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David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context

Authored by Ms. Ann Marlowe. | August 2010

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This monograph attempts to place David Galula's intellectual achievement in relation to both his life experiences and his time. It is not an assessment of the worth of his ideas, though it may be useful for those who wish to make such an evaluation.

The beginning of this monograph is comprised of 3 sections that discuss the history of Galula's two books, Counterinsurgency Warfare and Pacification in Algeria. The first section outlines the less–than–straightforward publication history of the books and their initial reception. The second section looks at the context in which they appeared, the early 1960s flourishing of writing on counterinsurgency. In the third section, Generals Charles Krulak (Marine Combined Action Platoons [CAP]) and Edward Lansdale are presented as the ancestors of today's population-centric COIN.

The remainder of the monograph has 6 sections that outline in chronological order what is known about Galula's life. This account is based mainly on the author's interviews, along with some archival research and a recently published French master's thesis. The first section covers Galula's birth to his service in World War II. The second section follows him through his “journey to the East,” his years in revolutionary China where he forged his thoughts on COIN. The third section, “Countering Mao,” discusses how Galula and his contemporary counterinsurgency theorists consciously aimed at defeating Mao's doctrine of revolutionary war. In the fourth section, Galula's time in Greece and Hong Kong is discussed. The fifth section concerns the rise of guerre revolutionnaire theory among senior officers in the French Army and the relationship of Galula's thought to this body of work. The sixth section follows Galula during his 2-year command in Algeria, and the last section discusses his final years, including his work in the United States, his publication of a novel, and his untimely death.


It is a safe bet that if the United States had not found itself--or to be more accurate, identified itself--as fighting an insurgency in Iraq sometime in 2003, “David Galula” would still be a nearly forgotten name. In 2003, his two books on counterinsurgency had been out of print for forty years. One, Pacification in Algeria, had never really been published at all; written as a study for RAND, it was classified until 2005.

One of the characteristics which makes Galula's work so robust--its infusion with both the French and Anglo-American counterinsurgency traditions--also left him an intellectual orphan. In his lifetime, Galula had the bad luck to be an expert who wrote in English about a conflict mainly of interest to the French. Still worse, the Algerian war was tainted for Americans by the shadows of colonialism and torture. Though Galula was in the United States during the early years of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, he seems to have had only a fleeting influence on those who formed our strategy.

In France, counterinsurgency theory had enjoyed a great flourishing in the 1950s and 1960s, as the French Army fought successively in Indochina, Suez, and Algeria. But the stars of this movement, a group of colonels including Roger Trinquier and Charles Lacheroy, were already famous before Galula began to write. In the context of the French tradition of guerre revolutionnaire, there was little novelty in Galula's approach.

By 2006, when FM 3-24 brought Anglophone writers back into the game, the French had less reason to be absorbed in counterinsurgency studies. So even after Galula's works were republished in English-- and translated for the first time into French, nearly 40 years after his death--he remains almost unknown to the nation whose uniform he wore for most of his adult life.

Before looking at the story behind Galula's books, it is worth noting that this monograph does not aim to either validate his theories or to critique them. There is ammunition here both for readers inclined to blame Galula for what some call a “strategy of tactics” in our current wars, and for readers who think we would have won those wars conclusively had we only followed him more closely. It is possible that both opinions are partially true.

This monograph makes it clear that Galula had broad experience as an observer of insurgency, but scant experience of command, and no command at an operational level. It also makes it clear that the American military has alternately embraced and shunned counterinsurgency doctrines, for reasons that in hindsight can look very much like chance.


It is heartening that Galula's work was rediscovered, because he was a theoretical genius and such a good writer that Pacification can be enjoyed even as a military yarn. But behind this story, another, more depressing one emerges. From the mid-1950s to the end of the Vietnam War, theories similar to Galula's were practiced and in some cases were successful. Other brilliant men were first celebrated and then forgotten. But most of them are still obscure.

Compared with many of his contemporaries, Galula has had a great deal of posthumous luck. But this, ironically, is all too appropriate in the field of counterinsurgency. For as the United States learns the lessons of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the role played by personality looms increasingly large. Success depends heavily on the personality of leaders--both of the government that the counterinsurgents are trying to support, and of the counterinsurgents themselves.

While some of Galula's success is doubtless due to his good ideas, some is probably due to his personality. As he notes, the two commanders who followed him, as well as his immediate predecessor, were shot dead by rebels. (Pacification, pp. 163, 208) Galula is universally recalled as charming, pleasant to be around, brilliant, and energetic. These traits help a good deal with military leadership, both directly and indirectly. He was also physically daring and intellectually curious.

Sometimes tiny measures can make the difference between success and failure, and they may have more to do with a commander's tastes and talents than doctrine. For example, Ruth Galula recalls that her husband would go horseback riding through his area of operations every morning. Though he does not discuss this in Pacification, Galula notes that riding through the mountainous Aissa Mimoun allowed one to reach areas inaccessible to the automobile.

Indeed, Galula says, back in the day when district administrators rode horses, showing the face of the government and learning firsthand about the condition of the population, they were much more effective than after the advent of the automobile (Pacification, p. 37) This brings to mind the contemporary insight that counterinsurgents get much better results getting out of their Humvees and interacting on foot with the local population.

Andrew Birtle has argued that part of the reason for the eclipse of COIN theory in the post-Vietnam years was that “the emerging doctrine was both overblown and oversold.” (Birtle, 2007, p. 488) The idealistic view that societies could be reformed in a Western model and salvaged from Communist subversion led to disappointment.

This disillusionment not only produced a backlash that helped undermine the war effort in Vietnam, but hastened the speed with which government institutions turned their backs on COIN in the early 1970s. (Birtle, 2007, p. 488)

Galula had the odd historical luck not to have been a part of the COIN fever of his day, but of ours. And his faintly cynical, always realistic works, especially Pacification in Algeria, may, ironically, be more congenial to the jaundiced perspective of post-Iraq America than they were to the enthusiasts of Camelot.