April 1, 2009  

COIN lies we love

Dissecting the myth that the military has only a supporting role

When it comes to fighting terrorists and counterinsurgency warfare, we have less intellectual integrity than Bernie Madoff had financial integrity. Priding ourselves on our educational credentials and career successes, we engage in comforting lies and bureaucratic superstitions so absurd that a shaman or witch doctor would only shake his head.

We believe what we choose to believe, not what the evidence tells us. We have no time for evidence, since facts confound us damnably.

A particularly destructive bit of nonsense that our military, diplomatic and political establishments have embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically is the re-statement by the French veteran of counterrevolutionary warfare, David Galula, of China’s first Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong’s proposition that “revolutionary war is 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military.” We have embraced this slogan as if it were the Eleventh Commandment.

Worse, we misapply this wildly bogus statement. With our usual imprecision of language and slapdash pretense at analysis, we assume that Mao’s and Galula’s colorful proposition regarding “revolutionary war” applies equally to the very different phenomena of counterrevolutionary terrorist movements and insurgencies inspired or accelerated by a collapse into fundamentalist religion or a reawakened vision of ethnic supremacy. Mao exploited revolutionary conditions in China to impose an ideological transformation, while Galula observed attempts at ideological revolution in Algeria, Greece and Indochina. None of their experiences involved mythologized religious or ethnic identities of the sort that lie at the heart of our current conflicts.

Revolutionary wars inspired by political credos are categorically different from rebellions galvanized by blood or belief. Revolutionary war, such as that in Mao’s China or Galula’s Algeria, seeks to overthrow the regime in power and replace it with a political innovation. Religious and ethnic insurgencies are counterrevolutionary, seeking to restore an idealized golden age or to assert exclusive supremacies. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are the insurgents, the innovators, fighting for change. Our enemies, by contrast, apply the fundamental command “About face!” and seek to march into the past.

The revolutions that men such as Mao or Galula experienced sought to be inclusive. During the bygone era of these ideological revolutions, orators and authors rhapsodized about “the rights of man,” not the rights of Shiites or Serbs alone. Their ideological visions were vast, transcending religious affiliations (which were to wither away) or ethnic identities (which the new dispensation would cancel). Communism was for everybody, while the Algerian revolutionary vision was not only pan-Arab, but had room for Berbers and other minorities. The terrorist movements and insurgencies we face today are profoundly different, either demanding allegiance to a stern religious vision or asserting a blood-based nationalism (or both). We do not face enemies inspired by intellectual arguments, but driven by emotional needs and myths.

Not only have we conflated profoundly different challenges, but we’ve embraced a formula whose publicists, Mao and Galula, didn’t themselves believe. With the proposition that revolutionary war is 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military, they were “firing for effect,” exaggerating to make a point peculiar to their historical situations. Neither man offered any empirical data to support what was no more than a rhetorical device.

Adding confusion to error, we have inflated their adjective “political” to mean far more than they intended, from lavish aid programs to social engineering. If pressed, Mao and Galula would have offered narrower definitions of “political.” Bureaucratically, we do to ideas what the Air Force does to combat aircraft and the Navy to new ships, adding on so many nice-to-haves that the initial concept disappears from view.


But stick with the basic proposition: “Revolutionary war is 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military.” Is it valid? No. And the corpse can be dissected with many different scalpels. Most obviously, where’s the supporting data? Where are the historical facts to justify such a claim? Instead of dissembling by citing a few preferred case studies that we distort to our own ends, we should search for confirmatory evidence from 3,000 years of history of revolutions, insurgencies and terrorism.

That evidence overwhelmingly contradicts the 80:20 proposition. There is no statistically trustworthy accumulation of empirical data to substantiate the Mao-Galula maxim. On the contrary, the evidence of history is not only that insurgencies almost always have been defeated, but that they have been defeated through military means. History indicates that fighting insurgencies is at least 90 percent a military mission and often 100 percent a matter of arms. An objective evaluation of the historical evidence suggests that a blanket statement to the effect that defeating insurgencies is only 20 percent a military endeavor has all the intellectual heft of the claim that “life is just a bowl of cherries.”

For those among us — and they are legion — who believe that we have transcended history and need pay it no mind (except when its selective exploitation gains us an advanced degree or a moment in the limelight), let us try a simple mental exercise to test the validity of the Mao-Galula proposition: Re-imagine Iraq during the surge. Now subtract the contributions of the State Department. Would the surge inevitably have failed? No. Some things might have been harder (and others easier), but the absence of diplomats would not have been decisive.

Now do the same drill with each other nonmilitary agency. You get the same answer: Their absence, singly or collectively, might have slowed or complicated specific aspects of progress in Iraq, but would not have altered the outcome.

Next, imagine the consequences if all of our military forces had been withdrawn, leaving the other agencies in place. Would Iraq have emerged from its fratricidal funk? Clearly, it’s nonsense to suggest that the military role in Iraq was a mere 20 percent.

Cornered, the blithe spirits who toss around this beloved maxim respond that, “Well, it’s not just about numbers. Of course, the military has more people on the ground.” But if it’s not about numbers, how can we measure it by percentiles? Employing such a metric implies a quantitative basis for the claim. But no one can supply one, because it doesn’t exist. We just like to cite these percentages because they lend a pseudo-scientific authority to our prejudices.

mao and the military

As for revering the maxim because it originated with Chairman Mao, why should we worship his sayings when the Chinese don’t? Shall we also believe his claim that Communism was destined to master all the peoples of the earth? How about the statement in his Little Red Book that “the seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This … principle of revolution holds good universally.” Or, more pithily, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” How do these maxims fit with the off-hand notion that revolutionary war is only 20 percent military? Are we to dismiss these more potent formulations, insisting that Mao didn’t really mean them, but did mean the stuff we like?

With the 80:20 remark, Mao was making a point, not taking measurements, and exaggerating to make that point. Mao conquered China with vast armies. The great cities of the interior and coast were not subdued by unarmed commissars strolling in to debate the Nationalists and help the locals form sewing cooperatives. Mao’s triumph was a military triumph.

Yet another in the long gray line of our intellectual evasions is the illogical assumption that if an insurgency is only 20 percent military for the insurgent, then it’s inevitably only 20 percent military for us. Let us assume for the moment that Mao and Galula were correct in their formulation. It does not follow that the same percentages apply to both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent. Indeed, if the insurgency is 80 percent political for the rebel — who cannot hope to win militarily — the logical response might then be that the counterinsurgent’s proportionality is the inverse, 20 percent political and 80 percent military.

We have the military strength to crush insurgencies and terrorist organizations. Instead of employing that power effectively, we have convinced ourselves that we should somehow react proportionately, that the rules governing the insurgent also apply to us. But this is asymmetrical warfare. The relative importance of the political and the military for the insurgent and the counterinsurgent is just one more asymmetry.

All artificial formulas are foolish and destructive when applied to war and conflict. There is no exact and universal mix of military and other factors that can be applied to every insurgency. If an insurgent movement is countered early on, a much lower level of military engagement may be required, while a greater commitment of diplomacy and aid might prove effective. If, however, an insurgency is already robust, there is no alternative — none — to the rigorous and determined application of military force. Other government institutions and even nongovernmental agencies may act as force-multipliers, but they will never be the force itself. If this is not so, let a statistically adequate, impartially selected collection of historical examples prove it wrong.

Well-meaning generals insist that “we can’t kill our way out of an insurgency,” even though, historically, success against insurgents — especially counterrevolutionaries seeking a religious restoration or ethnic supremacy — consistently required killing them in substantial numbers. Do we really believe that wishing will make it so? Perhaps “we” can’t kill our way out of an insurgency, since we’re afraid to do so, but our timidity does not invalidate history.

This is not to insist that only killing is required. Of course there’s more to it, and all effective assistance is welcome. But beware of any doctrine that pleases Washington by offering politically correct prescriptions. Each insurgency has its unique qualities (a fact we acknowledge rhetorically, only to ignore in practice). Some have legitimate grievances that demand redress. Others are apocalyptic and must be countered with uncompromising violence. Nor is every insurgent alike in his level of commitment or brew of motivations. But we shall never progress in our attempts to understand our enemies if we blind ourselves with bumper-sticker nonsense.

To claim, as even some in uniform do, that the military has only a supporting role in defeating insurgencies is equivalent to claiming that an automobile’s airbags are more important to its operation than its engine. Again, where is the empirical evidence? Where is the historical data to support so insidious and crippling a claim as the notion that the military is only a minor player in COIN? Think it’s true? Just try it.

Of course, “interagency support for COIN” is just another urban legend: All of the players are full of fight in the locker room, but only the armed services show up on the field — and the State Department wants to call the plays from the skybox.

We don’t deal in ideas. We deal in slogans masquerading as ideas. If we really loved and respected our troops, we wouldn’t bow to political correctness. We’d fight for intellectual integrity in the analysis of the conflicts and enemies currently befuddling us.

The next time a general, diplomat, bureaucrat, “scholar” or pundit tells you that “fighting insurgents is only 20 percent military and 80 percent political,” shock him. Demand the evidence. Tell him to break down the numbers on the spot. Insist on a statistically sound analysis based upon insurgencies across the last three millennia. I guarantee you he won’t have a serious answer.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and author of the forthcoming novel, “The War After Armageddon.”