Actually, I’m Not: A Response to Prine

Carl Prine had some not-so-kind words to say (5,500 of them) about my (1,500 word) article on Foreign Policy’s AFPAK Channel and about arguments he ascribes to me that I did not make.

I am going to address these issues point by point (in 1,400 words). I will address the arguments rather than the people making them in the hope they might extend the same courtesy to me and others in the future. It is important that we strive to have civil debate and discussion. Vitriol clouds otherwise reasonable arguments and entrenches people in their differences.

The core argument of my FP article was that we would be ill-advised to let our counter-insurgency capabilities and lessons wither because insurgency is not going to wither. While it is important to critically appraise the policy and strategic failures of the last decade, it is also important to learn the right lessons and maintain the right capabilities to deal with future irregular armed actors that challenge American interests. That is the discussion we must have, rather than keep rehashing the angry debates of the last decade that have produced more heat than light.

Neither Prine nor Major Mike Few have disagreed with that core argument either in Prine’s blog post or Major Few’s more level-headed response in FP.

Now, onto the angry debates of the last decade…

A) Service: Prine objects to my use of the word “served,” to describe my position with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). When I worked for HTS, BAE Systems hired people into the training program. We then went through the U.S. Army hiring process while in training. Those of us who made that cut “transitioned” to become Department of the Army Civilians before we deployed.

I took the same oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution that Prine and Major Few did. And I put my life at risk in service of that oath. I worked as an Army employee in Helmand, Afghanistan, carrying a weapon, wearing ACUs, going on foot and vehicle patrols alongside soldiers, and I saw combat. I have seen first-hand the human costs of war. I certainly saw it as service to my country, but others may make up their own minds as to what is and is not “service” as they understand it.

B) Not a newbie:  Because Prine has not heard of me before and did not like my article, he called me “new to the field” and ill-read in an effort to discredit me. Let me set the record straight. I have been close to these issues for the last decade as a student, scholar, and most recently practitioner of sorts.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to the study of insurgency/revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency a decade ago by the great Sam C. Sarkesian (who sadly passed away this year) as a student at Loyola University Chicago, which is when I bought and first read the Small Wars Manual.

After a few years in DC, I went to London and received my MA from the King’s College War Studies Department where I was fortunate to engage with and learn from David Betz (who blogs here at KoW), John Mackinlay, Theo Farrell, and Michael Rainsborough, which is why I was amused when Prine suggested I familiarize myself with David’s and John’s work.

Contrary to Prine’s remarks, not only did I read John’s book, The Insurgent Archipelago, in draft and published form, but I am thanked in the acknowledgments. I had to read Callwell, Galula, Thompson, Kitson, Mao, Giap, Marighella, Debray, and several others in an excellent course run by David and John at King’s on the evolution of insurgency and counter-insurgency.

And as far as some of the other thinkers named at LoD, I drew heavily on Leites and Wolf in one of the studies I carried out for Task Force Helmand as an HTT Social Scientist. I adapted the report and presented it recently at the biennial conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, the world’s premiere organization for civil-military affairs. It is currently being adapted for publication. My other work has focused largely on Islamism and terrorism.

I won’t go through my own experience and familiarity with the other scholars on Prine’s extensive list. I don’t think I should have had to mention all of these people in my original article to avoid ridicule. Moreover, I had a word limit. Bloggers often don’t.

Equally relevant is my direct experience on the ground, in support of operations in Central Helmand Province, a very troubled place. And I do appreciate Prine’s kind words about a recent talk I gave last month on that troubled place (audio here).

Needless to say, I recognize COIN theory is not “new” as such. However, in 2006 and 2007 it was framed as “new thinking,” by many observers, officers, and scholars, including one of Prine’s favored scholars (who I also enjoy reading), Steven Metz.

C) Honest misunderstanding: Prine misunderstood what I wrote when I said Colonel Gian Gentile, COIN critic extraordinaire, “represents the first, second, and final strands of anti-counterinsurgency discontent” (I refer readers back to my article for the context). This is a fair mistake. I could have written it more clearly. I was referencing the prior paragraph where I presented “five inter-related drivers” of anti-COIN discontent.

Colonel Gentile’s critiques, which I have read for years with interest (if not always agreement), generally focus on the first, second, and last of these drivers. Prine disagrees with some of these – particularly the relevance of numbers (1) and (4).

D) Armor: I am also tweaked for noting that both Major Few and Colonel Gentile are armor officers, but not noting the same about LTC (ret.) Nagl. I did know Nagl’s branch and perhaps could have noted it, but Prine is reading way too much into this.

Major Few is not as public a figure as the other people mentioned in the article. I was providing background and one of the few things his Small Wars Journal bio states is that he is “an active duty armor officer.”

For the record, I saw armor used to great effect in Helmand by the US Marines, the Brits, and the Danes. I also served under and with some amazing British armor officers and had some fun riding around with armored cav units.

E) Defense Industry: I concede the points Prine makes in his 860+ words on contractors, costs, and the defense industry. His remarks bring context and perspective to the one sentence I devoted to the subject in my article.

F) Operations and Strategy: Prine states that when I draw on Theo Farrell’s “Campaign disconnect: operational progress and strategic obstacles in Afghanistan, 2009-2011”, I am proving my ignorance of military affairs. I disagree. One of the signal failures of our Afghanistan campaign is that despite substantial operational progress, we have not gotten much closer to what we could view as a victory. In other words, we have secured a lot of key populated rural valleys and district and provincial capitals and held them with the Afghan National Security Forces. But, as Farrell argues, there is an “operational-strategic disconnect” in our Afghan campaign.

G) We don’t disagree on much: Finally, Prine and Major Few make a mistake when reading my article. They overlook the central argument and focus on my critique of Few’s unfair and unkind words about the morality of those who have participated in or developed the ideas behind counter-insurgency, in the defense industry and think tank communities. One might even argue that he was demonizing them, which is what I stated in my much-maligned comment to his blog post. He mistook this observation for a personal attack on him (when actually, the subject of my remarks was his attack on third parties).

My FP article is not about Major Few, but this seems to have gotten lost in their responses. In fact, there is so little daylight between my own argument and Major Few’s in his response on, that I am having trouble figuring out where we disagree aside from the tone we prefer to use when we communicate with others on professional matters (no matter how personally we feel about them).

But I hope this will change in the future when we inevitably encounter each other’s work.


Correction: The “new thinking” quote was in the forward to Metz’s report, written by Douglas C. Lovelace, Jr., the director of the Strategic Studies Institute. Another of people framing modern COIN as somehow “new” can be found here.


The views and opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Department of the Army, Training and Doctrine Command, or the Human Terrain System.


28 thoughts on “Actually, I’m Not: A Response to Prine

  1. I’m still working out my own opinions on the substantive issues Mr. Evans addresses — with the help of his own work and that of others discussed above — but would like to second his call for civility in policy discourse. No useful purpose is served by ad hominem remarks unrelated to the substantive issues at hand. It cheapens the discourse, and there is far too much of this in the public square.

    • Rob Dover says:

      Hear hear to that. Given that Jay is an eminent member of the IUS, and – until his death – a long standing friend and colleague of Professor Sarkesian (who also gave much to our understanding of military and defense issues..including the underdeveloped, in recent terms, field of the MIC), I hope his words are heeded. I, for one, have read enough of the shrill attacks on colleagues that have no place in academic debate.

    • Couldn’t agree more. It is one thing to disagree over important issues and another to load sentences with derogatory adverbs and verbs just to denigrate those who hold another opinion.

    • Carl Prine says:

      And, David, when you develop a level of competence on Malaya and Iraq that matches your honed arrogance on the subject, we’ll cut you some slack.

      Get better at a subject and you won’t have to worry.

      I’ll post a response to this silliness soon enough. It’s also important to remember that Line of Departure is a gathering place for combat veterans of these wars. It’s not the irrelevant talking circle of academics.

    • Carl our comment policy here is to be sensible and polite. Your comment is neither. If you can’t resist lashing out at people, do it on your own site.

    • Carl Insane says:

      Carl Prine, you represent everything that’s wrong with the internet. How old are you? 12?

    • Carl Prine says:

      Per historians on Malaya, Arabists and millions of Iraqis, my comment was sensible.

      Whether it was polite depends on one’s cultural architecture. I’ll let Evans suss that out.

    • Carl Prine says:

      I hope Santa brings you a couple of books on Malaya written over the past two decades!

      But nevertheless, Happy Christmas.

    • gian p gentile says:

      come on David, you accused me of the same sort of meaness on SWJ last week, yet when i re-read what i said i basically just disagreed with you in the form of a question. I think the problem is that you just dont want folks to disagree with you, and point out problems with your arguments

    • Gian, three things:
      1) I haven’t accused anyone of meanness here. Just of being impolite and insensible.
      2) My comment that you refer to wasn’t about you. I explained this when you first raised this issue. Still, it is true that your apparent knee-jerk disagreeing with me does make me avoid further engagement. There was a time when I thought our discussions were constructive (even when you disagreed with me). I don’t anymore.
      3) On form and civility in general, in our last exchange on KoW, you seemed to suggest that slurs like s/he ‘lap dances for four-stars and think tank wonks’, or is a ‘faithful fluffer’ to generals, or a ‘bumptious, blithering buffoon’ were perfectly acceptable and part of the game. I don’t. Maybe we just have different standards.

      The point to this whole civility thing is that it is unnecessary and unhelpful to call someone you disagree with ‘lazy-brained’, to use adverbs like ‘idiotically’ when citing their work or to replace neutral verbs like ‘claims’ and ‘says’ for ‘prattles’ and ‘huffs’ (all this from Prine’s Line of Departure). It detracts from the argument, is uncivil and, to me at least, seems desperate. And contrary to Prine’s suggestion below, these are not the ‘kiddy gloves’ of academia, but common decency – at least as I see it.

    • Carl Prine says:

      You’re accusing someone of being “desperate?” That’s rich.

      A newspaper would fire a cub reporter who tried to pull off what you’ve done.

      Maybe it’s just a question of standards. Some professions care about facts and logic.

      Others don’t.

    • Total says:

      Just to invoke an old lawyer’s saying, Carl Prine is doing a lot of pounding on the table, which suggests just how well he’s doing with the facts.

    • Carl Prine says:

      Then give me some other facts.

      Yeah, that’s what I thought. Some of us work in the fact-based world.

      Others become polemicists.

  2. Ed (the real one) says:

    I predict that Messrs Prine and Gentile are keen watchers of Faux News. I also predict that with their ears ringing from the content of that august medium, they do not feel their style is particularly antagonistic or inappropriate.

    • I think there has been a general debasement of the intellectual currency in the popular media, with the result you note: the temptation is to up the rhetorical ante in ways not helpful to reasoned and civil discussion and debate. We all need to do better if we want our good ideas to be heard above the din and be carefully considered.

    • Ed (the real one) says:

      For instance, when they broadcast Repug propaganda in their opinion programmes, then manufacture “news” that says “people are talking about [propaganda talking point]”.

      Take a read of the Wikipedia page for Fox News. I’m sure you’ll be shocked, just shocked.

  3. MikeF says:

    These caricatures continue to entertain me. Gian’s actually a Berkeley hippie. You should really meet him in person Ed.

    • gian p gentile says:

      Yeah, Mike is right, I am a Berkeley hippie, in fact i had a history seminar as an undergrad where Mario Savio was a guest speaker.

      then i went to grad school at Stanford in the 90s and got brainwashed by Foucaultian post structulism and angry neo feminism.

      See why i turned into, as Tom Ricks has called me, a “coin hata?”

      happy holidays

  4. Ryan Evans says:

    Carl: How do you go from expressing such staunch admiration of David Betz’s work to calling his blog ‘an irrelevant talking circle of academics’? Can we please stick to substance?

    • Carl Prine says:

      Betz is the real deal. You’re coming off the bench.

      And I wasn’t addressing his sane KoW posts but rather the notion that the kid gloves of academia should be worn at a site that attracts tens of thousands of combat veterans.

  5. Ryan Evans says:

    And Ed, judging by their views, which I sometimes agree with, I doubt Prine and Gentile are big Fox News watchers. Few is right. No need for caricature.

    • Gunrunner says:

      As opposed to the ever-so-balanced reporting from BBC, CBS, NBC, CNN, etc. . .?

      There is a difference between news reporting and opinion shows.

      Please cite news shows on Fox that warrant impeachment regarding their news reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *