had built him in Murphy Station.
Once a Warrior King vividly portrays the experience of David Donovan, an infantry officer engaged in the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. It is the story
that extends beyond Donovan’s immediate command and encompasses the people of the rural village he was sent to advise and defend. It is a portrait of a compassionate but challenged soldier. It is the story of the precarious mental and physical balance of those who must carry on through the horrors of war. It is a story relevant to today. Readers who want to understand the challenges and difficulties of unconventional warfare, of war in the village, should read this book.
In April of 1969, Donovan arrived in the Mekong Delta as a raw and idealistic first lieutenant fresh from the Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He joined an isolated five-man American team operating alone in the remote Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta. They had been sent there to advise village leaders and to operate with the local militia in winning the counterinsurgency war, which is war in the village.
In Once a Warrior King, Donovan leads patrols, combat missions, and night ambushes. He recreates the high-pitched emotions of surprise attacks and man-to-man warfare in the swamps and jungles of the Delta. But Donovan also became involved with the lives of the civilians of his village. He was caught up in the Vietnamese culture, its local and national politics, in friendships and families torn apart by the tragic war.
On his return to the Unites States, Donovan found that Vietnam had become a part of him, separating him from his wife and children, his family and friends, Donovan’s chilling account of coming home, of his enormous internal battle, is as dramatic as his tales of combat in the Delta.