Confronting the Chaos: A Rogue Military Historian Returns to Afghanistan

By Snyder, James Thomas | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Confronting the Chaos: A Rogue Military Historian Returns to Afghanistan


Snyder, James Thomas, Joint Force Quarterly


By Sean M. Maloney

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009

384 pp. $34.95

ISBN: 978-159114-508-0

Sean M. Maloney is an established military historian teaching at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. The second of a planned three-book series about the war in Afghanistan, Confronting the Chaos focuses on two important but neglected aspects of the military effort in that country: the multinational contribution and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). He bases the book on a series of visits in 2004-2006 to the German PRTs at Kunduz and Feyzabad, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) nascent headquarters in Kabul, and Canada's efforts in the capital and its PRT in Kandahar.

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Maloney's emphasis is important because NATO has adopted PRTs in Afghanistan as a linchpin of security and reconstruction at the local level. Today, their number stands at 26, and they have assumed new tasks, including counterinsurgency, governance, counternarcotics, and police training. So a full-bore treatment is welcome and overdue.

This book, however, is not that treatment. Maloney makes no attempt to draw larger conclusions about PRT practice or the multinational commitment. However, he is frank about his lack of ambition: "Each trip, each meeting, is a piece of the puzzle necessary to understand the counterinsurgency effort, and the intent is for the reader to put those pieces together to discern the picture that emerges." That is exactly wrong. It is the historian's job to piece the puzzle together and paint the picture through observation, inquiry, and research. Instead, he abandons the reader to his myopic, itinerant impressions. Maloney's experiences are pinpointed to specific places in time, now 5 years out of date, and the book is compromised by serious and systematic errors.

When not an acronymbarbed thicket, Maloney's prose alternates between the glib and the profane. While he is clearly interested in his subjects, his curiosity does not extend to any political, historical, or operational perspective. For example, he refers to the counterinsurgency effort without defining the term or linking it to the doctrinal innovations undertaken by the U.S. military in Iraq. He refers to the Taliban and other opposing forces as "the enemy" without exploring their strategies, political goals, or tactics in any detail. These are considerable oversights given his commitment to studying the war.

Perhaps worse is Maloney's failure to answer commonsense questions that would logically follow his observations. In many cases, he has had ample time to research incidents that occurred while he was in-country but for which "details were sketchy" at the time. On one occasion, for example, he discursively explores all the nations that could have flown two helicopters (a CH-47 or a CH-53) potentially identified in a friendly fire incident involving Canadian soldiers, only to reveal later that the helicopter was a U.S. Special Forces MH-6 and that the Canadians had stumbled into their training area. After huffing about the aggressive Americans, Maloney does not ask the obvious questions: How did the Canadians wander into the firing range? Why did the Canadians not have Identification Friend or Foe equipment? How did the Canadians mistake the tiny MH-6 for a helicopter as large as a CH-47? Those questions articulate much more compelling, relevant concerns in a complex, multinational tactical environment than pinning some nation with blame for a blue-onblue incident that resulted in no casualties.

Maloney is a lint brush for detail. Much of his reporting that is not irrelevant or disjointed seems accurate based on this reviewer's experience in the country during the same timeframe and may be useful to those searching for insight into "the platoon leader's war. …

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