David Kilcullen on Security and Insurgency

Very interesting hour-long interview.

Australian-born David Kilcullen was the senior advisor to US General David Petraeus during his time in Iraq, advising on counterinsurgency. The implementation of his strategies are now regarded as a major turning point in the war.

Here, in a fascinating discussion with human rights lawyer Julian Burnside at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, he talks about the ethics and tactics of contemporary warfare.

Posted on September 7, 2009 at 7:33 AM15 Comments


Blair September 7, 2009 8:08 AM

” A world in which it is wrong to murder an individual civilian and right to drop tons of high explosive on a residential area does sometimes make me wonder whether this earth of ours is not a loony bin made use of by some other planet ”

     -- George Orwell

Stephanie September 7, 2009 10:18 PM

Thanks for posting this.

Confessions produced by torture are not just bad intel and bad for our participatory democracy in the US, it is information about a group of people in power who should perhaps be behind bars and instead are given room to practice outrageous acts on others.

If these torturers were on tv with their names and faces shown, would they do it? No they wouldn’t. Its a disgrace and I refuse to accept that they are protecting us by engaging in this behavior. Sexually abusing prisoners does not make America safe. Humiliating people in prison does not represent us.

We aren’t going to prevent tragedies by torturing people. Did the British police torturing the Guilford Four stop the IRA bombs? After torturing someone for hours most people would admit anything to make the pain stop. The use of torture is more information about the agency/group doing the torturing than what they are trying to learn.

Mark September 8, 2009 1:51 AM

Thanks a lot for linking to this, Bruce. It’s excellent to hear such thoughtful individuals engage in the discussion of these difficult ethical questions. It has been my personal feeling that to support the indefinite imprisonment and torture of terrorism suspects undermines the moral character of the United States, and ultimately serves to destroy what we should most sternly defend. It’s great to see someone with experience, knowledge and courage defend this basic idea. I hope that the optimism he shows here and the faith in our democracy and the democratic process is not ill-founded.

Matthew September 8, 2009 2:42 AM

Mr K’s appeared in lots of places over the last few months. You can see a good video of him on the “Authors@Google” site, he’s talked at ANU:


Margaret throsby’s interviewed him, I think he’s even spoken to the commonwealth club (or was it cato? Probably both, I suspect)

He seems like a very clever and reasonable chap. I guess I should buy his book and actually read it 🙂

He has some great stories in that google video (I recommend it, for what that’s worth – just google it). What’s most interesting about what david kilcullen says is that he gives so much support to (what I think is) a common sense point of view.

I started watching the video that bruce links to, but burnside’s line of questioning was rubbing me up the wrong way. I’ll make an effort to finish it, honest.

uk visa September 8, 2009 6:33 AM

Very interesting and interesting that the debate is happening in Australia rather than UK or US.
The line: ‘you can’t kill your way out of this problem’ is very poignant.
Is there and audio only version – the next best thing to a transcript…

Matthew September 8, 2009 8:02 AM

“Is there an audio-only version”

Yes. Links here: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/fora/stories/2009/08/26/2667749.htm

The debate isn’t really being had here and more than it is anywhere else – it’s just that david is australian, ex-army. He’s had a bit to say in the US too.

As regards the transcript – I’d expect that this will eventually turn up on fora.tv (a good site to browse), which usually has transcripts. But that might take a while.

Personally, I think the pro-torture side is grasping at straws these days. The historical record suggests that torture as a general policy is counterproductive (going back to the british and US in WWII and vietnam), while the more information that gets out from 43, the more it looks like they wanted to justify torture no matter what happened (a pattern emerges). Eventually we’ll find out what they learned that way that couldn’t have been learned otherwise, and my money bets it’ll be pretty unimpressive.

David September 8, 2009 8:45 AM

@Matthew: The laws of war are based on the fact that war exists, and try to make it as humane as possible (which isn’t very). They make more sense from that point of view. Shooting a random civilian does nothing useful from a military point of view, and therefore can usefully be banned. Dropping bombs on suspected enemy bases is a legitimate military action, and so the death and destruction can’t be legislated away without impairing military effectiveness.

[Reply to Yosi redacted; see below. –Moderator]

Moderator September 8, 2009 10:57 AM

Yosi, your tendency to derail threads is getting tiresome, as is the obnoxious tone of your comments. (In this case some of the nastiness was provoked by a rather trollish response, but it’s also clear that it’s a habit with you.) I am removing the entire exchange that you started. Please keep your comments constructive and on-topic if you want to continue posting here.

casey September 8, 2009 1:42 PM

@David – If an argument can be made that shooting an individual civilian has a military purpose, then you would have to ‘legalize’ it. You are setting a reachable goal for justification…

I also do not think it is obvious that bombing a suspected base increases military effectiveness.

David September 8, 2009 7:24 PM


Bombing an enemy base is usually a militarily useful thing to do, and perfect knowledge is never available in war. Therefore, it’s possible that, with all good will, an air force might bomb a civilian target. If you forbid bombing that might be on civilian targets, you allow the enemy to conceal military targets and benefit from that.

And, yes, I’m setting a reachable goal for justification. The laws of war have got to be practical, or they’re completely useless. If a country will cripple its war effort by abiding by them, the country will simply ignore them. International law can only ban actions where the harm done is disproportionate to the military gain.

We’ve got a choice. We can have laws that nobody will ever obey but would ban all sorts of things. Alternatively, we can have laws that allow various sorts of bad things, but ban some of the worst, that most nations will mostly adhere to in open warfare. Yeah, it isn’t pretty. Very little about war is.

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