Book review: 'America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam' by Christopher Lawrence

Reviewed by: Cheng Lai Ki


Christopher Lawrence. America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Oxford, UK. Casemate Publishers, 2015. ISBN: 978-1612002781. Hardcover. £19.99

Compared to other countries around the world, the United States military possesses the largest expenditure rate in the world of around $640,221million, according to a study conducted by the Brookings in 2014.[1] Within the last century, the United States has proven its military capabilities in multiple conflicts. The rise of advanced warfare tactics through technological developments (i.e. Unmanned Combat Vehicles) has allowed distancing from direct confrontation or engagement in hostiles. The increased distance from the battlefield and development of new combat tactics avoiding confrontation makes the determination of conflict victories increasingly elusive. Despite the existence of multiple detailed and comprehensive studies on insurgency and counterinsurgency, most are limited to specific cases or conflicts. Adding complexity to the phenomenon of insurgencies, the lack of detailed (and accurate) information ultimately inhibits the understanding and formation of effective counterinsurgency strategies.

In America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, Christopher Lawrence offers a more systematic, quantitative approach towards the subject of insurgency and counterinsurgency. This was accomplished utilising resources obtained from his role at The Dupuy Institute (TDI), a non-profit organisation focused on academic research and studies around historical data associated to armed conflicts and acclaimed resolutions. TDI has collaborated in the past with the governmental agencies. Between 2002 – 2004, TDI produced three annual reports developed for the United States Department of the Army regarding the combat effectiveness within cities.[2] Through extremely comprehensive quantitative studies, the book critically examines the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam wars to determine the various elements and factors supporting the ultimate outcome of each conflict.

Studies and publication conducted by TDI revolve around the examination of historical resources. This academic and research discipline allows for evidentiary based analyses to be conducted. Ergo, Lawrence was able to conduct an extremely comprehensive strategic analysis and its outcomes of several conflicts where United States played a significant role. The book begins with TDI outlining their casualty estimate for the United States government agencies. Impressed by their statistical collection methodologies supporting their estimates, other agencies ultimately expanded their contracts with the institution for additional data collection and subsequent studies. Over the course of the Iraq War, Lawrence coordinated multiple projects involving quantitative researchers. TDI’s relationship with various department within the United States government has thus allowed its researchers access to the extensive material available from internal departments and centers (i.e. United States Army Center of Military History). As an individual, Lawrence has also published several papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation in addition to an amalgamation of assessments for the Department of Defense.[3] The book fundamentally centres upon quantitative variables of indigenous and intervening government typologies, insurgency motivations, insurgency structure, typology of counterinsurgency waged, rules of engagement and the nature of the conflict’s resolution.

Throughout the book, Lawrence identifies several correlations between variables that could be applied consistently throughout the three major wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. His analysis revealed a correlation between force ratios and insurgent motivations. Comparing his discoveries towards conventional counterinsurgency assessments and studies, Lawrence has quantifiably identified that although overwhelming force ratios (between counterinsurgents and insurgents) are not required for counterinsurgency success, it is larger fighting forces that ultimately yields counterinsurgency victory. Within the analysis, Lawrence also suggests several other variables that might influence the outcome of counterinsurgencies. However, it would appear from the text that limited statistical emphasis or research was placed into these considerations. Throughout the book, Lawrence develops several statistical models to describe and analyse the dynamics of the counterinsurgency campaigns that essentially defined the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars. However, acclaimed to examine the three modern wars of the United States has devoted a considerable amount of focus on the Iraq and Afghan War in contrast to Vietnam. Any book of this scope often focuses on specific reader categories. Therefore, the following section briefly addresses overarching benefits and limitations of the book for two main categories of readers: Academics and Practitioners.

With multiple elements within warfare categorically quantified within the book, academics could find the level of depth significantly beneficial to their studies. This book is an invaluable resource that both analyses and summarizes – with statistical support – three counterinsurgencies fought by the United States. For example, in Iraq, Lawrence argues that the counterinsurgency by the United States (Coalition) and the Iraqi Government was a success due to the generation of an overwhelming force-ratio compared to the insurgents. Given the nature of academia, criticism/rebuttal against his assentation is a given, as some would question the true definition of successfulness of the United States during Iraq, given its current state-of-affairs.[4]  Its limitations reside in its dense and hyper-focus upon statistical analysis; how the ‘numbers’ reflect reality could be (at times) difficult to understand and internalise – let alone contextualise against other theories within security studies.

Practitioners on the other hand might be initially overwhelmed by the sheer amount of quantitative/statistical data Lawrence goes into. However, it does not remove the quantitative benefits of the book for individuals within military domains. Providing an extremely comprehensive statistical analysis of the three counterinsurgencies, policy-makers would also benefit from this source of information. Fundamentally taking a historic approach, reflective analysis of the book can be a valuable resource for strategists to evaluate the effectiveness of American decisions during the wars. However, limitations of the book arguably depend heavily on the statistical knowledge (and interest) of the reader; especially when addressing practitioners. Regardless, to practitioners, the book is an invaluable resource to expand their horizon and understanding of United States activities during the three counterinsurgencies. The professional data collection and analytics compiled into this singular source makes America’s Modern Wars a valuable resource to understand (quantifiably) elements that can influence the outcome of counterinsurgencies.

Despite the sheer depth of statistical analysis into the elements within counterinsurgencies, Lawrence’s analysis places significant value on available (and accessible) information. America’s Modern Wars is unlikely to end any debates regarding the effectiveness of counterinsurgency strategies used in the three campaigns – as it may prove controversial should any such claim be made. It is commendable that Lawrence acknowledges the propensity for analyses to be revised in light of new data. The analysis does, however, provide an interesting perspective for practitioners and academics focusing on security issues associated to the activities of the United States. This source of analysis that utilises quantifiable information is a useful source – especially to practitioners drafting approval papers/plans. However, there remains a widespread belief that the complexity of warfare (and more importantly insurgencies) cannot be categorised or exclusively studied solely through quantifiable research. Regardless, Lawrence does manage to quantifiably identify one of the largest flaws of the United States strategies in the three conflicts, which is their inherent misunderstanding of counterinsurgency.[v] Nonetheless, America’s Modern Wars is still recommended for anyone aiming to obtain a comprehensive quantitative understanding of United States strategies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Formerly with the Singapore Armed Forces, Cheng holds a Bachelor’s Honors degree in Criminology. During his military service, he was a senior tactical and operational instructor for the Armour Formation. He is currently reading for an MA in International Intelligence and Security at King’s where his academic specialties revolve around proxy strategies such as private military security companies, drones and cyber-warfare. In May 2016, he published an article on the vulnerabilities of transatlantic submarine cables in IHS Jane’s.


[1] Dews, F. ‘Charts: U.S. Army size and defense expenditures relative to other nations’, Brookings [Online], (Oct 14 2015), Available from:, (Accessed May 21 2016)

[2] ‘Publications’, The Dupuy Institute [Online], Available from:, (Accessed May 21 2016)

[3] Lawrence, C.A. ‘President Obama’s Casualty Estimates’, Mystics & Statistics [Online], (Dec 27 2015); Available from: (Accessed Jan 2016)

[4] Cordesman, A.H., ‘American Strategic and Tactical Failures in Iraq: An Update’, Center for Strategic and International Studies Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy [Online], (Aug 8 2006); Available from:, (Accessed Dec 2015).

[5]Ubaldi, J. ‘Why Civil Military Operations will be a Combat Multiplier in Counterinsurgency Operations’, [Online], (2009).

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