Bad COIN Wins Votes (apparently)

Jonathan D. Caverley has quite an interesting piece on Vietnam and what it really says about counterinsurgency in the latest issue of International Security. Consider this another sequel to Andrew Krepinevich’s study, The Army and Vietnam. Krepinevich made the argument that ‘Big Army’ was unable and unwilling to adapt to the operational realities of counterinsurgency and therefore persisted with the ‘Army Concept’ – conventional warfare – even when the situation on the ground called for something else. If you pardon this sequel analogy, the second instalment is typified by Dale Andrade’s ‘Westmoreland Was Right‘, published in Small Wars & Insurgencies, in which he argued that, because of the coexistence of an insurgent and a conventional threat, it was reasonable, even justified, for Westmoreland to concentrate on the latter at the expense of the former.

Both of these texts are relevant to today’s campaigns, because, in Krepinevich’s case, it shows institutional intransigence vis-à-vis COIN and, in Andrade’s case, the difficulties of drawing lessons from history without due attention to specific historical context. Caverley’s piece is a sequel in the sense that it adds a third interpretation of what happened in Vietnam, and of what it means for today’s wars.

His thesis is that Vietnam was fought conventionally rather than through COIN because such was the preference of the U.S. electorate, which would rather send hardware (capital) than men (labour). Keenly aware of this preference, President Johnson acquiesced, even though doing so compromised U.S. objectives in Vietnam.

The article, entitled ‘The Myth of Military Myopia Democracy, Small Wars, and Vietnam’ is old-school academic: it oozes primary sources (or just sources in general), successfully locates itself within the existing literature, throws in some statistics for good measure (if you haven’t already, read Abu M’s recent post ‘Quantitative Analysis Manifesto’), uses models, and has a clearly defined sample space (democracies vice autocracies). In terms of historical analysis, Caverley convincingly shows how Johnson and McNamara persisted with a strictly ‘conventional’ approach all while seemingly aware that it would fail to counter the insurgency. In his own words, Caverley ‘offers a theory of how a rational actor, the average voter in a democracy, can favor what appears to be a nonstrategic policy’.

It is an interesting read, one that leans heavily on economic theory (rational-actor voter; ‘capital’- versus ‘labour’-driven wars; ‘cost internalisation’ etc.).  Also, the historical research should offer something to those well versed with the Vietnam War. For example, Caverley cites Westmoreland as stating to his Pentagon colleagues that the U.S. military was fighting the war too conventionally, that ‘Vietnam is no place for either tank or mechanized infantry units’. Similarly, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold Johnson is quoted as saying that ‘The presence of tank formations tends to create a psychological atmosphere of conventional combat’. To Caverley the generals’ understanding of operational requirements was dismissed by an administration more concerned with appeasing an electorate instinctively resistant to the deployment of additional troops to Vietnam. In a similar vein:

Contradicting both McNamara’s recommendations and the claims of the military myopia argument, Westmoreland proposed a new concept of operations in August 1966 that devoted “a significant number of the U.S./Free World Maneuver Battalions” to pacification missions, which “encompass base security and at the same time support revolutionary development by spreading security radially from the bases to protect more of the population. Saturation patrolling, civic action, and close association with ARVN, regional and popular forces to bolster their combat effectiveness are among the tasks of the ground force elements.

This, certainly, is another interesting addition to the overly crude dichotomy of Westmoreland as the Vietnam baddie and Abrams as the saviour of U.S. strategy (until the rug was swept away from under his feet). As the same time, how significant are these quotations? Another general to whom history has not been so kind, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, recommended in an August 2003 interview that rather than mount repeated raids, U.S. troops ought to adopt a ‘cordon and knock’ procedure by which they would ‘seek permission to enter accompanied by an Iraqi representative, instead of breaking down the door’. He also correctly assessed that U.S. heavy-handedness had ‘in this culture [created] some Iraqis that then had to act because of their value systems against us in terms of revenge, possibly because there were casualties on their side and also because of the impact on their dignity and respect’. People really do say all sorts of things.

For me perhaps the most interesting reason to read this article was for its broader implications. Caverley makes the voter’s interest the prime determinant of military strategy, as the ‘government assesses military doctrine in light of public preferences over outcomes… and the costs in blood and treasure’. Because the electorate favours capital-driven (machines) rather than labour-driven (soldiers) wars, the government is in a self-imposed straitjacket, leading to bad strategy being consciously implemented. Even more bleakly, whereas the Krepinevich perspective could plausibly envisage an organisation doing better, learning, adapting, Caverley concludes that ‘short of reducing the average voter’s influence, a democracy is unlikely to “learn” to conduct effective COIN’. So we’re all doomed.

For example, Caverley concludes, ‘fixating on reforming the armed services (or even the civilian tools of foreign policy) in an effort to improve democratic performance in small wars is its own form of myopia’, as ‘if a rational, fully informed electorate views [an unsuccessful] military doctrine as its best option, the prospects for change are’ minimal. From this, Caverley draws the obvious conclusion: ‘the distribution of costs and benefits affects not only how a state should fight a small war, but whether it enters such conflicts in the first place’.

Certainly food for thought, but it bears noting that there are some pretty questionable aspects to the argumentation here. First, how new is this apparently revolutionary finding? Clausewitz himself wrote of ‘triniterian wars’, encompassing that special relationship between the government, the military and the people. That the people in a democracy limit the alternatives available to the government is the way it has always been; in fact, isn’t it the way it is supposed to be?

But more importantly, the article is at times in danger of getting lost in its own assumptions and in its use of Vietnam as its one case-study. For example, if a government can coolly calculate public support when designing its COIN strategy (or lack thereof) why would it intervene in the first place? Consider the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Can we seriously contend that the Bush administration consciously screwed up the ‘post-conflict’ phase because he was scared of losing votes? Wouldn’t a more ‘labour-‘ as opposed to ‘capital-based’ approach to the ensuing insurgency have served him better politically? Certainly, despite adhering strictly to a ‘capital’-dominated way of fighting, the Republican lost heavily in the 2006 Congressional elections, primarily because of the mismanagement of the war in Iraq… How does this square with Caverley’s argument?

Second, assuming voter preferences militate against proper COIN, how do we explain changes in strategy toward COIN, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and in previous campaigns too? What public rhetoric, what change in voter preference, determines the change? In fact, most COIN campaigns are marked by an initially botched effort. It is historically typical. We can ascribe that trend to profit-calculating politicians counting the vote deficit of conducting proper COIN or to institutions that are ill-configured for and unfamiliar with the complex challenge of political violence. Take your pick…

Finally, and most damningly, how can the Johnson’s administration’s war in Vietnam, which cost the U.S. a combined total of almost 36,000 lives be seen as as ‘capital’-driven, or as concerned with losing machines rather than men?

I suspect my main problem with the article is that it uses the economic theory of the ‘rational actor’ to understand not only voter preferences but also the selection of how exactly to prosecute a war. Even presenting the latter as a matter of ‘choosing’ one strategy among many is to reduce the complexity of war-fighting to a caricaturesque degree. The article is too theory-driven and too clever, but in the sense that it will provoke and maybe challenge established wisdom on Vietnam, it is worth reading. In another sense, it is simply a very sophisticated and perhaps overly academic explanation for why ‘muddling through’ is such a popular recourse in COIN.

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7 thoughts on “Bad COIN Wins Votes (apparently)

  1. Pingback: [From KoW] Bad COIN Wins Votes (apparently) » David H. Ucko

  2. Alec says:

    Perfect timing. I was just discussing this article with a colleague last week. What Caverley did not mention is Westmoreland’s inability to adopt a labour intensive population-centric COIN strategy. This rejection wasn’t a by-product of American domestic politics. Westmoreland flatly refused to put his troops into the villages close to the people because of the US military’s serious problems with discipline, morale and drug abuse.

  3. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    One aspect that I think is often overlooked, or at least under-appreciated, in Vietnam and also in more comtempory situations, is that when there are ‘foreign forces’ involved in COIN, there are three elements to ‘counter-insurgency’, all of which interact with each other, affecting the outcome.

    The first is an insurgency, of course, whether it can be described, as is the latest fashion, as Maoist, post-Maoist or otherwise. It has a dynamic that is created not only by its founding ideology, but also by the interests and abilities of those prosecuting it. Rarely will an insurgency be like any other, due to variations in history, motivation, ability, culture, geography, timing, etc.

    The second is a counter-insurgency programme. This, too, has a diverse number of elements: a strategy, based on an understanding (complete or wrong, or in between) of the insurgency and on a number of domestic and institutional influences (‘we don’t do nation-building’, for instance); the execution of that strategy, based on the ability to turn an idea into effective practice; the list goes on.

    These are not often overlooked and have been well discussed elsewhere. What is overlooked, in my opinion, is what might be called ‘surgency': the government’s ability to govern the country. If the government is corrupt, out of touch, or otherwise illegitimate, this has an enourmous impact on the effectiveness of any COIN campaign, quite apart from issues like military effectiveness, messaging, etc. The governments of South Vietnam, whether civilian or later military, were not ‘surgent’. Therefore, attempts to shore them up by means of US counter-insurgent strategies were unlikely to be effective.

    The same might be hypothesised for Afghanistan. If the US wins the hearts and minds of the local population on their own merits (because they are careful, considerate, and contrite in the military operations, for instance) but the Kabul based government does not, this legitimacy cannot be transferred ‘by proxy’.

  4. Paid In Full says:

    I would absolutely agree with The Faceless Bureaucrat in the importance of the ‘surgency (nation-building surely!). In my analysis of the Vietnam conflict and the literature around it I rapidly concluded that in not looking very hard at the South Vietnamese themselves most of the main literature in my opinion totally misses the point. It surprised me somewhat that with some digging a lot well (if dryly!) written and in depth stuff had been done in the various academic journals (notably Asian Survey) about this (South Vietnamese politics [legitimacy of], economics, social & rural development, etc) but its mostly been forgotten and left behind – many of the books hadn’t been out of the library since the early 70s!. So I would definitely agree with the above comment, and urge others to take a look, it makes the conflict look complicated again.

    Regarding the article I am also sceptical, particularly considering that at its 1968 peak the US commitment stood at roughly 500,000 men. Its difficult to consider the overall force level to be anything other than ‘labour intensive’ regardless of how they were used. Only when Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more to be deployed following the Tet offensive did the US commitment stop expanding. A lot of soldiers considering the size (and in hindsight the importance) of South Vietnam. And as David mentions in the original post, 36,000 of them didn’t come back.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      I think your latter point bears more thought and discussion. While I agree that there are issues of “philosophy” and mindset among military elites (command structures, “academics” both in and out of uniform, etc.) in terms of COIN vs. conventional strategy, force structuring and the like, IMHO a larger and more intractable set of issues involves the political backdrop (domestic and, especially in contemporary operations, coalitional/ international) that is hypersensitive to the “extent” (troop numbers, composition, deployment, ROE etc.) of military involvement in a given “COIN/CT” operation.

      Caverly discusses this aspect in the context of the USMC CAP effort in Vietnam and the extent to which that model could have been extended throughout the country. As he noted, it was recognized at the time and in the years after the war that such an approach was very troop-intensive such that any significant expansion would require force levels that were otherwise “unacceptable” politically, especially if a conflict was “mixed” in the sense that, as Westmoreland believed, some capability had to also be maintained for more conventional threats. Thus, a distributed operations model for COIN has an inherent drawback in that it presses on the most sensitive point of the overall politico/military effort–the need for more forces than the political leaders of the COIN nation(s) are willing or able to commit. This is quite evident in the recent much-delayed decision by the Obama administration grudgingly granting only in part McChrystal’s request for reinforcement (especially when one remembers, in spite of the White House effort to obfuscate the point, that the numbers requested were the bare minimum needed) and in the on-going hand-wringing throughout the rest of NATO as to what, if any, future contributions to the Afghanistan effort its members will make.

  5. Pingback: Note to Readers | Kings of War

  6. Pingback: More cognitive challenges of war – LBJ and Vietnam | Kings of War

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