Spinning Modern War: The First Draft of Counterinsurgency’s History

Editor’s note: The author is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the U.S. government.

The Army hates intellectuals. It loves fighters – especially tank-drivers – and it’s wedded to an anachronistic way of thinking about war that gives primacy to high-intensity armored combat. The stinging failure of Vietnam drove a fundamentally conservative officer corps to ignore the messy, complicated, and borderline un-soldierly tasks essential to success in modern conflict. Were it not for the fearless struggle of a few unloved dissidents, the Army would remain manifestly unsuited for the “political wars” of the 21st-century.

That’s how the story goes, anyway, in Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.

In its basic outlines, the tale is as familiar to students of military thought as a folk motif to the anthropologist: Populated largely by the Colonel Blimps of an obsolete service branch, the stodgy, conservative, retrograde establishment resists the lessons of modernity, punishes dissidents, leads men to needless slaughter and armies to shocking failure, and must be saved from its errors by those it has cast aside—the intellectuals, the iconoclasts, the Young Turks who perceive war correctly. It’s a fine story, and one that’s particularly gratifying to Americans: suspicious as we are of military professionalism and forever anxious about civil-military relations, there’s something perversely soothing about a senior officer corps that can’t think for itself.

There’s a kernel of truth in this narrative, of course. Military conservatism did play a part in the disappointments in Crimea, the Transvaal, Flanders, the Ardennes, and Vietnam, and it doubtless contributed to the parlous condition of occupied Iraq. Institutional culture (and the mere physics of bureaucracy) can produce friction, slow the adoption of new ideas, and create strong incentives for conformity. Often it is only the force of will of a powerful and committed champion that enables reformist thinking to make a dent—even when the reformers are armed with the very best insights.

But the story of organizational adaptation – and that’s what The Insurgents is, for all its revolutionary vocabulary – is rarely so dramatic and personalized as Kaplan’s occasionally breathless claims would have you believe. A shift as dramatic and pervasive as the “COIN revolution” doesn’t emerge simply from the committed work of a few Big Idea People (even when one of them wears stars), but rather from the confluence of operational necessity, learned experience, and command priority. Most of the soldiers and Marines who were struggling to suppress violence and bolster host-nation governance had never heard of David Galula, but their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan had as much to do with the institutional military’s reorientation as did the theorizing of the “COINdinistas.”  Whatever Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and General Ricardo Sanchez may have thought about irregular war, “the insurgents” were pushing an idea whose time had come.

Kaplan hints around this truth, seeming in places even to concede it. So many generals and senior officials are at one time or another listed among the “gets it” crowd that it’s difficult to see who might be left to counter this COINdinista “insurgency.” No fewer than five of the book’s minor heroes are said to have particularly enjoyed the same revolutionary warfare offering in West Point’s history department, and we’re made to understand that the whole of the light infantry and special operations communities have irregular predilections. But nothing casts more doubt on the heroic man-against-the-Army narrative than this basic fact: David Petraeus – Ranger School honor man, son-in-law of a West Point superintendent, aide and protégé to generals, and combat commander of perhaps the Army’s most storied formation – was the ultimate Army insider. And if indeed “the Army as an institution tended to scorn officers who stood out or were too bookish,” one wonders how Arabic-speaking Olmsted Scholar John Abizaid, University of Chicago history PhD Daniel Bolger, Yeats-quoting Martin Dempsey, and Chinese linguist and double-MA Karl Eikenberry ascended to such impressive heights.

The Insurgents is the sort of journalistic “current history” popularized by Bob Woodward and Tom Ricks and decidedly not a scholarly work, but Kaplan’s use of sources disappoints just the same. A more thorough investigation of the Army’s involvement in Vietnam and the institutional and doctrinal changes enacted since that war would benefit the reader, whose understanding will surely suffer from the author’s unquestioning regurgitation of the contentious arguments in Andrew Krepinevich’s and John Nagl’s highly critical (and extremely flawed) books on the subject. Kaplan does well to note the “war of information” waged by Petraeus and friends against potential critics, but he cedes what may be the most important ground in that war: the writing of history.

A number of minor errors will distract the careful reader (the 4,000-soldier 101st Airborne Division?), but these flubs are of little consequence to the broader message of the book. More importantly, what are we to make of an analysis so dependent on the unexamined conclusion that senior military leaders prioritized organizational preferences over success in war? Kaplan repeatedly alleges that irregular conflicts were “not the kind of war the Army wanted to fight,” which may well be true (to the extent that the Army has a collective will); to imply then that the Army refused to prepare for them primarily as a matter of preference is tendentious and wrong. Surely a more even-handed consideration of the facts would address both the controlling influence of policy and, within the Army, legitimate differences in judgment about how best to accomplish the mission—not just some inane and ahistorical longing for big tank battles.

The book shines when it most resembles long-form journalism: the chapters that deal with the drafting of FM 3-24, which are comprehensive and well-reported—long on factual narrative and short on judgment. Most of the names in Petraeus’s “cabal” will be familiar to close observers of the last decade’s counterinsurgency debate – Con Crane, David Kilcullen, Michael Meese, “Gunner” Sepp – but the author highlights the role of obscure officers and bureaucrats alongside those of Leavenworth’s “Jedi Knights,” providing fascinating color on people who didn’t show up in the newspaper. The Insurgents’ best moments come when Kaplan introduces the supporting cast: the 101st’s division planner in Mosul, a helicopter pilot and Cornell PhD whose dissertation focused on security assistance reform; the Pentagon official whose responsibility for the Quadrennial Defense Review prompts a crash course in stability operations; a Special Forces officer who, when called upon to write the first draft of the COIN manual in 2004, has to ask his boss for an insurgency reading list. A more narrowly-scoped chronicle of the development of COIN doctrine would have capitalized on the strength of Kaplan’s reporting – his eye for compelling detail – while avoiding the sorts of broad judgments and unfair generalizations that tarnish The Insurgents.

But in the end, Kaplan’s book is too dependent on the tale told by “the insurgents” and their acolytes to be a truly definitive account. Its conclusions rest too much on the easy, conventional wisdom reflected in contemporary media analyses—and suggested by media-savvy “friends of Petraeus.” The disinterested student of this period’s history will likely have to wait until our current wars – and the careers of those who wage them – have wound down before an appropriately thorough treatment appears.

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12 thoughts on “Spinning Modern War: The First Draft of Counterinsurgency’s History

  1. Chris, interesting review – good to have you on KoW.

    The notion of the Army longing for big tank battles is a bit of a caricature, I agree. It made a lot of sense post-Vietnam when the anticipated tank battle on the Central Front did (for understandable reasons) become a central Army preoccupation – though to the point of crowding out several other priorities. This is also why I think there is more than a kernel of truth to the narrative you start your blog post with.

    More recently, a more pernicious institutional preferences took hold, namely the technologically-driven notion of transformation, of quick and decisive victories and of network-centric operations. This fetish was always more pronounced in DoD briefs and concept papers, but was felt in the Army as well. It dominated to a point that even years into the Iraq war, DoD documents still spoke the language of transformation but were stunningly silent on the war it was in.

    Thus, I do think there were many who resisted counterinsurgency, even when it was an idea whose time had come. That might have been a question of policy or ‘legitimate differences in judgment about how best to accomplish the mission’, as you suggest, but it is nonetheless notable. The story of how to change institutional priorities is thus, to my mind, worthwhile – though I agree with you that it cannot be seen merely in the force of personality of those driving the change but also in the strategic, political context in which it occurred.

    • Paul T. Mitchell says:

      I have to agree with David. The positions *are* easily caricatured, and the points about honest history are spot on. However, it would be wrong to dismiss institutional forces out of hand. Indeed, as Carl Builder pointed out in his classic The Masks of War, these institutional forces are inculcated through the professional military education system from cradle to grave and it takes a serious effort to deflect the institution from its preferred way of doing business. There is nothing irrational about these processes: all reflect the concatenation of professional judgements on the proper method of business in large organisations.

      In the past four years, I have had my students at Canadian Forces College write reflective essays on the Nagl/Gentile et al. debate over COIN. There is always a range of opinion, however, most Army officers tend to aggregate around the conventional operations rather than COIN. Of interest, the introduction of Hybrid Warfare into the debate has attracted more interest, but I suspect that is because Hybrid Wars look and feel more like conventional wars than they do insurgencies.

      Backing up David Ucko’s observations, a recent MA student of mine examined the Canadian Army’s attempts to deal with the impact of American Transformation literature on our land DOTMILPF capabilities. Ten years worth of studies had to be quickly jettisoned for a revised COIN approach, much as it was in the US. The problem reminds me of the famous psychological experiment of counting basketball passes between players as a gorilla strolls through the action: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/11/171409656/why-even-radiologists-can-miss-a-gorilla-hiding-in-plain-sight. The problem is we become conditioned to expect certain things by our training such that we find it very difficult to imagine any other way of doing business, even when we recognise the need for change. A problem not unfamiliar with many other professions or even private individuals.

  2. W4rlord says:

    All this scientific rabble about big and small wars, hybrid and 4th generation warfare could be silenced easily, says someone, who wrote extensively on 4GW, when all people formulating opinions about military progress would remember a basic defintion.

    Col. Summers’ mundane one: A war is a war is a war.

    Apply enough force so that the opponent gives in.

    Let them know in advance, that you are going to use excesive force to achieve your goals. As simple as that. No lawmongering, no collateral damage etc.

    • W4rlord says:

      No, the SOVIETS have forgotten what the RUSSIANS knew about the Great Game.

      I have to dig up which 19th century russian general said. “In Asia, the war is different from what we know. The more people you kill, the longer the following peace will be.”

    • Agree totally with your first two sentences and disagree totally with the last two…

      “A war is a war is a war.” Yes, and we must use the right tools to do the job – not the tools that we are most comfortable with or perhaps that worked so well the last time around, but the right tools for the the job at hand…for Iraq, those tools were probably those encapsulated in FM 3-24; for Afghanistan, totally different environment, other tools were needed – probably starting with a detailed analysis of what are we trying to achieve here; for ODYSSEY DAWN over Libya, eyt another set of tools, more suitable for the mission and environment, were applied…

      Our failing is in trying to rely on an over-simplified cookie-cutter approach to conflict and its supporting doctrine instead of relying on honest analysis and creative thinking…

    • Col Summer’s expression is not a definition. At the very least, a definition should subscribe to the mnemonic AC/DC: accurate, concise, distinct, and complete. This expression is rather a marketing saying – something that a (fairly) senior officer, attended by several junior brown-noses in the O-Club, may utter after a few whiskeys. The expression contributes nothing to the overall narrative, in particular regarding the relationship between war and politics.

      War is (and will always be) a political instrument – the mere continuation of policy by other means. The politician is the lead vocalist in this rock band; the soldier merely shakes the maracas and croons the occasional background ‘yeah baby!’ into the microphone. It is particularly critical to understand that for an insurgency war. If the policies are wrong or misguided, (such as they were in Vietnam), then it doesn’t matter if the counterinsurgent wins every battle… he will lose the war (once again, as in Vietnam).

      War is also not about killing more of the opponent than he can of you either: Falkenhayn tried that at Verdun against the French, and for his pains at ‘bleeding the enemy white’, he was rewarded with the ultimate expression of failure: dismissal by the opponent. For even as his meat-grinder was gnawing away at the French youth, the Allies responded with an even greater meat-grinder of their own – the Somme. Killing is an unfortunate by-product of the political effect that we are pursuing – it is not the main event. When we concentrate on killing, we lose sight of the political landscape and how that may be affected by our military actions. A case in point: the Japanese are even today still reminded by the Chinese over the political ether of the Rape of Nanking – an extreme example of your suggestion for a no-holds-barred solution.

      Another way for viewing this: an instance of war can also be described as the synthesis of two opposing value systems – a dialectic in which the value system of the protagonist represents the thesis and that of the antagonist represents the antithesis. As the protagonist seeks to prescribe his values to the antagonist, which of his values is he prepared to forgo in the process of prescription? If we had to view the victor as the side whose pre-war value system resembles the synthesised result more, how could that be the protagonist if he had to abandon most (or all) of his values during the prosecution of the war? At best, the outcome is that of two losers and no peace at all.

      But of course, all of this is just scientific babble.

    • W4rlord says:

      But of course, all of this is just scientific babble.

      Not at all. This is real argumentation.

      To be honest I was intentionally exaggarating when I said Col. Summers’ words are a defintion, in order to show the untenability of approaching a such diverse human undertaking with the rigorosity of natural sciences.

      No serious scholar could question Clausewitz’s defintion of ‘forcing the enemy to accept our will’. The once John Keegan tried and even him failed at it.

      All I am saying is that this science-centric, politically correct approach is doing us more harm, than good. Yes we should apply the results of progress in other areas to warfare. But please, please accept that not EVERYTHING can be modelled, or scientifically verified. The immense number of uncontrollable variables influencing the outcome of a military operation refutes such undertakings, and forces us to lose focus.

      Art as such cannot be forced into the imprenegable barriers of natural sciences. And there is a reason why it is called ‘The art of War’ even though this fact does not fit well into our overscientified world view.

      Someone recently accused me here crying communism. Unlike most of you I have lived in it and I know how their ruling elite thought of themselves, and of the sacrosanct ‘progress’. I feel the sign of times again. He/she could have also mentioned the Dark Ages, with the catholic dogmas, and similar simplistic and mandatory rules. This oversimplistic view of the world is sooo slef evident of the human nature.

      As of insurgencies, small wars, and such. A short list of clearly defined objectives, and the means to achieve them usually solves them. (I need a man, who has a plan or how it goes.)

      But if we lie even to ourselves, no amount of REAL scientific discursion or babble could provide a solution.

    • W4rlord says:

      The Rape of Nanking is not a good example, as it was one of a time event, in a very, very ununified, and communicationally unconnected backwater place. On the top of that it was a horrific event of a conventional war. If you look at it in a larger perspective it is not more than an episode of a millenia long sino-japanese struggle. Counterproductive indiscrminate killing would be more characterized by terror bombing of both the nazis and the RAF.

      I completely agree that war is a political instrument, that is why a wise decisionmaker prepares for the outcome of the conflict before it is even started, and first of all for a peace that can be accepted by both sides. A bad, and unacceptable peace is worse than a war, see the Paris “peace” treaties after both world wars, and the tensions, conflicts they created and still create.

  3. W4rlord says:

    “Moderation in war is imbecibility.” – Lord Jackie Fisher

    1. Old solutions are not useless solutions, only there are better (?) alternatives.
    2. Speaking of Iraq. What were the military objectives, and what were the political objectives? This very very basic calculation has not been made in Iraq’s case (or it is NOT public).
    3. ‘Honest analysis’? In these publish or perish times? Who is that suicidal?

    No man. One should think twice before one starts a war. AFTER it has started ALL cards are on the table, except WMDs which effects are way too multifaceted to be useful. And one MUST have a clear view of the post conflict situation one wants to achieve.

    And what have WE achieved in Libya? Is that country a better place to live in? I highly doubt. Will there be less jihadists after Kaddhafi is removed? Defintiely not. Is the factory producing pipes for the irrigation of Sahara destroyed? Definitely yes.

    In my opinion military means are used in a way in the past years like a 3 yr old kid running in a crowded street slashing around with a lightsabre . Some things are cut, some things are destroyed, many people killed and by accident some things get better. The result is whole bunch of unintended consequences which have lasting effects on everybody.

    We the western world are so progressive, so developed, so sophisticated, so overly tolerant that we shy away to tell even to ourselves what we really want to achieve.

    Complicated does not necessarily equals more effective. See Chechnya recently. You know the story of the pen which works in space and the pencil?

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