Review: The Dragons and the Snakes – How The Rest Learned to Fight The West – by David Kilcullen

This is one of the very best books I have ever read. It is up to date material and full of cutting edge military theory and ideas and I believe is critical essential reading for any politician or military personnel, especially those who conduct their employment in the NATO led West. I am no stranger to Australian soldier-scholar David Kilcullen’s work. This is the fourth book of his that I have read. This work surpasses the previous books and it is genuinely a masterpiece. What are the dragons and snakes? The dragons are the main, most powerful nation-state enemies. Russia and China are the main dragons and additionally we have Iran and North Korea who pose significant military threat and who are ideologically opposed to the West. The snakes are state and non-state actors. Less powerful nation states such as Iraq or Afghanistan and terrorist organisations and quasi nation jihadist states and their peripherals such as ISIS. Al Qaeda is a big snake, as is the Taliban as is Hezbollah and it is these snakes that have predominated active warfare measures from the USA and her allies in the post Cold War world.

On the whole Kilcullen criticises Western military action in the recent past citing little evidence of genuine success. Traditional warfare and indeed highly technological modern military fighting that reached its zenith in the first Iraqi conflict of 1991 has been made redundant by adaptive enemies who have learnt how to successfully withstand dominance by coalition forces and have adapted techniques and tactics that have in effect neutralised our methods. While the world witnesses this stalemate between snakes and our armies the dragons have been sat watching, taking notes and suitably adapting their own military philosophies to take advantage of the new global environment. The way in which these dragons have re-emerged into active roles demonstrates new confidence and their upward projection into the future looks very daunting a positive to a fading Western democratic dominant imperialism. The main message of this book is that if we do not adjust ourselves and realign our military strategy we will ultimately face defeat and the political and economic collapse of our societies. When analysing the snakes we look in detail at various different organisations. ‘Combat Darwinism’ is an interesting scientific look at the decapitation of the snake that is Al Qaeda. Our strategic focus was to target leadership of this jihadist monster and every time a key leader was successfully culled a new hydra head on the snake was born and the enemy’s success in adaptation, even though its movement may have come close to complete annihilation, meant that natural selection allowed the foe to fight again with even more strength and resurge. Often our own militaries pulled back from the precipice due to economic and political factors, allowing the necessary reformation space for the enemy. This has been a key part of analysis for the War on Terror.

After 9/11 We succeeded in killing the likes of Osama Bin Laden and most of the rest of the leadership but ‘The Base’ movement just became a self-perpetuating force unto itself without traditional vanguard leadership and it morphed into other jihadist factions such as AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) and ISIS, producing further problems. The very fact that today, The Taliban are back in government in Afghanistan demonstrates Combat Darwinism in effect and the future of global jihad seems to be a lasting phenomenon that will continue to plague the Western World for the foreseeable future. I found the case study of Hezbollah as it fights against Israel and later in Syria to have been very illuminating. Their adaptation and growth have demonstrated how a tactically weaker military force can survive, grow more powerful and be effective in the face of complicated battle odds.

Looking at the snakes we see a new Russia under the autocratic reins of Vladimir Putin who is becoming ever more military active as his increasing hostility and delusion grows especially with the latest invasion of Ukraine. Liminal warfare tactics used by Russia introduce new elements to modern warfare against the West. Operating just below the detectable surface a combination of economic warfare, information warfare and cyberwarfare does just enough damage to Russian enemies without provoking military response. From cyberwarfare attacks in Estonia through to democratic election social media disinformation warfare during Trump election in USA or Brexit in the UK, Russia is undermining the West. Often it is different sides’ different perceptions of what constitutes hostile actions or warfare that our polarised views can fail to distinguish. In the last days of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev received promises that NATO would not expand any further to the East yet Western leaders lied in these reassurances. Putin and the Russian military rightfully are concerned by any move that threatens their territorial integrity. Post communist oligarch capitalism and an easing of traditional espionage has allowed a traditionally focussed long term enemy to rebuild and rekindle its old hostilities to the West.

The study of China illustrates again how economic and computer technologies can be used liminally to fight out societies. The Chinese military has slowly been rebuilding and modernising. Its Navy has emerged from nowhere and it has been encroaching on island chains in the South China Sea, building barriers that can be used as both defensive and offensive bases against any future major conflict. I was particularly pleased to see Kilcullen reveal the importance of the military theory work of PLA strategists, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. I have only recently read the ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ book that since its publication at the turn of the millennium, has been a core component of the People’s Liberation Army’s development. Although he sees some of the authors’ ideas as pure paranoia and delusion this also demonstrates how perception on different sides can be very different. China has undoubtedly focussed very heavily on economic warfare and the fact the renminbi now underwrites the whole US economy and the globalisation of Chinese capital investment in key infrastructure such as ports or via tech firms such as Huawei is forecast by Qiao and Wang. The question is asked in that with China being so overexposed economically could mean that direct traditional military conflict could be less likely. The analyses of our enemies is concise and precise and unsettling.

What are Kilcullen’s answers to the posed dilemma? He admits that there are no obvious solutions and although it is clear that change has to occur and is likely to come on both sides, The West and the Dragons and Snakes, it is felt that a Byzantine approach to preservation of Empire is the best path forward. Acceptance of our fading power and influence yet also a pragmatic and sustaining approach to preserving and development our military, political and economic futures.

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