Books Chet Richards

Review of "If We Can Keep It" by Chet Richards

I owe a lot to Chet Richards. His publisher provided me with a free copy of his new book, If We Can Keep It. More substantively, Chet’s done the hard work of keeping the legacy of John Boyd alive, leading to a wonderful annual conference, at least one major book (Science, Strategy, and War, currently the subject of an intellectual roundtable), and of course his own titles, such as Certain to Win and A Swift, Elusive Sword.

The new book by Chester Richards, Ph.D.

If We Can Keep It is not a Boyd book. It quotes from Boyd on occasion, but for the most part If We Can Keep It focuses on popularizing William Lind. The connection between If We Can Keep It and Boyd’s thought is not clear to me. For many readers, this is a non-issue. Conversely, for those interested in the evolution of Chet’s thinking, Keep It may prove to be a pivotal work in bridging the two very different discourses of the Hegelian conservative Lind and the cognitive theorist Boyd.

Dr. Richards book contains three general trends: a criticism of counterinsurgency, a general pessimism toward our bargaining position, and a general rejection of economic thought, among other themes.

I. The Rejection of Counterinsurgency.

If We Can Keep It begins with a strawman attack:

By the middle of 2007, “counterinsurgency” theory had become all the rage and a panacea for all our global ills

No reference is provided for this claim, but one should not be expected. The books’ treatment of counterinsurgency is rhetorical, not substantive. Similarly, If We Can Keep It claims that the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review condese “neer-peer status to an aging and reportedly ailing figure [bin Laden],” with no reference to support such a claim.

Some passages are puzzling, and I am not sure if they are written satirically. Consider, for example, this on pages 59 and 60:

Conversley, it is difficult to imagine how a government that retains the loyalty of the majority of its citizens could be overthrown by insurgency. It would be impossible in a democracy: If enough people want to replace the government, they just vote them out. In that sense, every election si an insurgency and obviously, the United States has no business interfering in other democracies

So much is wrong in those three sentences that no summary is possible (rather, a fair treatment would go on much longer than the excerpt), but among others

a) insurgencies only occur among majorities
b) insurgencies only succeed among majorities
c) democracies provide acceptable options for insurgents
d) democratic processes are sacrosanct of competing needs of, say, national defense


II. A Rejection of Bargaining

The difference between a tsunami and an areal blitz is that the blitzers are engaging in negotiations, while the tsunami is not. The Blitzers have some form of goal, or theme for vitality and growth, and are requesting either your assistance in getting it or else your benign neglect while they get it themselves. The tsunami is a physical force that will whatsoever. The distinction is important because the existence of another who can engage in bargaining is important. It is the difference between war and natural disasters.

A third category, crime, also exists. Crimes are purposeful violence that lack political objectives. For instance, a bank robber is certainly interested in negotiating the future holder of specific financial instruments but generally is unconcerned over the existence of the FDIC, predatory lending laws, or the harmonization of a modern financial system and Biblical principles.

Because in most of the world the same organization (the government) that deals with war also deals with crime, that organization generally classifies an action as one or the other as is politically expedient. Because crime is mindless violence while war is mindful of violence, governments often deride their enemies as “criminals” in order to deprive them of legitimacy.

If We Can Keep It rejects the importance of bargaining throughout. On page v, it reads that “the physical damgae that terrorism does is small compared to other threats to our national well-being.” Indeed. Similarly, the Kaiser at his worst was nothing compared to the Spanish flu. The Kaiser could bargain, however. The Spanish flu could not. However, on page 31 rejects describing our struggle with al Qaeda as “war” for rhetorical reasons, while instead classifying as “but one” criminal organization.

The lack of precision here would be puzzling because on ix Richards writes that “Lumping [certain organizations] together as ‘terrorists’ is a form of mental laziness, and failure to think clearly about their various purposes will not serve us well.” The reason it is not puzzling, however, is that rhetoric prevails over substance in most of the book. Likewise, on page 10 the AIDS epidemic is described as “accelerating,” when the text means growing, and the negative effects of population growth and urbanization are mentioned on pages 22-23 with no discussion of their positive implications.

III. The Rejection of Economic Thought

If We Can Keep It diverges from economics in two general ways: the first by not addressing the factors of production and the second by not addressing the distinction between relative and absolute gains.

The factors of production are the economists’ division of all resources in three broad types: land, capital, and labor. Different individuals, companies, and governments have different mixes of these. One is not necessarily more valuable than the other, but if you relatively lack one, you will use the others to substitute in some way. For instance, the Netherlands’ reclamation programs demonstrate how capital and labor can be spent to increase land. Likewise, the Chinese “human waves” of the Korean War achieved with labor the same attritional effect that a modern military would achieve with some sort of capital — say, artillery shells.

However, consider the following two excerpts. First, on page 40, Chet argues that the US is investing too much on the war effort (“This is the mission that has everyone’s attention and has been the primary justification for ramping spending up to levels not seen since the Korean War — even exceeding Vietnam”):

Spending too much?

Yet on page 101, he accuses the country of not investing enough (“Our ancestors were willing to make this sacrifice. Here are the statistics from three other wars that threatened the existence of the republic:”):

Spending too little?

So are we spending too much, as on page 40, or not enough, as on page 101?

An answer is that America is relatively capital-richer (and thus relatively labor-poorer) than in the past, and therefore our production mix with respect to war has shifted from labor to capital. A discussion on the appropriate ratios would be interesting and useful, but as is the discussions on page 40 or 101 are not convincing.

Similarly, on page 20 questions globalization:

Those who questioned this wisdom were denounced as troglodyte protectionists. Recently, however, even a few establishment economists have asked whether globalization has produce the benefits that were promised. No one can claim that trade with Chin ahas failed to improve the living standards of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. But as Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury secretary and long tiem supporter of globalization recently concluded, the middle classes of the United States and other Western countries have not shared to anything like the same degree.

Note the rhetorical trick. The undeniable gains of globalization to the developed world are rejected because they do not fulfill some sort of “promise.” The reference to Larry Summers goes to this New York Times article, in which Dr. Summers supports the mainstream economic consensus that globalization increases the general welfare of society, while the allocation of the spoils is ultimately a policy question.


Other issues are addressed in If We Can Keep It as well, from an excellent discussion of loyalty militias to an interesting discussion of fourth-generation war. However, the basic theme of rhetoric over substance remains.

If We Can Keep It primarily serves to bridge an author with experience in substantive, Boydian writings into a very different discourse — the anti-counterinsurgency, anti-bargaining, and anti-economics perspective of William Lind. To the extent that If We Can Keep It creates a hybrid discourse that allows Richard to later add substantive, then it will have served its purpose. Chet Richards is a first-rate writer and popularizing, and I cannot wait to see which direction this discourse will go.

Elsewhere on the Web
If We Can Keep It is available from
A PowerPoint presentation on some of the books’ themes is also available.

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4 thoughts on “Review of "If We Can Keep It" by Chet Richards
  1. This is a brilliant insight: Both capital and labor as factors of production. And human conflict would then be just another form of production? You are right, I did leave out that interpretation of economics.

    So you would equate somebody spending, say, $10,000, to the sight of a young Iraqi girl willing to sacrifice her life. You would find both equally compelling, especially if you were one of “uncommitted” in the developing world?

    I will say one thing for your approach – it greatly simplifies the study of human conflict. For one thing, you don't have to worry about the “moral” aspects of human existence.


  2. Thanks for the review.

    You wrote:

    “Yet on page 101, he accuses the country of not investing enough ('Our ancestors were willing to make this sacrifice.')”

    One is talking about money and the other is talking about lives. Hope this clears up at least this point for you.

    Best regards,

  3. “Of course, as Machiavelli wrote, men sooner forgive the murder of their fathers than the theft of their inheritance.”

    A father is part of the past, an inheritance is part of the future.
    Men fight for their futures.
    That is why they get riled up if one messes with their offspring.

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