The Wrong Debate: Reflections on Counterinsurgency

Editor’s note: We are pleased to publish this guest contribution by Crispin Burke. To read more about our submissions process, please click here.

Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency (New York: The New Press, 2013)

Swan songs for counterinsurgency have been making their rounds for nearly two years, as commentators reflect on two unfulfilling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One of the most anticipated of these works has been Colonel Gian Gentile’s Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency.

Col. Gentile, a West Point history professor and longtime critic of modern counterinsurgency thought, does an admirable job of breaking down the dominant narrative of the evolution of COIN (perhaps best and most recently elucidated in Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents).  But that debate is now played out, and the book does not advance far beyond it.  As such, Col. Gentile misses an opportunity to push the conversation forward—in other words, he succeeds at being deconstructive, but not on being constructive.

Those familiar with Col. Gentile’s extensive writing on the topic will no doubt be familiar with his argument about a “popular narrative” adopted shortly after violence subsided in Iraq in 2007. That narrative holds that  violence subsided as a direct result of the arrival of General David Petraeus, armed with a new counterinsurgency doctrine.  To deconstruct this narrative, Col. Gentile breaks down the “leader-centric” or “hero” view of counterinsurgency, not only in Iraq, but in also popular retellings of the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War—which he cites as strong influences on US counterinsurgency doctrine.  Dismantling  these two historical narratives takes up 50 pages of a 142-page book.  These chapters are interesting, but one suspects that Col. Gentile only chose them because they were the case studies in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, a book written by Col. Gentile’s bête noir, John Nagl.  Numerous other historical cases have also influenced on the US military’s counterinsurgency manual—among them Northern Ireland, the Arab Revolt of 1916, the Napoleonic Wars, Algeria (via David Galula), and most importantly, numerous recent case studies from Iraq and Afghanistan (which form the bulk of the vignettes  in the Army’s field manual).  Spending over 1/3rd of the book on what seems to be little more than a refutation of his old rhetorical sparring partner’s arguments hardly adds anything new to the debate.

Col. Gentile also rails against the way that counterinsurgency doctrine has been applied.  Yet, it’s important to note that military doctrine is an attempt to take written guidance and codify it into a method of action—meaning that, just as a single religious text can give rise to any number of interpretations, so too did the the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency manual (known as FM 3-24) .Therefore, much of Col. Gentile’s criticism of counterinsurgency isn’t directed at FM 3-24 per se, but rather at the manual’s romanticized cousin, which we’ll hereafter call “hearts and minds,” or rather just “population-centric counterinsurgency.”

FM 3-24—the first revision of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine in nearly twenty years—debuted to both acclaim and criticism.  Shortly after the manual’s release, Col. Gentile, who had recently returned from a successful battalion command in one of the most restless areas of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, penned a nuanced op-ed in Armed Forces Journal offering both praise and caution.

Then-Lt. Col. Gentile referred to FM 3-24 as a “superb piece of doctrinal writing”, and felt that its middle chapters were particularly useful for commanders in Iraq.  However, he heaped scorn upon a section of the book involving “paradoxes” of counterinsurgency, a concern he reiterates in his 2013 book.  Chief among his complaints was—and still is—that FM 3-24 downplays the use of force. He scoffs at FM 3-24’s maxims that “tactical success guarantees nothing” and that “some of the best weapons don’t shoot.”

A closer evaluation, however, shows that FM 3-24 is a far different book than its critics make it out to be.  Paradoxes are a poor addition to the book, not because they are inaccurate, but because they tend to be comically over-simplified, and are replete with qualifiers and exceptions.  Nevertheless, FM 3-24 does clarify its assertion that “tactical success guarantees nothing” by noting that tactical actions are “important…in achieving security,” though not in and of themselves the only means of success.  Indeed, Col. Gentile’s analysis of FM 3-24’s “paradox” section places him in the awkward position of castigating the maxim that “some of the best weapons don’t shoot” (the manual specifically mentions using “money as ammunition”) on the same page on which he regrets not being able to financially compensate an Iraqi woman for her injuries at the hands of American security contractors. Presumably, he would agree that such a situation mandated the use of some of the very same non-tactical tools he dismisses.

In fact, FM 3-24 contains many passages advocating offensive action. It cites the 1st Marine Division’s actions (under the command of General James Mattis) in Iraq in 2003 as a model example of counterinsurgency, perfectly blending civil administration with actions to “neutralize” (read, “use overwhelming firepower to kill, defeat and destroy”) the most recalcitrant insurgents.  The same goes for an extended passage involving then-Colonel H.R. McMaster’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal’Afar, which included building an eight-foot high berm around the city, moving civilians “out of contentious areas,”  and using precision fire from artillery and aircraft.

Finally, any discussion of FM 3-24 should also take into consideration the publication of its 300-page supplement, “Tactics in Counterinsurgency” (FM 3-24.2), which is filled with various methods of killing and capturing insurgents on the battlefield.

As for the concept of “hearts and minds,” which is heavily criticized by Col. Gentile,  FM 3-24 uses the phrase once, and even then, only with a sense of cold utilitarianism.  From paragraph A-26:

This is the true meaning of the phrase “hearts and minds,” which comprises two separate components. “Hearts” means persuading people that their best interests are served by COIN success. “Minds” means convincing them that the force can protect them and that resisting it is pointless. Note that neither concerns whether people like Soldiers and Marines. Calculated self-interest, not emotion, is what counts. Over time, successful trusted networks grow like roots into the populace. They displace enemy networks, which forces enemies into the open, letting military forces seize the initiative and destroy the insurgents. [Emphasis added]

Col. Gentile’s arguments are not entirely about merit. There are those who believed that FM 3-24 offered the promise of a gentler, more just war.  Books such as Three Cups of Tea, a feel-good tale (and notorious fraud) appeared on many of the U.S. military’s professional reading lists.  Rules of engagement were severely curtailed in Afghanistan, and some even considered a “courageous restraint” medal to commend those who held their fire while under enemy contact.  Most importantly, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars were allocated towards humanitarian projects that did nothing to stem the root causes of instability.


A Question of Leadership

The book’s real strength is its thorough research into four historical COIN cases:  Malaysia, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Yet Gentile spends more time debunking the leader-centric concept of counterinsurgency than he does examining successful methods for defeating insurgency.

Of course, he wouldn’t have to debunk the leader-centric models of counterinsurgency if legions of writers hadn’t lionized it (most notably, a book from Mark Moyar, which was met with derision from many COIN analysts). Col. Gentile’s research, drawing heavily on journals, notebooks, and other primary sources, does much to dispel the “hero” narrative.

The hero narrative was especially powerful in Iraq not only because General Petraeus was the architect of F.M. 324, but also because he took command in Iraq just as the violence was beginning to subside—leading many to conclude that General Petraeus was the sole cause of the turning point in the Iraq War.

Col. Gentile challenges this hero narrative on two fronts.  First, he argues that the reduction in violence was more the product of indigenous factors rather than the result of the Surge. Second, Gentile notes that tactical units performed much the same both before and after General Petraeus took command in Iraq.

As far as the first point, the reasons for the decrease in violence in Iraq remain the subject of much debate. Gentile suggests that it was due to a combination of factors—not the least of which were the Anbar Awakening and the conclusion of the Civil War in Baghdad in 2007, culminating in the stand-down of the Mahdi Army, a Baghdad-based Shia militia.  Col. Gentile is not the only one to make this argument. It is echoed in Bob Woodward’s 2008 book, The War Within, written in the concluding days of the Surge.  And despite the disagreement that exists between Col. Gentile and Thomas Ricks, both credit the Sunni Awakening for the reduction in violence, and both believe that the events of 2006-2007 may have produced temporary security gains without resolving the underlying causes of instability within Iraq.

Col. Gentile’s second line of attack on the hero narrative is that U.S. units were practicing counterinsurgency before the arrival of General Petraeus.  Certainly, COIN did not arrive in Iraq with General Petraeus—the U.S. Army adopted COIN in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, manner.  An interim COIN manual was published in 2004, and a COIN academy was established in Iraq in 2005.  Moreover, several units in Iraq had begun to adopt COIN tactics before the publication of FM 3-24—most notably, General Mattis, Colonel McMaster, and Colonel Sean McFarland  (And, of course, Col. Gentile himself, as he mentions four times in Wrong Turn).

Beyond debunking the “hero” narrative—which consumes the bulk of Col. Gentile’s book — Wrong Turn offers little else.  A case in point is Col. Gentile’s take on the Vietnam War. For him, the lesson of Vietnam is that leaders must have “clear-headed thinking about policy and strategy that aligns ways, means, and ends relative to national interests and the potential of our enemies”.  This is a frequent mantra from Col. Gentile, but he rarely offers specifics as to which ends, ways, and means.  As such, this view of strategy describes everything, yet at the same time, nothing.  On the rare occasions on which Col. Gentile enters the realm of strategy, we get platitudes like the US Army must have a “discussion on strategy” – failing to realize that the Army, by its lonesome, does not formulate strategy.  That, of course, is a question for the entire US government (which, it should be noted, cannot even pass a balanced budget nor acknowledge that global warming exists.)

If anything, Wrong Turn’s takeaway for leaders is in the final three pages, in which Col. Gentile advises leaders against armed nation-building.  Sound advice for future foreign policy endeavors, for certain, but will institutional memory keep these lessons?  Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, American forces were battling insurgents in two countries, with no end in sight. Political leaders will ignore this sage advice and our military needs to be prepared to carry out these missions, even if they are unwise.

Wrong Turn is a mixed bag.  The bulk of the book features meticulous research, though it belabors the point—most readers don’t need eighty pages to be convinced that the “hero” narrative is flawed.  Much ink is spent chasing historical ghosts, with little effort to tie it in to our current lessons.   Col. Gentile’s thorough historical research wavers at times, sometimes glossing over facts in favor of a simpler narrative.  For instance, Col. Gentile’s assertion that two-thirds of the active Army BCTs consist of “light infantry” is highly dubious, unless one counts Stryker infantry as light.  Still, it does stick to a narrative Col. Gentile has been has been harking for the last few years.

Nevertheless, despite the book’s flaws, Col. Gentile’s voice is a powerful one in the national debate, and it serves as a decent counterweight to previous, more optimistic writings on counterinsurgency.  Everything happens in cycles, and perhaps the US Army is entering the early 1980s once again, with an emphasis on decisive battle rather than on armed nation building.  Yet, few predicted that US forces would be involved in such nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan—the United States has an unprecedented ability to find itself overwhelmed by events.  Try as we might to heed Col. Gentile’s warning about not being involved in armed nation building, we will need some guiding principles in the event that we are sucked into this predicament once again.  This is the debate we should be having.


Crispin Burke is a serving US military officer. His views are his alone and do not represent the opinions or positions of the Department of Defense. 


Photo Credit: USMC