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Counter-insurgency Is as Old as the Hills: A Review of The Ugly American

After President John F. Kennedy read the novel The Ugly American, inspiration struck, and he decided to have every senior State Department official, and every single American military officer, read the book.

Unfortunately, he never gave the order, because he didn't believe the officials and officers would actually read the book. (This story is one of legend, otherwise we would link to it.) Fortunately, The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, hasn't gone away.

It is as relevant today as it was when it was first printed, before the Vietnam war (which it predicted). The Ugly American captures the essence of unconventional warfare in fiction. Or, in On Violence terms, it describes political war; it should still be read by all American military officers.

The authors originally set out to write a series of non-fiction accounts of State Department officials in southeast Asia based off their personal experience in the region. As they developed their stories, they realized that only fiction could capture the zany reality they saw. So they created a southeast Asian nation, Sarkhan, and the diplomats, politicians, and military officers stationed there. The Ugly American is a series of interconnected short stories about Americans trying to influence Sarkhan while both communists and capitalists try to consolidate power.

This struggle is not a war between nation states, but the struggle of competing ideas. The book's struggle of ideas--capitalism versus communism-- mirrors today's battle between extreme Islam and Western democracy. Unlike state war, the political war in The Ugly American follows different rules.

As a Philippino diplomat describes it on page 109, “I know that you’re a diplomat and that warfare is not supposed to be your game; but you’ll discover soon enough out here that statesmanship, diplomacy, economics, and warfare just can’t be separated from one another.” The intersection of diplomacy, economics and warfare might as well be ripped from General Petraeus’ Field Manual on counter-insurgency.

And while the book as a whole capture the interconnectedness of warfare, the individual stories themselves shine. They tell the stories of ambassadors--good and bad, American, Russian and Asian-- military leaders, politicians, and most importantly “ugly Americans.” The best part of the novel is that the "ugly American" of the title is the most influential in Sarkhan.

His name is Homer Atkins. He provides only simple engineering insight, but does so in a way that the native Sarkhanese adopt the ideas wholeheartedly. Homer Atkins doesn’t care about living lavishly, he learns the local language, and he genuinely cares about the people of Sarkhan, not just the threats against America.

In another story, we hear about an Air Force Colonel named Hillendale, probably an intelligence officer, who manages to influence massive numbers of Sarkhanese without really trying. He sings songs, reads palms, and eats food with them. (He also knows the language, a point that occurs over and over. I wrote about it a few weeks ago and last summer.) Most importantly, he uses hardly any money while he influences people.

The lessons of Homer Atkins and Colonel Hillendale are just two of many. The most important lesson, and why all current and future military officers should read this novel, is because it persuasively describes political war. (Also, while I have been insanely positive in today's post, on Wednesday I will provide some of the downsides of this thoroughly enjoyable novel.)

And if he hasn't read The Ugly American, I would advise President Barack Obama to read it too. Hopefully he finishes the job President Kennedy started, making all military officers and State Department officials read this novel. (Although, I bet 90% of officers wouldn’t even if the president told them to.)

three comments

I need to read this book. It sounds pretty pedantic, but interesting still.

On political war, I know some people disagreed with that phrase, but we’ll have a post explaining the opposite of it.


Imagine if there was a required reading list for deployment similar to taking a college course.


Matty, the better question is why isn’t there are required reading list? The Army requires Soldiers to take PT tests, but not academic or language tests.