Tuesday, March 17, 2020


“When the Tempest Gathers” is a fascinating, gripping and insightful war memoir by a decorated Marine Corps Special Operations commander who was operationally involved in U.S. military activities over the past two decades in far-off countries such as Somalia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Told with self-effacing candor and a novelist’s eye for detail, the author recounts his journey from his birth in Hong Kong to a British father and American mother, to growing up in England, where he graduated from law school. Seeking adventure, he trekked through Turkey to Iran, and then to Islamabad, Pakistan, where he befriended three U.S. Embassy Marine Corps security guards, whose “stories of travel and adventure” influenced him to take a sabbatical before embarking on a law career to “see the world.”

Returning to England, using his mother’s U.S. citizenship, he approached a Marine Corps recruiter in London to enlist in the Marine Corps as a private. Commissioned from the ranks, he soon became an infantry and special operations officer, and then, as a colonel, a commanding officer of a Marine Corps’ special operations regiment. He was then selected to lead a multi-national task force deployed to defeat ISIS in Iraq.

With his unique Marine Corps officer’s pedigree, Andrew Milburn’s account is filled with insights about battle, what it’s like to command combat units and the components involved in effective military campaigns. A military commander, the author notes, understands that one’s junior officers require support because they bear the brunt of a battle, including psychological trauma.

While operating in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, a U.S. commander must also navigate a host country’s military culture where native commanders might be reluctant to relieve incompetent subordinates. They may even themselves be involved in corruption that might need to be overlooked for the greater cause of fighting a common enemy. 

The components of effective military campaigns, the author notes, are based on integrating strategy, operations, and tactics, with the latter executed by military units in battle. In the best case scenario, these are applied to understanding where the enemy operates in the “inflammable mix” of local terrain, its demographics (a complicated mosaic of tribal affiliations and religion), and history, and then attacking his critical vulnerability “that will tip him off-balance and bring him down.”  

What also makes this account especially valuable is the author’s frankness in drawing on his battlefield experience to highlight certain deficiencies in the U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Referring to some of these deficiencies as “strategic misdirection,” they concern the hasty shifting of the initial post-9/11 campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the military was achieving operational and tactical successes, to Iraq.

It was in Iraq where the American intervention eventually became a protracted quagmire that military units had to contend with as best they could, including contending with a new insurgency by an explosive combination of al Qaeda and the extremist remnants of Saddam Hussein’s disbanded military that led to the formation of the Islamic State, which eventually spread into Syria. 

This required formulating new counter-measures, the author points out, such as identifying segments of the local population that were alienated from the Islamic State’s failure to deliver on the basic obligations of civil government, imposing instead “their medieval version of the rule of law.” The disaffected were “angry enough to take action” by joining the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.

In order to degrade a terrorist adversary, the author points out, it is critical to take out the large set of mid-level terrorist managers and commanders a group depends on, since this will have the greatest impact. It is also crucial to stirring internal dissent within a group, for example, by highlighting pay disparities between different types of fighters (such as local and foreign), thereby undermining overall morale.  

Despite these insights, however, the author concludes that the protracted war in Afghanistan “shows little sign of abating,” while in Iraq and Syria, the largely U.S. Special Operations forces are tasked to maintain a “fragile stability, while keeping the territorial ambitions of the various factions in check.”

Such practitioner insights on military warfare provide a framework for understanding the impact of the nonstop action involving the author in one chaotic battle after another throughout his military career. 

Sprinkled throughout the book is Andrew Milburn’s frank account of the psychological impact of his 31-year military career on him, and his wife and children. Now retired, he continues to regard the Marine Corps as a family, and that it was “tougher to leave than I expected. I already miss it.”

After reading this powerful and beautifully written memoir, indispensable for understanding how a warrior engages in military combat, one can’t help but wonder if perhaps a movie or a television series based on it might be next.    

• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.

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By Andrew Milburn

Pen and Sword, $32.95, 336 pages

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.