Source: Small War Journal | Major Aaron Gookins
How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution. By Ken Connor and David Hebditch. La Vergne: Sky Horse Publishing, 2017. 187 pages.
The Special Air Service’s (SAS) longest serving member, Ken Connor, with the assistance of a career author and historian, David Hebditch, examine military coup successes and failures from around the globe in their work; How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution. As the title suggests, the authors claim to provide a step-by-step guide to planning and executing a military coup but miss the mark. The authors utilize a historical case study method throughout the work with comical interjections, often ill-timed, to present the analysis of over 20 coups. The end result is a book that is historically grounded, supplies a reasonably supported list of indicators of coup likelihood, and entertainment; but fails to offer a true framework for execution.
Confusion and disorganization set in early in this writing as historical vignettes are muddied with fabricated accounts of a plan to overthrow the standing government of the United Kingdom. The 2017 edition of the book addresses the insertion of the fictional account in its forward. The forward, written by Hebditch, is reasonably concise and references the most recent coup attempts in world history (i.e. the North African Arab Spring and the potentially fake 2016 Turkish coup). However, it’s not clear where the fiction stops, and the exposition begins. Also, in later chapters of the work, fictional accounts do not at all support the authors’ arguments. Additionally, Hebditch arbitrarily recounts a North Georgia FBI raid of coup planners, in which a copy of this very book was seized. It is hard to determine if the author is asserting the raid adds credibility to the book’s argument or if he finds the events comical.
At other points, the authors display their knowledge and arguments in an engaging and well supported manner. In the first half of this work it appears that each titled chapter will serve as a single step in coup planning, with the following titles: “The Military in Politics”; “Motivation and Massage”; “Planning the Perfect Putsch”; “Recruitment, Training and Tactics”; and “Keeping Your Coup Covert.” These early chapters, well written and engaging, provide sound assertions supported with historical references from around the globe. The authors’ command of historical knowledge in these chapters as well as operational experience are quite impressive and engaging for readers of all knowledge levels. However, the framework itself is less impressive to readers with military, political, or historical backgrounds. The simplicity of explanation leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled at times as the authors write what appears to be the obvious.
The oversimplification of the authors’ proposed steps is quite obvious to the experienced reader, as the authors are too broad with their analysis and reasoning. The takeaways from each chapter leave the audience wanting to say, “of course you need to do that.” The summation can be more directly put as follows: The political goals and objectives of superpowers, or near superpowers, will impact their decision to support or reject a coup. This in and of itself is a very simple and unoriginal ideal. Coups by their very nature are political, therefore, it stands to reason that decisions of other countries to support or reject coups would also be political in nature. However, although the argument itself is not innovative, the authors adequately support their argument with examples of coups from around the globe. The coup examples in and of themselves are interesting and keep the reader engaged.
The second half of the book feels like an attempt to provide engaging and entertaining reading, but no continuation of the stated argument. The disjointed nature make it seem as though two inherently different writings were forced together to create one literary work. The later chapters in the book dive into U.S. Military intervention in Iraq, irrelevant coups in the Fijian islands, and the utilization of mercenary armies. The Fijian chapter appears to be nothing more than a platform for the author further mythologize a man named “Horse” who he served with in the SAS. The chapter focusing on Iraq feels out of place and a way to force in, what the authors view to be, a failed policy in the Middle East. Additionally, the forced insertion of this chapter makes it even more difficult to transition into the authors’ discussion surrounding the utilization of mercenaries to support a coup. Once the reader is able to refocus, there are reasonable and pertinent points explaining why soldiers for hire lack the constitution to execute a successful coup. Overall, the later chapters have high points but fail to truly support the assertions established through the books title.
In summation, How to Stage a Military Coup: From Planning to Execution provides an entertaining surface level description of various coups throughout the world. The book is not for individuals seeking in depth analysis, but rather wave top level presentations. However, the authors provide several examples of military coups both successful and unsuccessful and provides two useful appendices that comprehensive list of known coups around the globe. While the book fails to rise to its title, it remains an entertaining read for anyone and an informative for a novice historian interested in broadening their understanding of military coups.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.