A year after its publication, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual remains deeply disturbing, both for the practical dangers it creates and for the dishonest approach employed to craft it.
The most immediate indication of the manual’s limitations has been Army Gen. David Petraeus’ approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq. The manual envisions COIN operations by that Age of Aquarius troubadour, Donovan, wearing his love like heaven as he proceeds to lead terrorists, insurgents and militiamen to a jamboree at Atlantis. Although the finalized document did, ultimately, allow that deadly force might sometimes be required, it preached — beware doctrine that preaches — understanding, engagement and chat. It was a politically correct document for a politically correct age.
Entrusted with the mission of turning Iraq around, Petraeus turned out to be a marvelously focused and methodical killer, able to set aside the dysfunctional aspects of the doctrine he had signed off on. Given the responsibility of command, he recognized that, when all the frills are stripped away, counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help — and knowing the difference between the two (we spent our first four years in Iraq striking out on all three counts). Although Petraeus has, indeed, concentrated many assets on helping those who need help, he grasped that, without providing durable security — which requires killing those who need killing — none of the reconstruction or reconciliation was going to stick. On the ground, Petraeus has supplied the missing kinetic half of the manual.
The troubling aspect of all this for the Army’s intellectual integrity comes from the neo-Stalinist approach to history a number of the manual’s authors internalized during their pursuit of doctorates on “the best” American campuses. Instead of seeking to analyze the requirements of counterinsurgency warfare rigorously before proceeding to draw impartial conclusions based on a broad array of historical evidence, they took the academic’s path of first setting up their thesis, then citing only examples that supported it.
To wit, the most over-cited bit of nonsense from the manual is the claim that counterinsurgency warfare is only 20 percent military and 80 percent political. No analysis of this indefensible proposition occurred. It was quoted because it suited the pre-formulated argument. Well, the source of that line was Gen. Chang Ting-chen, one of Mao’s less-distinguished subordinates. Had the authors bothered to look at Mao’s writings, they would have read that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” that “whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army,” and that “only with guns can the whole world be transformed.”
Sorry, but Mao didn’t believe that round-table discussions were a substitute for killing his enemies, party purges, mass executions and the Cultural Revolution. Mao believed in force. In our COIN manual, he’s presented as a flower child.
Anyone looking objectively at the situation in Iraq could hardly claim that it’s only 20 percent military and 80 percent diplomatic. Even the State Department doesn’t really believe that one — or they would’ve kept a tighter leash on their private security contractors.
Wishful thinking doesn’t defeat insurgencies. Without the will to establish and maintain security for the population, nothing else works.
The manual’s worth revisiting a bit longer to underscore the dishonesty of the selective use of history. Citing a narrow range of past insurgencies — all ideological, all comparatively recent — the authors carefully ignored parallel or earlier examples that would’ve undercut their position. For example, the British experience in Malaya is cited ad nauseum (although it’s portrayed as far less bloody than it was in fact), but the same decade saw a very different and even more successful British campaign against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. After realizing (a bit ploddingly) that the Mau Mau could not be controlled by colonial police forces, the British took a tough-minded three-track approach: concentration camps for more than 100,000 Kenyans; hanging courts that sent more than 1,000 Mau Mau activists and sympathizers to the gallows; and relentless military pursuits that tracked down the hardcore insurgents and killed them. It worked. A few years later, British rule ended in Kenya — but only because Britain had decided to give up its empire. And the thousands of British citizens who remained behind in Kenya weren’t massacred.
However, citing the British experience in Kenya wouldn’t have been politically correct — no matter that it worked after gentler methods had failed. The COIN manual’s authors weren’t concerned with winning but with defending their dissertations.
DOES IT MATTER?
An apocryphal anecdote from World War II has a German staff officer expressing his frustration that American commanders don’t know their own doctrine. Recently, a retired officer and friend argued that doctrine really only matters for us in terms of the atmospherics, the outlook, that it shapes. Well, if that’s so, the dishonest atmosphere propagated by that COIN manual is profoundly troubling as a warning of problems to come.
The Army and Marine Corps in Iraq have already moved beyond the manual’s grossest limitations, and the document will be re-written in a few years, so we may be able to shrug off its core contention that the best reply to a terrorist is a big, wet kiss. We had better be concerned, though, about the implications for the next round of doctrine-writing on other military subjects. Can we afford to have future drafting teams employ the same dishonest techniques, allowing the use only of historical examples that support pre-determined theses? Must our manuals be politically correct? Don’t we care about the truth, about winning, about giving our soldiers and Marines doctrinal tools that keep them alive while helping them kill their enemies?
The formulation of doctrine isn’t about persuasion. It’s about evidence. If a doctrinal proposition cannot withstand the force of countervailing examples, it’s a bad idea. Historical examples and vignettes have a valid, useful place in doctrine: They can serve to illustrate why a commander made a decision or how a particular technique worked in the field. Inevitably, some selectivity comes into play, because no manual can contain all of humankind’s military history. But the examples employed must serve honest ends, and they must be counterbalanced, when appropriate. In short, it’s fine to cite Malaya as an example of one variety of COIN operation, but it’s unacceptable to imply that all counterinsurgency situations will mimic Malaya. You’ve got to cite Mau Mau, too.
And what about the Moros, the Islamist fanatics in the Philippines who only succumbed to U.S. Army Gatling guns? The bloodiness of that campaign didn’t suit the authors of the manual, so the details of one of our own most challenging and ultimately most successful counterinsurgency efforts were glossed over — the facts would’ve undercut the manual’s argument.
Education, clearly, is not synonymous with intellectual integrity. Doctrine should be written by successful battlefield commanders, not by doctors of philosophy playing soldier.
MYTHMAKING AND MONKEY BUSINESS
From ancient Greece through the contemporary Middle East, leaders and peoples have re-written history to suit them. Historians all too often contributed to the disinformation, whether it was Edward Gibbon, whose lack of first-hand experience with Islam left him intoxicated with Muhammad and his ghazis, or the ludicrous Paul Kennedy, who, on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, published a ballyhooed book arguing that it was the U.S. that was about to go under. We in the West have molested the historical facts to create national myths from Belgrade to Moscow and on to Edinburgh. We’ve twisted the facts to advance political agendas, claiming either that colonialism was an unalloyed evil, or that the future belonged to militant socialism, or that Iraq is worse than Vietnam (a proposition that 50,000 dead Americans would challenge, if they could).
Robust societies can afford a good bit of such monkey business, but selective mythmaking can lead fragile societies to disaster. And no military can afford to indulge in the selective use of history. Soldiers must seek the truth.
Intellectual integrity is ultimately more important to the doctrine writer than intellect itself. The formulation of doctrine has to be an act of selfless service, not the construction of a personal monument. If our military is unwilling to face the most troubling evidence history offers, it would be better served by swearing off the use of history entirely.
Of course, not all doctrine writers are intellectually corrupt. But a final difficulty we have with the use of historical examples to illustrate or underscore doctrine is that most of us have so few of them in our mental catalog. The study of history isn’t a matter of a year or two on a campus to get a piece of paper and a personnel-file notation. For an officer, the immersion in history in the broadest sense must be a lifelong pursuit. Beware the officer who reads just a little and falls in love with a single book (say, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”). He’ll cite that book as if quoting from the Gospels, and he’ll insist on its relevance even when the problem facing him is of a profoundly different nature.
We’d be better off having our military doctrine written by officers with no historical knowledge than by those with just a few narrow areas of interest: A little knowledge truly is a dangerous thing.
Of course, the best situation would be to have doctrine drafted by veterans who possess a broad sense of history — and who have no personal theories to validate at the expense of our men and women in uniform. But there ain’t enough of that commodity to go around.
It’s hard to have much hope, given the deplorable state of history studies at every educational level. Wars have been banished from the K-12 curriculum, while universities, determined to discard the West’s intellectual advantages, insist on taking as selective an approach to history as any band of Islamist terrorists (to say nothing of their similar interpretations of the past).
But our military can’t afford to make excuses. We have to get our doctrine right — both because it helps us fight effectively and because it explains to civilian decision-makers what it is that soldiers do. If doctrine creates false expectations, those decision-makers will make flawed choices — and those in uniform will pay the price.
Better no doctrine than bad doctrine. Better no history than bad history. The saving grace of our military — historically — has been pragmatism. Unlike European generals, we never sent our soldiers to die for a theory (at least, not until Operation Iraqi Freedom). If our own history has a lesson for those responsible for military doctrine, it’s that the only admissible criterion is that the doctrine has to work.