A Paradoxical Colonel: He Doesn’t Know What He is Talking About, Because He Knows What He is Talking About.

‘Woke … a political term of African-American origin refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice’ (Wikipedia 2010).

‘Woke’ can be about matters other than social justice. This brief essay is a appraisal of David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla, Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One [TAG].[1] The U.S. has been in continual warfare since 9/11 in the Middle East and beyond largely fighting anti-American insurgencies. American security elites are woke to the need to win these conflicts. Unsurprisingly, glitterati status is attached both to those good at fighting the wars, and to those good at telling the fighters how to fight. General David Petraeus exemplifies the first category; Lt. Colonel David Kilcullen the second. Contributing to the Colonel’s celebrity status is the fact that he is a prolific author. TAG is perhaps Kilcullen’s finest book. It offers understanding of the wars the Americans are fighting and more importantly, from the perspective of security elites, it tells them how to win them.

However, the book reveals a curious paradox about the Colonel. He is a person who does not know what he is talking about, because he knows what he is talking about; and because of this paradox, TAG turns out to be more than military shop-talk about killing bad guys. Rather, the Colonel’s paradox raises questions about the very nature of being in the current conjuncture. Explication of how this is so is the topic of this article. What follows is a biographic introduction to Kilcullen; some kvetching about his book’s organization and substance; analysis of what the Colonel knows well; revelation about what he has no clue; and finally explanation of why the colonel and his book turn out to be of importance.


David Kilcullen is an Australian, who earlier in his career participated in certain of Australia’s ‘peace keeping’ operations, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel; while becoming a ‘small wars’ guru at a time when geopolitical heavy weights, especially Mary Kaldor (1998), announced that international wars were deja passé, and that new wars were ‘small wars’, hybrid affairs predominantly involving guerilla insurgencies. In 2003 the George W. Bush regime had just renewed the Iraq War that his daddy, George H. W. Bush, had started. It was a big, small war. Things weren’t going well. Washington woke to the realization it needed a small war guru big time. Kilcullen filled the bill. Paul Wolfowitz, then the Deputy Defense Secretary, hired him in 2004. The rest was history: In 2005-2006 the Colonel was Chief Strategist, Office of Coordination for Counter-Terrorism; in 2007-2008 he was Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq as well as Advisor for Counterinsurgency to Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice; and in 2010 he founded and became Chair of Caerus Associates, which sold war-making expertise to the U.S. government, and whoever else would buy. Washington practices a form of rentier capitalism because corporations and individuals rent their services to governmental agencies, particularly in the executive branch, and most especially the Defense Department, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Because the Colonel has sold his expertise to different executive branches he is part and parcel of this rentier capitalism.

One further bit of information is pertinent to understanding where the Colonel gets his glitter. The man’s a combat vet; but he also claims to be an ethnologist, and ethnologists are useful idiots at dinner-parties. They titillate guests with exotic knowledge; about native ontologies and, in Kilcullun’s case, about how to beat the natives at their guerilla games. He ends TAG with hints about how to do ‘conflict ethnography’. So the Colonel is a warrior-ethnographer. How cool is that? I can see the Marvel Comic movie now.


Consider TAG’s organization. It has a Preface, a Prologue, five substantive chapters, and a conclusion. The Preface is largely an autobiography of le Colonel’s entire career, saying ‘I worked here, I worked there, see how high I got’. The Prologue adds yet more autobiography focusing on the warrior-ethnographer conducting fieldwork in Indonesia; trying to show readers how deft he is at prying information out of young, [possibly] insurgent informants.

The five substantive chapters get down to work. Chapter 1 provides a ‘conceptual framework’ for the ‘current pattern of conflict’ (xviii) in the contemporary world. This ‘framework’ (35-39) is based upon a medical metaphor that explicates contemporary wars as the result of the natives becoming infected with an ‘accidental guerilla syndrome’ (AGS). The syndrome progresses through four stages. The first is ‘infection’, and is the establishment of a safe haven amongst a native population by a transnational terrorist group (like Al Qa’ida or Da’esh). This leads to ‘contagion’ which involves the diffusion of the transnational terrorist’s ideology and violence throughout the native population. Contagion results in ‘intervention’ by ‘outside’ forces (the U.S. military) to combat the transnational terrorists and, in so doing, disrupt the region. Intervention produces ‘rejection’ whereby the natives ally with the terrorist group to reject the interventionists, sparking a full-scale insurgency. The AGS is a description of what happens. It is not an explanation. Nor it is clear that it describes what happens in all insurgency cases. Further, there is nothing ‘accidental’ about the guerrillas U.S. forces face, more of this later.

Chapter 2 starts with a bang-bang combat vignette during the Afghanistan War, presumably to whip up readers’ interest. Chapter 3 begins with another bang-bang incident, this time starring the warrior-ethnographer himself in Iraq, ‘When the bomb exploded, I was in the helicopters forward left passenger seat, behind the door gunner’ (115). Chapter 4 continues this theme and again stars the warrior anthropologist, ‘In the dim red glow of the crowded C130 transport aircraft, my soldiers’ faces were guarded and withdrawn’ (186). Most of the text in these three chapters offers evidence supportive of the Colonel’s AGS view. Chapter 2 discusses the war in Afghanistan. Chapter 3 argues about Bush II’s Iraq War, especially the Surge (2007); which the Colonel helped plan, and which he feels was a great success. Others (Reyna 2016) dispute Kilcullen’s interpretation of the Surge. Chapter 4 considers other small wars in East Timor, Thailand, Pakistan, and warns security elites that the ‘subversion and radicalization’ that produces ‘accidental guerillas’ and war in these far-away places could happen back home (262). Based upon the findings of the previous four chapter, the Colonel offers in Chapter 5 his recommendations of ‘best practices’ for winning the wars infected with AGS. Ten ‘best practices’ are recommended (265-269). Counterterrorism tactics are discouraged, along with a call for ‘National Discussion’ and a conference. In Chapter 6, the Colonel calls for ‘New Paradigms’, offers ‘Five Practical Steps’, and concludes by recommending it is important to find ‘new breakthough ideas’ (301) –all pretty redundant. There was no need for the chapter.

It is important to know whose side the Colonel is on. TAG presents guerillas as terrorists who perform ‘gruesome atrocities’ (xxi). The U.S. is part of ‘the civilized world’s confrontation’ (12) to them. This is crude: America, civilized! Opponents, savages! Unsurprisingly, the Colonel butters up U.S. security elites –General Petraeus has ‘extraordinary leadership’ (185). General H.R. Mc Master is ‘brilliant and iconoclastic’ (130). General Karl Eikenberry is an ‘insightful commander (6). Special shout-outs are given in the Acknowledgements to Condoleezza Rice and Jim Mattis. Shout outs are prudent because such elites purchase the Colonel’s services.

What are the services? They are to perform missions, usually with other U.S. military personnel to study different military situations. Mission reports are actually the warrior-ethnographers’ fieldwork. Such fieldwork is not participant-observation. It is full-fledged participation in American military operations; with not so many of the guerrillas around, because they are hiding, and those few that are captured are unlikely to volunteer much, even under torture. So the Colonel’s ethnographic corpus consists largely of observation of American armed service personnel at work. If you rent your services to the government, you write reports telling them what they want to hear.[2] The Colonel wrote a lot of reports and, frankly TAG is boring, consisting considerably of repurposed, rewritten old reports full of military jargon and acronyms. Consider next what these old reports reveal about what he knew a lot.


Actually, the U.S. government has been fighting insurgencies since its very beginning. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries it fought Native American rebellions; in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it warred against the Moros in the Philippines. A large number of insurrections arose against European colonial powers following World War II, with America often siding with the colonialists, everywhere from Indo-China to South Africa. Starting the 1960s, Washington found itself embroiled in big-time insurgencies in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Then U.S. security elites woke yet anew to the task of winning insurgencies.

Specifically, they woke in debate during the Vietnam conflict squabbling over which of two doctrines was better for defeating insurgencies; one called counter-terrorism (CT), the other counter-insurgency (COIN). [3] The debate came to something of a head in 2009 as the Obama administration was preparing to manage the conflicts it had inherited from Bush II. In general, Vice-President Biden was for counter-terrorism; while Defense Secretary Robert Gates, U.S. Central Command Commander General Petraeus, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were for counterinsurgency. Of course, the Colonel had lived insurgencies, and thought a lot about insurgencies in everything he wrote. Counter-terrorism, he believed was more ‘kinetic’ –military jargon for violent. It ‘…focuses on the enemy; the individual terrorist and the network of terrorist operatives. It seeks to destroy this network, proceeding from the assumption that removing the network removes the problem’ (xv). Kilcullen was against counter-terrorism. He favored count-insurgency, noting it ‘…focuses on the population, seeking to protect it from harm…. Its basic assumption is that insurgency is a mass social phenomenon, that the enemy rides and manipulates a social wave consisting of genuine popular grievances, and that dealing with this broader social and political dynamic, while gaining time for targeted reforms to work by applying a series of tailored, full-spectrum security measures, is the most promising path to ultimately resolve the problem’ (xv). TAG was written to make this case by providing examples of how insurgencies were effectively combatted by implementing counter-insurgency doctrines. So the warrior-ethnographer knows insurgencies and knows that counter-insurgency strategy could be useful in opposing them. [4]

Interestingly this insurgency doctrine resembles that of Mao Tse-tung. Mao, while leading the communist struggle to liberate China from the invading Japanese, wrote ‘On Guerrilla War’ (1937); which insisted that, ‘A central feature of guerrilla operations is their dependence upon the people themselves’. This meant that ‘a unity of spirit …should exist between troops and local inhabitants; one where the local inhabits were like ‘the water’ and the guerrillas ‘the fish who inhabit it’. For Kilcullen, counter-insurgency relies upon ‘solid population security’ (60), involving ‘community engagement’, especially ‘with local community elders’ (69). It is ‘securing the people, separating them from the enemy’ (93). This part of the Colonel’s counter-insurgency doctrine is Maoism. He wants U.S. soldiers to be fish swimming in the water in the water of the native population. There are indications in TAG that Kilcullen had read his Mao (52, 86), suggesting he knew his counter-insurgency views were a reactionary Maoism; something he did not tell the security elites paying for his services. Let’s move on to what the Colonel didn’t know what he was talking about.

There is a sly notion in economics called opportunity cost, which is realization that if you use economic resources to achieve a particular out-come, then those resources are unavailable to attain other out-comes. A cognitive variant of this concept is recognition that use of intellectual resources to think about something, restricts thinking about something else. Otherwise put: thinking about best practices to perform bladder operations, inhibits thinking about best practices to find algebraic invariants that classify topological spaces up to homeomorphism. The Colonel has observed insurgency. He has been fixated upon thinking how to win them, because that was what the security elites to whom he was selling his services wanted him to do. The opportunity cost here is that because he is engrossed in talking insurgency, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.


‘I cut their throats like lambs. I cut out their precious lives (as one cuts) a string. Like the many waters of a storm, I made (the contents of) their gullets and entrails run down upon the whole earth. … (Their) testicles I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers’ (Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib [704-681 BC] reflecting on his imperial exploits. In Belibtreu 1991: 11).

The severed hand on the metal door, the swamp of blood and mud across the road, the human brains inside a garage, the incinerated, skeletal remains of an Iraqi mother and her three small children in their still-smoldering car. … Two missiles from an American jet killed them all—by my estimate, more than 20 Iraqi civilians, torn to pieces … (Civilian deaths following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 [Fisk 2003]).

Grim tidings in everyday life in war zones -we will get to them momentarily; but first let’s explore what the Colonel isn’t woke about even though he directly sees it. At one point in TAG Kilcullen explains the guerrillas fight ‘us’ because ‘we are in his space’ (xiv). ‘Us’ is U.S. armed forces. Who are they? En passant, based upon observations recorded in his field notes, he answers this question, ‘We are aliens –imperial stormtroopers, with our Darth Vader sunglasses and grotesque and cowardly body armor’ (136). Killcullen, warrior-ethnographer has observed it, but hasn’t woke to his observations. The guerrillas are no accident. They are fighting ‘imperial stormtroopers’, who have invaded their ‘space’.

Let’s be clear, the U.S. is an empire. This is acknowledged on the left (Reyna 2016 and David Harvey 2003); center (Arthur Schlesinger 1986 and John Gaddis 1997); and right Niall Ferguson (2004). The current American empire was inaugurated in 1950 when the U.S. National Security Council issued a policy document, NSC 68, which sought to establish American post-war, foreign policy ‘objectives’ (NSC 1950: 3). NSC 68 was written in the context of competition with the USSR, whose ‘fundamental design’ was believed to be ‘world domination’ (Ibid.: 17). Given this rivalry, NSC 68 set America’s ‘fundamental purpose’ to be acquiring ‘world leadership’ (Ibid.: 9), which involved bringing ‘about order and justice’ (ibid.: 9) by ‘developing moral and material strength’ (Ibid.: 10), for which a ‘strong military posture’ was ‘essential’(Ibid.: 21). ‘World leadership’ is another term for imperial domination, and an imperial structure was created to acquire such domination; first in competition the empire of the Soviet Union, and since the end of the Cold War with the empires of Russia and China. There are debates over how to conceptualize the particularities of current empires. I have called the U.S. empire (2016) an autopoetic, complex system -informal, three tiered, on occasion paying strategic rent to its clients, relying heavily on military force to create or maintain domination.

Kilcullen can’t see the forest for the trees. He sees the everyday life of insurgencies, but never once does he indicate in TAG he knows that the insurgencies are one of the things that empires do. The opportunity cost for the Colonel of knowing all about fighting insurgencies, is not knowing that these insurgencies are part-and-parcel of empires. This brings us back to Sennacherib. Empires –everywhere, from ancient to contemporary times- spawn violence.

Why? Imperial centers (Nineveh in Sennacherib’s times, and in Washington now) impose domination on different areas, creating enemies who object to domination and resist, very often violently, normally with insurgencies, that can mutate into complex wars. Consequently, empires are woke to warring –ripping out throats, genitalia, entrails. Is this the case for the American Empire? Data about U.S. warring elicits debate. Nevertheless, there is a consistency to it. Istvan Kende (1971), who analyzed existing data from 1945 through the late 1960s, reported the US warred more frequently than any other country in the world. Forty years latter Richard Lebow corroborated Kende, finding that the US was the ‘world’s most aggressive state’ measured in terms of war initiation (2011). Kevin Drum reports the US launched a significant overseas assault every 40 months over the last fifty years (2013). Drum’s is a conservative estimate, because it excludes covert operations. John Tures (2003) used a ‘United States Military Operations’ (USMO) data set to estimate post-1945 frequency of U.S. military activities, and found that the U.S. has engaged in 263 interstate military operations between 1945 and 2002, on the order of 4.6 operations per year. However, 176 of these operations occurred in the 11 years between 1991 and 2002, i.e., about 16 operations per year. Just as Sennacherib’s imperial storm troopers rip people to pieces, so some twenty-seven centuries later do the American storm troopers, decked out in their dark glasses and body armor blast them to smithereens. What are the more general implications of the Colonel’s ignorance?


Forget the Colonel, what he knows hides the reality of what he doesn’t know. This reality is something old and something new. The old is that the world remains a place of competing empires. These empires, should they increase their warring, and that’s what empires do, have the ability to eliminate human, and a lot of other, being. The new is that these empires are competing in a time of climate change. Climate change, should the warming continue, and that is what is happening, has the ability to eliminate human, and a lot of other, being. Get woke. Increasing warring and warming will terminate the experiment that is life on earth. ‘To be or not to be’, is literally the question posed by this reality.

Stephen Reyna is co-editor of ANTHROPOLOGICAL THEORY and anAssociate at the Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology. He is the author of Deadly Contradictions: The New American Empire and Global Warring (Oxford).


Belibtreu, Erika. 1991. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death.” Biblical Archaeology Society.  CP6.0AssyrianTorture.pdf. Retrieved 28 April 2014.

Drum, Kevin. 2013 “How the Rest of the World Views the American Military.” Mother Jones. Retrieved 4 May 2014.

Ferguson, Niall. 2004. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. New York: Penguin Books.

Fisk, Robert. 2003. “It Was An Outrage, an Obscenity.” Information Clearing House.

Gaddis, John. 1997. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Galula, David. 1964. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Wesport, CT: Praeger International Security.

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kaldor, Mary. 1998. New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era. Cambridge: Polity.

Kende, Istvan. 1971. “Twenty-Five Years of Local Wars.” Journal of Peace Research 8: 5–22.

Lebow, Richard. 2011. “Aggressive Democracies.” St Antony’s International Review 6 (2): 120–133.

Mao Tse Tung. 1937. “On Guerrilla War.” Marxist Internet Archive. . Retrieved 4 May 2014.

NSC 68. 1950. “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” President’s Secretary’s File, Truman Papers.

Reyna, Stephen. 2016. Deadly Contradictions: The New American Empire and Global Warring. Oxford: Berghahn.

Schlesinger, Arthur; 1986. The Cycles of American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Tures, John. 2003. “United States Military Operations in the New World Order: An Examination of the Evidence.American Diplomacy.  4 May 2014.


1. Allow transparency about the author. He, as have many other anthropologists, has spent time in war zones, unarmed as opposed to Kilcullen who went around armed with a bunch of armed and armored colleagues. He wrote Deadly Contradictions (2016) which offers a radically different understanding of post-1945 U.S. warfare.

2. How do I know about writing reports to government agencies? I consulted largely with the USAID in the 1970s and 1980s and wrote report after report. The military is even more report-o-philiac. You are permitted alternative views to current policies in your reports but, in the end, your narrative must travel in a hermeneutic circle that tells them what they want to hear.

3. CT strategies are as old as armed opposition to the state, and have varied according to the means of terminating opposition. The Romans had a soft spot for crucifixion. Obama and Trump favor drones. The father of COIN doctrine was a French officer David Galula (1964), whose views were influence by his fighting in the Algerian struggle for independence.

4. The U.S. has implemented both counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency doctrines in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They have lost all three conflicts, suggesting that neither doctrine is especially effective. Kilcullen is appears aware of this stating of both CT and COIN, ‘neither approach quite works’ (xv).