In 1925, crusader for American airpower Brigadier General William Mitchell argued that using an independent US air force to attack an enemy nation’s industrial and economic works would benefit not only the United States but also the enemy nation. The benefits of airpower, according to Mitchell, would arise from avoiding costly land battles along the lines of World War I, shortening wars by attacking the heart of the enemy nation instead of its military forces, and ultimately saving blood and treasure on both sides. It was an idea grounded upon the ideals of American Progressivism, a school of thought that places full faith in expert opinion, efficiency, and humanitarian motives for making wars less costly. Mitchell and other US airmen derived their progressivism-inspired notions of airpower from the US tradition of reform and reinvention. According to this view, increased reliance on airpower could give rise to a new and more humane type of warfare.

World War II, however, and the firebombing of German and Japanese cities which culminated in the United States’ dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, served to refute their claims. War during this second Great War proved just as destructive, chaotic, brutal, and friction-ridden as ever. Airpower could not change the basic nature of war, but blind faith in its efficacy prevented US airmen from perceiving this reality. It was a seductive and inherently US concept that experts adorned with expert processes and programs to transform war into a more purposeful foreign policy instrument. As historian Mark Clodfelter argues, airpower became a sort of religion to US airmen. US airpower had its prophets, its bibles of strategic bombing doctrine, and its true believers, both military and civilian. Even when facts did not necessarily align with reality, their faith in the doctrines of this airpower religion shrouded their perception of reality.

One sees very troubling similarities between the faith in US airpower to make war new, and the newest wave of progressivism-based US warfare: counterinsurgency (COIN). Implicit in both paradigms is the idea that war can be made less destructive and more efficient. However, both operate in the realm of religion and faith while failing to fully acknowledge the reality of the friction, brutality, and inherent destructiveness of war. If crusader for airpower, William Mitchell, saw airpower as beneficial to humanity because it could shorten wars and reduce associated costs, current prophets of COIN are also trying to cast a similar light on counterinsurgency-based warfare. The modern argument for beneficial war by COIN experts like retired Army Colonel and Center for a New American Security President John A. Nagl is that US power at the barrel of a gun doing counterinsurgency can go into the troubled areas in the world and, to use Nagl’s exact words, “change entire societies”—or in Mitchell’s language, benefit other societies and civilizations.

The conceit of counterinsurgency, and that of US airpower in the past, is augmented by the fact that it does not actually work in practice as touted by its proponents. Historical evidence suggests that the purported goal of using counterinsurgency to win the hearts and minds of local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thereby quash insurgencies, is yet to be realized. Moreover, if history is to judge, such a favorable transformation will not occur in the near future.

In popular narratives, counterinsurgency is delineated as a strategy that prevails upon local populations by providing security along with economic assistance, bridges, schools, roads, other elements of infrastructure—and, ultimately, good governance. The theory of US counterinsurgency says that if a counterinsurgent force is able to accomplish these goals simultaneously, it will win the allegiance of the local population. Subsequently, according to theory, the population will ally itself with the government and the counterinsurgent force, forcing insurgents to fight in the open where they can be killed or captured with greater ease. As the US Army’s doctrinal field manual on counterinsurgency, “FM 3-24,” states, successful counterinsurgency requires the coordinated application of army efforts in economic, paramilitary, political, psychological, and civic spheres of life. The army’s counterinsurgent divisions must help develop and support local institutions with “legitimacy and the ability to provide basic services, economic opportunity, public order, and security.”

Though the general public has only just become aware of the counterinsurgency doctrine in the wake of the 2007 surge in Iraq, US counterinsurgency is in fact grounded in a long history—the capstone of decades of experience. The learning curve spans 60 years, from the British campaign against communist insurgents in Malaya during the mid-20th century to the US War in South Vietnam from 1965 to 1973—and now, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The major breaking point in this narrative is the United States’ defeat in Vietnam in the late 20th century. In the years following the conflict in Vietnam, the US military—especially the Army—undertook a slow motion and painful search for the reasons it lost its first war. A powerful consensus emerged that the US Army blundered in Vietnam because it focused excessively on big-unit operations aimed only at killing the communist enemy while failing to win hearts and minds. However, according to this consensus, after the 1968 Tet Offensive, a “savior” of a general named Creighton Abrams appeared on scene to replace the largely ineffective William Westmoreland. Abrams revitalized the US Army’s war strategy and ultimately won the Vietnam War through effective implementation of counterinsurgency tactics. As this “better war thesis” has it, weak US politicians and protesting hippies on college campuses should be held responsible for breaking the US spirit and precipitating defeat. The British campaign in Malaya in the 1950s, during which the British defeated a communist insurgency, became enshrined as the preferred model of counterinsurgency. Along the same pro-counterinsurgency vein, it can be argued that the United States would have won the war in Vietnam if it had followed the conduct of their predecessors in Malaya, instead of squandering popular will while awaiting the arrival of a savior general to turn the tide of the war. During the 1980s and 1990s, a small group of military officers and defense experts made sustained and strenuous arguments about the need to focus the US military on counterinsurgency, but very few were paying attention at the time. Then the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, and, ultimately, the Iraqi quagmire transformed the international security landscape in which the US military was operating.

According to the revised wisdom of proponents of counterinsurgency, the first three years of the Iraq War were disastrous because the US Army ignored the lessons in counterinsurgency from Malaya and Vietnam. Fortunately, according to the narrative, the landscape of the war in Iraq was completely transformed—the war was revolutionized. First, General David Petraeus and a number of other leading counterinsurgency experts had produced, by the end of 2006, a new counterinsurgency doctrinal manual for the US Army that heavily drew upon lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. In February 2007, with the Iraq surge, General Petraeus took command in Iraq, empowered his army with the new counterinsurgency doctrine, and much like in Malaya and Vietnam after Abrams’ take over, altered the tide of war, “sav[ing] Iraq from a desperate situation,” in the words of Petraeus himself.

This narrative now continues in Afghanistan. In 2010, two US Marine Corps Captains returned from Afghanistan and reported that after almost nine years of botching the counterinsurgency, the US military, under the direction of newly minted and savvy generals, is finally making significant progress in dismantling the Taliban. Victory will come, according to these marine captains, so long as the US military continues to implement counterinsurgency strategies by the book.

After General Petraeus assumed command of US forces in Afghanistan in June of 2010, he proclaimed that finally, after nearly nine years of war in Afghanistan, “we have the right inputs in place.” The statement implies that prior to his arrival and during the tenure of his immediate predecessor General Stanley McChrystal, these so-called “right inputs” were nonexistent. With a few more brigades of troops, correct methods, and above all, better generals, the promise of success in Afghanistan may finally become a reality.
Not surprisingly, Petraeus’s “inputs” are channeled into counterinsurgency—the most discussed, lauded, and powerful military doctrine to arise in generations. Its canon, Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24), has become an essential foundational document. Additionally, any US reader strolling through the aisles of a Barnes and Noble bookstore can come across the Field Manual and sip a latte while perusing US Army doctrine. The Internet further bolsters its accessibility, as the Field Manual was downloaded 1.5 million times within the first few months after its release in January 2007. Samantha Power, special advisor to President Obama, wrote a New York Times review in March of 2007 in which she lauded the manual as “21st century strategy.” In a jacket cover endorsement in the Chicago Press edition, General Petraeus boasts that the manual is surely “on the bedside table of the President, Vice President, and the Secretary of Defense” and, according to the General, should also have a place on the bedside table of every US citizen. One of the architects of the Iraq surge, retired Army General Jack Keane, added that the US Army after the Vietnam War had rid itself “of everything that had to do with [counterinsurgency] because it had to do with how we lost that war.”

General Keane’s mournful reference to the war in Vietnam represents one of two recurring themes in today’s COIN narrative. The first theme is of armies starting off on the wrong boot, fumbling, failing, and nearly becoming entangled in a catastrophic defeat. The second theme, operating in tandem with and reinforcing the first, depicts an army that learns and adapts by virtue of stronger leadership by effective generals. The “tide” of a war is turned, hearts and minds are won, and victory is achieved. The “savior general,” noted popular historian Victor David Hanson, transformed the military dynamic in both Malaya and Vietnam. Now, in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, he has arrived on horseback. As the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual states—perhaps too optimistically—US warfare has risen to the ranks of “the graduate level of war.”

Counterinsurgency can also be viewed as a reinvention or overhaul of the status quo. The progressive inclination to reform and transform the nature of warfare also emerges in counterinsurgency convictions. Former US President George Bush’s claim that once Petraeus took command in Iraq in early 2007 there was a “reverse” of “existing strategy” neatly summarizes these highly optimistic notions of reinvention and reform. Other necessary and arguably more important conditions become secondary or forgotten altogether. General Petraeus’s “right inputs” embody the reinvention of the US Army, and in the case of Afghanistan, all but assure victory. In this manner, counterinsurgency, at least since the troop surge in Iraq in 2007, has become the “New American Way of War.” Armed with the methods of success from Iraq that are finally being applied in Afghanistan, and based on the lessons learned from Malaya and Vietnam, counterinsurgency promises to succeed where competing strategies have been tested and found wanting. The rise in political prominence of military leaders from the counterinsurgency school has been meteoric and it speaks to the extent to which the consensus has gained traction. There is even talk, not all of it loose, of General Petraeus eventually running for president.

As a new and widely commended “American Way of War,” counterinsurgency threatens to transform the US Army and other sectors of the defense establishment into a force organized for nation building, equipped to export stability to the troubled and obdurate precincts of the globe. In accordance with this principle, the US Army has already shifted its organizational structure to favor light infantry over mechanized armored forces. Today, light infantry and the shock troops of counterinsurgency comprises two-thirds of the active US Army, with the remainder being comprised of heavy brigades of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

There are, however, numerous and irreparable defects in this narrative. To begin with, it finds little support in the historical record and is, in large measure, a work of historical fiction. Whether in Malaya or Vietnam, what the record does show is more continuity than not between commanders and methods of warfighting. There were no tectonic shifts toward counterinsurgency operations, no savior generals, and no reinventions. To the contrary, Western victories or defeats can only be attributed to reasons unique to each conflict. In Malaya, the British won because they used military might to crush the communist insurgents. In Vietnam, a “better war” never emerged—only an unwinnable war prolonged by a dysfunctional strategy. In Iraq, violence diminished in 2007 not because of General Petraeus’ role as a savior general, but rather because conditions such as the Anbar awakening and the Shia militias’ decision to stand down concurrently reduced violence. Finally, in Afghanistan, the assessment of former US Ambassador Thomas Pickering that counterinsurgency is a fruitless strategy seems to be gaining traction.

Nevertheless, the allure of counterinsurgency persists. Elites and opinion makers have come to believe in the promise of counterinsurgency as though it were a religion (as did the prophets and true believers of airpower from decades ago), complete with its very own bible, high priests, Messiah, and hope of rebirth in the face of a foundering war effort. Confidence in the promise of counterinsurgency to “change entire societies” seems to have permeated all spheres of policymaking, as retired US Army General James Dubik and neoconservative pundit Max Boot have both called for a US nation building effort in Libya. As with most religions, followers try to glean evidence of its veracity from the most unusual of circumstances. In 2010, a magazine writer was traveling in Afghanistan with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, when on a rural road outside of Kabul a bevy of young children pelted the admiral’s vehicle with stones in anger over US presence in the country. When the writer asked why this was happening, the admiral’s press officer, sitting in the front of the vehicle, remarked that it “shows the children have confidence in the security situation [produced by US counterinsurgency efforts] that they feel they can throw stones.”

More worrisome than the delusions of an individual US military press officer—or individual generals and think tank pundits, for that matter—is the monopoly that counterinsurgency retains over Americans’ approach to strategy and policy. In 2010, President Barack Obama sought from his military leaders an alternative to nation building in Afghanistan. His senior military leaders, transfixed by the promise that counterinsurgency can work in Afghanistan, supercharged by the myth that it has worked in history—namely in Malaya, Vietnam, and Iraq—could offer no alternative. They simply reiterated variations on a single theme built upon a vision of long-term US counterinsurgency and nation building at the barrel of a gun.

The cult of counterinsurgency troubles itself with issues largely unrelated to national security. Advocates of US intervention in the world’s troubled spots tend to be quite fond of counterinsurgency tactics. After all, a focus on the mechanics of intervention and state building—namely, counterinsurgency operations—means that the underlying motives and ideologies of US intervention will seldom be called into question. Instead, the focus remains on the procedures, tactics, and logistics of interventions, rather than on the causes, ideologies, and motives that bring them into being.

President Barack Obama seems to be fully aware of the nonsense behind US counterinsurgency and the fact that it does not work. His recent speech announcing eventual US withdrawal from its nation-building mission in Afghanistan, coupled with the assassination of Osama bin Laden, has helped to remove the smoke screen surrounding the efficacy of US counterinsurgency. Only a few short days after making his speech that outlined withdrawal from Afghanistan, the President’s senior generals were hedging and qualifying his decision with talk of only withdrawing from Afghanistan if the ground conditions are conducive to it. The senior US Army General in Afghanistan responsible for training local security forces, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, lectured politicians in Washington on the way the war was being conducted just weeks after President Obama’s announcement. Caldwell told his political masters that “Washington will need the political patience to maintain a substantial [American] military presence in Afghanistan for the indefinite future.”

When a field military’s operational framework for fighting a war starts to dictate strategy and encroach on presidential policy, this is known as “militarism”—a course of action that is inimical to democracy. In 1917, French President Georges Clemenceau highlighted the importance of political management over an army’s wartime operational methods, advising President Woodrow Wilson that war is “too important to be left up to the generals.” Decades later, Stanley Kubrick riffed on Clemenceau by offering a withering critique of US militarism in his movie Dr. Strangelove in which the character, General Jack D. Ripper, proclaims war to be “too important to be left up to the politicians.” The conceit of structuring strategy solely around counterinsurgency and the US Army’s obsession with the operational framework of counterinsurgency has given rise to a very troubling strain of militarism.

A stake needs to be driven through the heart of the notion that counterinsurgency represents effective strategy. Only then will the United States disassociate itself from the Svengali effect of savior generals thrusting counterinsurgency tactics upon their armies. Only then will it cease to launch itself into the troubled spots of the world, touting its responsibility to slay insurgents and build new societies, even when it is not in the strategic interest of the United States to do so.

War is, by its very nature, about death, destruction, and pain for both individuals and societies. Despite what proponents of counterinsurgency might argue, war cannot be recast as a foreign policy tool that is beneficial to societies. It is something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort in the pursuit of national security interests. Experts should not giddily pursue wars as a means of testing their new theories of warfare in the name of transforming warfare and the foreign societies that are placed in its path of destruction. All of this is a strategic fool’s errand. To presume that there is such a thing as “better” and “beneficial” war is to operate blindly on faith rather than drawing upon an understanding of history and clear strategic thinking toward current and future security problems.