The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West by David Kilcullen; Oxford University Press; 336 pp., $27.95


When the West defeated the Soviet Union, CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Jr., observed that we had “slain a large dragon” only to face a “bewildering variety of poisonous snakes.” Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and a proliferation of slithery non-state actors have dominated our attention over the last 25 years, alongside dragon states such as North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia. 

A former officer in the Australian Army, David Kilcullen argues in The Dragons and the Snakes that the West’s mixed success against non-state adversaries to date compels a more hands-off approach going forward, even if such a strategy contravenes conventional military tactics. Conversely, Kilcullen offers valuable insights on the depth of the threats state actors like China currently pose to the West.

He approvingly cites platitudes from the White House’s National Strategic Strategy of the United States (2002), calling for the United States to use all its tools to fight terrorist groups: military force, eliminating terrorist financing, improving homeland security defense, and law enforcement. In reality, these recommendations have done little to improve America’s strategic position.

Kilcullen rightly notes that the war on terror has been “a global enterprise of unceasing duration.” And he offers a fair explanation of why most modern wars devolve into endless struggles. Nothing ends quickly when confronting an adaptive, serpentine enemy such as the U.S. faced in Nek Muhammad Wazir, a Pakistani insurgent chief. Wazir earned favorable status after successful, yet short-lived, peace negotiations in 2004. But when an American drone killed him in June of that same year, the more experienced—and far more noxious—Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani mercenary, rose to cause even more trouble than the insidious Wazir. Kill one snake, and a worse one quickly takes his place.

0820-DRAGONS-3Mehsud immediately united the fractured Pakistani Taliban and later defeated the Pakistani Army in multiple engagements across the country. Though he denied it, there is substantial evidence suggesting Mehsud played a key role in the assassination of Western-friendly Pakistani presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto in 2007. Thankfully, an American drone later killed Mehsud in August 2009, but the cycle of snakes continues.

Kilcullen correctly concludes that targeted U.S. drone strikes over more than a decade effectively turned “a loose collection of local tribal militias with no real goal other than to be left alone [emphasis added] into a unified, transnational terrorist group.” However, the author’s tone leaves the reader to wonder if the U.S. should refrain from retaliating against enemy combatants who kill American troops. 

As a graduate of West Point, I feel duty bound to address what I feel is Kilcullen’s passive attitude toward terrorist groups. First, the unpredictability of war often includes the successful elimination of enemy leaders and their subsequent replacement by more capable commanders. Combat leaders, at least in the U.S., have always focused on knocking out enemy formations by taking out their leaders. Those are fundamental tactics of war.

Second, easing the pressure on enemies will not hasten their defeat. If the U.S. were to heed Kilcullen’s bad advice to adopt a less lethal approach to terrorists, how many American soldiers and marines would die?

Lastly, the commanders I have spoken to upon their return from active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan would prefer to kill as many of their enemies as possible—if only they could target them. In both of those interminable wars, enemy combatants leave almost no tracking evidence, prefer to hide like cowards in off-limits mosques and schools, and employ unarmed civilians as human shields.

Kilcullen also frowns on Israel’s targeted assassination program, as described in Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First. He notes that Israeli intelligence stopped over 80 percent of all terrorist attacks through network disruptions and targeted killings, but he protests that these tactics also raised fears that terrorist groups would successfully adapt to these defeats. My reaction is, “So what?” Kilcullen refuses to acknowledge the simple logic that when you prevent 80 percent of attacks before they turn deadly, you are winning.

Fortunately, Kilcullen’s analysis of the dragons—especially the People’s Republic of China—proves more edifying. The PRC has been quietly expanding its hostile presence in North America, Europe, Australia, the South China Sea, and throughout Africa and the Pacific. In March 2016, Beijing’s Anbang Insurance Group tried to purchase the Hotel Del Coronado in southern California for a reported $1 billion—a property conveniently located near two carrier battle groups, the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, and the Special Warfare Command, home to the Navy SEALs. Anbang had never had an interest in the hospitality industry before attempting the purchase. The U.S. hedge fund Blackstone Group was only too happy to sell what would have been a perfect listening post for Chinese military intelligence, but the sale was blocked by regulators.

Chinese “investors” were successful, however, in buying Rosslea Hall Hotel in Scotland, which overlooks a British naval base housing the UK’s Vanguard-class missile submarines, Britain’s only nuclear deterrent. Rosslea guests can unwind while monitoring the departure times, direction of travel, and speed of British submarines.

Continuing the trend, Chinese company Shandong Landbridge Group now has a strong foothold in Darwin, Australia, which houses Australia’s First Aviation Regiment. Americans might recall that it also hosts U.S. B-52 and B-1 bomber training exercises.

Kilcullen labels these Chinese moves as “horizontal escalation,” in that they aim to expand the geography, categories, and scope of action against Western adversaries. By contrast, the Russian dragon employs “vertical escalation,” characterized by increased intensity of action within a given location, competition, or environmental domain. Nothing illustrates vertical escalation better than Russia’s invasion of Georgia or its annexation of Crimea.

0820-DRAGONS-2Though I don’t agree with all Kilcullen’s military policy conclusions, particularly regarding a less active role in combatting terrorism, his dissection of our modern-day dragons helps us understand today’s multipolar geopolitical landscape.

That being said, Kilcullen ends his book with a particularly inapt and defeatist quotation. British historian, military strategist, and tank warfare pioneer J. F. C. Fuller’s words read, in part, “A military victory is not in itself equivalent to success in war.” I feel that our overworked Western warriors, demoralized from this century’s endless wars, do not need to hear that their hard-won military victories have no causative relationship with winning the war.

Finally, I recommend that Australian Army training include Douglas MacArthur’s unwitting contribution to the U.S. Military Academy’s plebe knowledge canon. As he recalled the Allies’ merciless triumph in World War II, MacArthur taught generations of cadets, “From the Far East I send you one single thought, one sole idea, written in red on every beachhead from Australia to Tokyo: There is no substitute for victory.”