Review Essay: The Fading Counterinsurgency Fad

Books Reviewed in this Essay:

Hannah Gurman, ed., Hearts and Minds: A People’s History of Counterinsurgency (New York: The New Press, 2013)

Ivan Eland, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds are Seldom Won (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013)

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

Counterinsurgency never really goes out of style, no matter how much its ardent fans bemoan it doing so, although the styles of counterinsurgency (COIN, in insider jargon) shift swiftly so as to sooth civilized sensibilities. The customary underlying COIN aims are to (1) gull the domestic public about the actual cruelties of counterinsurgency, (2) bolster foreign allies no matter how indelibly corrupt they are, and (3) to rub out supposedly small fry enemies abroad and, eventually, at home too. “Bring the war home’ is a truly silly slogan that the Weatherman faction promoted in the late sixties, silly because long dirty wars always come home anyway, as we witness in the steady erosion of US civil rights and breakneck militarization of police forces.[1] For policy elites in major powers there can be no such thing as a popular insurgency (unless those same elites sponsor it) so one must expect them to deploy carelessly calculated medleys of soft words and hard killers to stamp out designated nuisances.

Ever on tap is an ample supply of coldblooded functionaries eager to carry out the brutal and usually futile neoimperial task of shoving round pegs endlessly into square holes. No matter how often the dubious doctrines and cheery accounts of COIN are proved flat wrong, a new batch of steely-gazed, semi-sober, task-oriented enablers arises to revive it whenever an anxious superpower puts out the call. Even if most counterinsurgencies do flop, punitive examples must be made of insolent insurgents. Noam Chomsky is correct that Vietnam, though a delirious defeat, served as a stern warning of the mighty price that disobedient actors abroad will pay for tangling with a leviathan.

The so-called COINdistas take it as an article of faith that the endangered population in any target country stands immaculately apart from ‘bad insurgents,’ who, as it usually happens, are family and neighbors of the same people the counterinsurgents profess to protect. Lt. Col. John Nagl, of Eating Soup with a Knife fame, obligatorily views appointed foes as all “terrorists that leech off of disaffected indigenous populations for recruits and support for their extremist ideologies.'[2] The sneaky inscrutable populace, however, may back the insurgency, and even if they are not supporters at the start then clumsy COIN activities can transform them into rebels via routine rough treatment escalating all the extremely tempting way up to pure mayhem.

Authorities, as all books under review testify, are well aware of the acute dilemma that arrogant and errant COIN actions only stoke local resistance, but they cannot restrain themselves from doing it anyway. As editor Hannah Gurman notes in her valuable collection Hearts and Minds, COIN is the thinly disguised descendent of earlier imperial ventures by cynical European powers and so prim American proponents cannot bring themselves to confess to anything like similar motives. In the Philippines (twice), Vietnam, Central America (many times), Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the frankly genocidal 19th century Indian Wars, the gruesome task – also dubbed pacification or irregular warfare or low intensity operations – was dutifully framed as liberating the proles from oppressive Soprano-like hoodlums, not imposing a new gang of thugs who serve American elites’ interests, as poorly conceived as those interests may be.

Defense intellectuals, if that is quite the term for hired word-slingers, cling to the handy notion that moral qualms must not pollute the objective scientific enterprise of subjugating wayward populations. The phenomenon of the “accidental guerilla,” of naive natives turning rebel after experiencing counterinsurgent abuses, which David Kilcullen lamented in his book of that title, is a sure by-product of bloody intervention, especially third-party intervention. Yet deciding not to meddle is virtually ruled out as a reasonable choice in official policy menus. So, in quagmire situations abroad, the COIN feedback loop gets stuck in reverse gear, which comes to be viewed by annoyed authorities as a form of progress. Why? Because generating more insurgents fuels the venerable self-serving argument that the remedy is higher doses of the same medicine. In The Failure of Counterinsurgency Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute denounces this slick syndrome as fiercely as do Gurman’s group of left-liberal critics. So too does Colonel Gian Gentile, an Iraq combat veteran who (I am glad to learn) now teaches at West Point, in his short, sharp shock of a book Wrong Turn. These three dissenting volumes, which pretty much span the American ideological spectrum, converge on the need to bury COIN, not to ‘improve’ it.

Gurman’s worthy collection is a ‘response to the grand narrative of US counterinsurgency,’ one nestled within cozy groupthink confines where the perpetrators agree to misunderstand or misstate facts to each other’s satisfaction. Gurman’s contributors offer a ‘glimpse into the history of insurgency and counter-insurgency from “below,” from the vantage points of ordinary people caught in the maelstrom of these conflicts.’ So they attempt to “detail the different segments of the population, their often complex and always evolving relationship to the ‘insurgency,’ and the impact of counterinsurgency campaigns on their communities and their lives.” Gurman also cannot help but observe that ongoing domestic espionage and surveillance efforts designed to separate American communities into desirable and undesirable elements is a local manifestation of COIN. The police today in Ferguson, Missouri, as some astounded veterans remarked, look better equipped than were many vulnerable soldiers patrolling Iraq and Afghanistan. One might lazily call this outcome “ironic”, except that amping up repressive apparatuses at home is an entirely predictable part of coping with the fallout from pursuing expensive military expeditions abroad.

Karl Hack, examining the ‘Malayan emergency’ of 1948-60, scrupulously defines “people’s history” as allowing voice for victims of insurgency as well as of COIN. Well and good – if only COIN advocates scrupulously counted both categories of victims too. Malaya, Hack argues, is misread as a stirring counterinsurgency success, as also is the Philippines Huk rebellion in the 1950s (though few enthusiasts probe too deeply into the Philippines horrors circa 1900). Authorities, you see, don’t just want to crush foes, they want to be applauded for doing so in an angelically legitimate manner. Give our canny leaders credit for caring enough to lie about what they do. What happened in Malaya was not a touchy-feely ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, but lawless brutality and mass deportation conducted largely to serve rapacious British plantation and mining interests. The roots lay in postwar repression of labor as well as nationalist aspirations. Hack does not really try to distinguish between provocation and reaction, a faux evenhandedness. So when labor resists employer-sponsored violence, they seem to be loony villains. Ultimately, an ethnic split between a Chinese minority who formed most of the insurgency (and earlier resistance to Japanese occupation) and the Malay majority worked decisively in authorities’ favor. Still, Malaya was an extraordinarily costly venture that the British could only ‘win’ by reluctantly ceding independence.

For US Cold Warriors both Malaya and the Philippines (where advertising exec- turned-COIN guru Ed Lansdale became a legendary spook) resemble successes to be plumbed for profound lessons, but Gurman’s contributors pry past the press clipping facades. Without women’s support, for example, Vina Lanzano argues, there would have been no Huk rebellion, which stemmed from a radical shift in landlord-tenant relations.[3] She demolishes the assumption, necessary for COIN to seem plausible, that “it was not a community and solidarity and strong kinship relations but communist agitation that explained the success of the Huk movement.’ She also zeroes in on a crucial ‘masculinized conception in which both peasants and guerrilla appear as free agents, manipulated, and, in the end, acting only for themselves and their own personal interests.” Hence, in a crude rational choice board game universe, insurgents get categorized as gangsters and gun molls. Here the lab-coated analysts impose a congenial explanation upon the mysterious environment. COIN tactics, Lanzano finds, “deploy conservative strategies toward gender and women that, in the end, exploit and marginalize women and reinforce masculine ideologies of conflict and power.’ The intent was the breakup of the communities themselves in order to suppress resistance. Eland points out the inescapable paradox that, even if we accept authorities’ highly skewed assumptions, COIN cannot work until the population feels safe enough to collaborate but they can only do so when the insurgency is broken.

Vietnam’s lesson, in the cookbook recipe phrase, is first catch (or select) a government the populace believes is worth defending.[4] The Saigon regime, a round-robin of authoritarian cabals, was devoutly corrupt and just as devoutly depicted in US propaganda as a frail democracy under threat. One rather admirable Marine officer in 1966, determined to win distrustful hearts and minds, wound up having to order his platoon to level its weapons at South Vietnamese officials who tried to pillage what the earnest Yanks helped to build.[5] (His Marines behaved as nearly like Boy Scouts as Marines are capable of, which one suspects is not very much.) The officer was aghast that he had to resort to force to protect villagers from their predatory government, but do you imagine the villagers were surprised? And what happened when the Marines departed? The COIN prognosis, to say the least, was not a promising one in so fundamentally inhospitable a climate. Gian Gentile, by the way, contrary to some giddy revisionists, detects no difference in the COIN aspect of the war in the changeover from Westmorland’s leadership to Abrams.[6]

B-52s are wretched ambassadors, but so too are nosey foreign soldiers poking around strange neighborhoods figuring out whom to scribble onto kill lists (which is one of many problems later arising around the Human Terrain System).[7] Creating refugees also is no means for winning hearts and minds, though the US counted mass relocations as a net plus. The real goal was to pacify domestic sources of opposition, for the “people inside were being protected from the threat of their own potential disloyalty.” Thank goodness for any scrap of candor. The ‘accelerated pacification campaign’ (including the notorious Phoenix program) from late 1968 onward was unsparing and indiscriminate under the guise of precision. Guerrillas reeled, or backed off, for a while but rapidly recovered. So, after the war, the Pentagon quietly downgraded, if not ditched, counterinsurgency. It became the preserve of Special Forces. General David Petraeus, chief instigator of the best-selling COIN Manual, later helped to summon this zombie doctrine forth from its dioxin-laced coffin to torment Iraqis and Afghans too.

Regarding El Salvador Joaquim Chavez finds that terrified ordinary people in the 1980s had little choice but to fight the elites exploiting them. Implacable anticommunism was invoked to justify US intervention. American corporate interests aligned with designs of rapacious Salvadoran elites. So the military-oligarch leaders treated intellectuals, unions, students, and opposition politicians as mortal threats, ‘portraying social activism as the same as guerrilla action.’ Salvadoran leaders inflicted a sadistic counterinsurgency ordeal that generated the very leftist threat they feared and loathed. Fear of popular voice and reforms united local jefes and their paranoiac US enablers. During the Reagan years concessions were dangled as matters of image management and so as to undercut or split the opposition. Yet the strategy failed to snuff out the FMLN and instead during George H. W. Bush’s term the armed conflict came to an unwanted negotiated end.

Finally, in Gurman’s volume, Rick Rowley’s and David Enders’ essays examine Iraq, where COIN was plucked from the vasty deep to bail out Dubya’s hubris, while essays by Jeremy Kuzmarov and Jean Mackenzie ably sort through the “scorched earth in slow motion’ that is Afghanistan. The US invaded Iraq, disbanded the army, privatized oil, and added to these bad first impressions by shooting protesters in numerous street incidents. Ultimately, the celebrated Sunni ‘awakening’ led to the rise of ISIL today. Hooray. Kuzmarov aptly cites Gabriel Kolko’s observation that in warfare, and especially wars of conquest, ‘the functions, actions, and values of officers ands men are the inevitable consequences of the kinds of societies they are seeking to create or defend” – neocolonial marionettes, in the case of Paul Bremer’s Iraq and Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan, which could not stand.

In Iraq in the mid-2000s Lt. Col. Gian Gentile turned up few ‘fence-sitters’ waiting to be charmed by kindly counterinsurgents, of whom there were probably even fewer. The myth nonetheless was cultivated that the ‘surge’ under COIN auspices suddenly mollified the deadly place. Yet it was bags of bribery cash and expert exploitation of sectarian tensions that redirected ferocious resistance away from American troops. The ballyhooed resurrection of COIN was a gambit to rescue a failed enterprise and ultimately just a garish cover for withdrawal.[8] Gentile attests that many young American officers used COIN techniques before Petraeus but they did so to little avail in a milieu that non-negotiably wanted Yankees to go home.

Gentile slams the “deep-seated American military assumption that by getting organization, systems, and procedures working correctly wars can be won.” Gentile judges the US “failed at strategy’, but it may be somewhat more accurate to infer that US schemes failed at inception in their lethal little neocon cradles. What imaginable strategy could have succeeded in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq or Afghanistan anyway? ‘The blunt answer,’ replies Gentile, ‘is that heart-and-minds counterinsurgency carried out by an occupying power in a foreign land doesn’t work unless it is a multigenerational effort.’ Maybe Nazis can get away with it, though their record was a bit mixed, and they didn’t quite last a thousand years.[9]

COIN remains a faintly respectable topic because a superpower can afford to keep every ugly option open and because no apparatchik brewing it up ever got hurt.[10] I recently heard a scholar I respect tumble into the trap of talking airily about US interventionist disasters as not really doing harm to “us,” though by “us” he meant the Ivy League-ish policy elites (whose Iraq invasion mania he opposed) who hatched the hubristic plans. The USA suffered in many ways but not these Teflon pundits who still haunt our airwaves. The swamp of fetid COIN concepts needs to be sanitarily drained. The only unconventional attitude toward this entrancingly counterproductive form of warfare is to shelve it for good. Counterinsurgency, as Gentile and everyone else here grasps, ‘is a recipe for perpetual war,” and that objective suits schemers who shouldn’t be let anywhere near the levers of power.



[1] See Radley Balko, The Rise of the Warrior Cop (Washington DC: PublicAffairs, 2013) and Kristian Williams, William Munger, and Lara Messersmith-Glavin, eds. Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press, 2013)

[2] John A. Nagl, Foreward to David H. Ucko, The New Counterinsurgency Era (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009), p. viii.

[3] Benedict J. Kerkvliet, The Huk Rebellion: A Study of Peasant Revolt in the Philippines (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2002), pp. 22-25.

[4] According to Kaplan’s account, David Kilcullen eventually confronted the following confounding syllogism: “We shouldn’t engage in counterinsurgency unless the government we’re helping is effective and legitimate: a government that needs foreign help to fight an insurgency generally isn’t effective or legitimate; therefore we generally shouldn’t engage in counterinsurgency.” Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Simon & Schuster, 2009), p. 290.

[5] William Corson, The Betrayal (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968). Bing West’s The Village (New York: Pocket Books, 1972) was a far more gung-ho and considerably less circumspect version of the combined action platoon experience in Vietnam and therefore much more acceptable for military reading lists.

[6] In this upbeat redemptive militarist vein see any book by Lewis Sorley or Mark Moyar.

[7] See John Kelly, Bea Jauregi, Sean Mitchell and Jeremy Walton, eds. Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[8] For an assiduously rosey-hued look at the surge, see Thomas Ricks, The Gamble (New York: Penguin, 2008).

[9] See Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire (London: Penguin, 2009).

[10] See Kurt Jacobsen, “COIN Flips: Counterinsurgency and American International Relations” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, April 2014.


Kurt Jacobsen, Logos book review editor, is a research associate in political science at the University of Chicago and the author of Pacification and Its Discontents (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2009) and Parables of Permanent War (Lanham, Lexington Press, 2011).


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