View Full Version : Book Review: Chasing Ghosts, Unconventional Warfare in American History

02-20-2007, 07:00 PM
Book Review: Chasing Ghosts, Unconventional Warfare in American History by John J. Tierney Jr.

Mr. Tierney provides an invaluable service reminding Americans of their long history of guerrilla warfare from our own guerrilla bands of the Revolution to our counterinsurgency experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Each experience seems lost, however, on future generations that prefer conventional ideals of war to bring the enemy army to battle in order to destroy it in one final showdown. It has often been said that we are always preparing for the last successful war and ignoring the lessons of the wars we would prefer to forget. Perhaps it is the guilt in some of the drachonian measures we have adopted in past counterinsugencies such as the scorched-earth policies adopted against Confederate and Indian guerrillas. But guilt does not explain the entire picture.

Mr. Tierney brings our attention to how quickly and completely guerrilla wars can degenerate into bloodbaths of revenge such as the long guerrilla war along the Missouri-Kansas border. Mr. Tierney accounts campaigns, long overlooked in military histories, such as the Missouri-Kansas border war that was in chaos nearly a decade before the shots on Fort Sumter. But more than the failures or depravity of guerrilla warfare are overlooked. Also long overdue has been the attention needed for successful counterinsugency methods like those of General George Crook in the Indian wars. There are a great many lessons, good and bad, from which we can learn in our own history.

This book is organized into two major parts. Part 1 reviews guerrilla warfare in North America from the French and Indian wars through the latter 19th century Indian wars. Part 2 reviews the small wars of intervention and expansion of the early 20th century through Vietnam and Iraq. The final pages draw all together into the realization of just how much experience we have had in unconventional warfare and how we might learn from those experiences. Mr. Tierney does well not to draw too many definitive conclusions since not every situation can be met with exactly the same methods. But he does analyze some of the causes for success and failure in order to give a broad understanding of what works and what does not and why.

This is not a work such as Robert Asprey's War in the Shadows (http://www.amazon.com/War-Shadows-Guerrilla-Robert-Asprey/dp/0595225934/sr=8-1/qid=1171997996/ref=sr_1_1/002-0452800-1270449?ie=UTF8&s=books) intended to give a detailed account of guerrilla warfare history. And Mr. Tierney is quick to pay homage to that work in particular. It is intended more as an introduction to a study of the American experience of guerrilla war to give us an appreciation for a topic overlooked far too long and perhaps to stimulate further study in the field. It is not a detailed military history but even the most ardent military history student will find this work an entertaining and informative work. The writing style is easy to read and, for the most part, thoroughly researched. Some advanced students of military history may find some minor nit-picks to attack but the overall quality of the research is still very good and trustworthy.

There does seem to be a problem with the binding of my copy in that a few pages from the Revolutionary war period chapter somehow found their way into the chapter on the Confederate guerrilla war in Virginia. Other than that minor inconvenience (chapter titles are on the tops of the pages so you can easily remedy this problem to read them in the correct order), this is a valuable resource for understanding the nature of America's experience in unconventional war.

09-20-2007, 04:01 PM
The publisher noted my comment about page order which seems to be a binding problem that does not appear to be an issue with other copies. They very graciously offered to replace my copy.

Steve Blair
09-20-2007, 04:13 PM
I actually found Tierney's work to be rather thin. His analysis of the Indian Wars simply parrots more popular accounts of Crook's campaigns without noting that other commanders had used similar methods or acknowledging that Crook failed miserably against the Sioux and Cheyenne in 1876. His insistence on labeling the Civil War as an "insurgency" is also interesting.

Throughout the book he relies on a handful of sources (at times no more than three or four per section), most published before 1970, and ignores more recent scholarship on many of the events he covers - especially the Kansas-Missouri border wars (which have come in for some very insightful recent scholarship and analysis) and the Indian Wars. On the whole it struck me more as what the author constantly claims it is not: a polemic against tactics being used in Iraq when the book was written.

Asprey's book is certainly a better starting point for someone looking to learn about insurgencies.