Note: Written by the Applied Memetics staff.
I first heard of Who Will Teach the Wisdom after listening to a SOFREP Radio interview with Tim Bax, a veteran of the Selous Scouts and RLI Commandos who fought in the Rhodesian Bush War. The interview drew me in as I listened to Tim speak with humility of his experience fighting unconventional wars against communist insurgents. I shared his assertion that the famed “unconventional” warriors of special operations forces were growing terribly conventional, as their use has grown more common as a balm to cure all maladies. He argued that no special operations warrior of the past or present could outmatch the U.S. SOF community in tactics, technology, and skill. “They simply are the best.”
Even the knowledge of modern day SOF warriors is without parallel, but without the ability to properly apply that knowledge, it is as useless as trying to swat flies with a sledgehammer. Wisdom is the ability to adapt and appropriately apply knowledge and skill to each individual situation. The question Bax poses is, who will teach that wisdom?
In writing this book, Bax sets out to do just that. While his first book, “Three Sips of Gin,” is part autobiography and part military history, “Who Will Teach the Wisdom” is a scholarly examination of Bax’s experiences in counterinsurgency warfare—an Aristotelian dialogue from “one old soldier” to a new generation of warriors. Using vignettes that recount his evolution from a newly minted officer candidate to a seasoned Selous Scout, Bax teases out the characteristics that provided the wisdom that enabled him and his comrades to wage a successful counterinsurgency.
The font of Bax’s wisdom flows from a tattered black notebook that he maintained throughout the duration of the Bush War. The notebook serves as the gospel for the sermon that Bax preaches, imparting the sage advice that he was trusted with by tribal elders, soldiers, and brothers-in-arms. Who Will Teach the Wisdom chronicles Bax’s rediscovery of this notebook, rescuing it from a steel footlocker that entombed his webbing, canteens, and other relics from Rhodesia.
From African proverbs and dialectics with village elders jotted down in charcoal on the pages of the notebook, he spins the context and lessons learned from each milestone encounter. The flashbacks to Rhodesia are recounted in parallel as Bax describes his quest to determine the best way to convey wisdom to future warriors as he prepares a jungle warfare syllabus for Tier 1 U.S. special operators at his jungle training facility in Puerto Rico.
The portion of Who Will Teach the Wisdom that will likely attract most readers is the description of his time as a pseudo-operator in the Selous Scouts, particularly the entries in the notebook dedicated to Selection and “Dark Phase.” While many readers (the author of this article included) yearn for a Dick-Couch-style “blow-for-blow” account of each ruck march and meal of rancid monkey flesh, this account of the training speaks to the strategic goals of Selection and Dark Phase as Bax learns the tradecraft of a pseudo-operator. Bax describes the demeanor of his instructors, former terrorists who had been turned or “tamed” by the Scouts, explaining their teaching points as they transformed conventional soldiers into unconventional warfighters.
The “big picture” account of Selection and Dark Phase provides the reader with the proper background as Bax goes on to describe a pseudo-operation “soup to nuts.” This account is where the reader observes how the unconventional wisdom conveyed in the previous vignettes and the pedagogy of Dark Phase are applied in a tactical setting.
Techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) regarding pseudo-operator tradecraft are described in detail: making contact with tribesmen, arranging a “rendezvous” with terrorists, and “freezing” the area of operations before calling in fire-force commandos. Bax even notes how his team of Selous Scouts come under a “mock attack” from the fire-force just as they are about to rendezvous with their supposed comrades. This rouse allows them to maintain their cover and continue to operate as pseudo-terrorists long after the gang targeted in the operation was wiped out by the RLI commandos.
Many readers who look to this book as a how-to manual for unconventional thinking/warfare or pseudo-operations may be dismayed at its lack of explicit tactics. However, it is important to understand that Bax seeks to bestow upon the reader the mindset needed to acquire and be receptive to wisdom when it is offered.
One might compare the breadth of Who Will Teach the Wisdom to the academic and strategic narrative of Kilcullen’s “The Accidental Guerilla,” which was later refined into “Counterinsurgency” (directed at company/platoon level), and finally distilled into “28 Articles” (squad/fire-team level). Who Will Teach the Wisdom would benefit everyone, from the generals to the privates, but tailored iterations for each level of command, as was done with Kilcullen’s work, would make for handy reference for individual soldiers.
Bax’s appreciation for the writer’s craft makes for an enjoyable read and is a pleasant departure from the overly technical and action-packed special operations accounts that aim to excite readers. Though there is plenty of excitement, Bax stays true to his aim to teach the wisdom. His skill as a storyteller whisks his audience to the sweat of the Rhodesian bush and back to the porch of his home for an intimate lesson in wisdom, soaked in Cavendish and Burley smoke wafting from his briar pipe. Sage proverbs initiate each chapter and are sprinkled throughout the book for the reader to ponder. Fortunately, they are all collected in a summary at the end of the book as a quick reference.
The underlying themes of an open mindset and unconventional thinking are what makes “Who Will Teach the Wisdom” applicable in the bush, the battlefield, or the boardroom, with overarching lessons that apply to every trade. Bax’s vignettes of lessons learned in the bush serve as a more personal counterinsurgency manual. While the works of Nagl, Kilcullen, and Galula have dictated strategy and tactics, Bax speaks specifically to the individuals fighting the counterinsurgency on the ground in order to equip them with the tools necessary to truly become unconventional.
It is the guy on the ground that Bax holds in the highest esteem, and the one he trusts to win the war. The book is not only a must-read for officers, strategists, and special operators, but also for foot soldiers and diplomats. Everyone can benefit from mastering the unconventional. Luckily for readers, the conclusion is only the beginning of Bax’s quest for wisdom, and hopefully he will continue to bring us along.