Center for Strategic Communication

The counterinsurgency debate very much resembles the protracted, indecisive wars that spawned it. Last week, Jason Fritz and Gian P. Gentile clashed (again) over counterinsurgency’s legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan. So what’s new or interesting about it to justify a blog post in mid-August 2013? Gentile makes an argument midway through that finally allows us to debate the real core hiding behind much COIN debate: an argument about policy instead of strategy.

One of the leading proponents of the efficacy of American
nation-building operations, retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, has
acknowledged that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and future wars
of this type are likely to be “unsatisfying wars.” Nagl’s point is that
these wars of American foreign intervention to “change entire
societies” take a long time, they cost a lot, and the results are often
inconclusive, or as he says, “unsatisfying.” Yet the question needs to be asked, why should America fight an “unsatisfying” war in the first place?


The American people have fought satisfying wars in their past: World
War II and the American Civil War are two examples. The Civil War
satisfied because it ended the greater evil of slavery. World War II
defeated the evil, expansionist regimes of Nazi Germany and imperial
Japan. War is ugly and brutal in the best of cases, but under Hart’s
definition of a successful war as one that produces a better state of
peace, these were unquestionably successful.

We are no longer in the bounds of military doctrine and arguments over how many Galulas can dance on a pin in Ft. Leavenworth military history classes. This is, straightforwardly, an argument about what the underlying policy that guides war should be. It would seem to sit on solid ground. World War II and the Civil War are easy and safe examples of what “satisfying war” should be. They have the most decisive political results and in 2013 they are also the most ideologically safe.

Of course, the latter point raises the question “satisfying to whom?” World War II and the American Civil War (ACW) were both marked by some fairly deep ideological and strategic divisions in American society that only have managed to coagulate into consensus within the gauzy world of American civic religion.  And the strategic decisiveness of said conflicts was by no means evident to contemporaries. A campaign of armed terrorism by Southerners intent on reversing much of the political changes wrought by the ACW led to a messy compromise that preserved many aspect of antebellum Dixie institutions for century.

Even taking Gentile’s point, the larger problem remains that WWII and ACW are outliers in American warfare. If they are the standard to be used for a war that satisfies, then America is strategically frustrated on a level that only Mick Jagger can relate to. American military history is replete with far, far more militarily indecisive and politically dubious wars than brave admirals yelling “damn the torpedos!” and Times Square kisses on V-J Day. And these unsatisfying wars are distributed rather uniformly from the days of quill pens to Twitter.

Why? Because in a democratic polity, politicians will go to war for a variety of reasons. And they do so with the backing of the multifarious institutions that enable them to generate military power for political purpose. Often times, war will be the disorganized output of a political process rather than a unitary decision (the true meaning of Clausewitz’s phrase that war is politics by other means). Sometimes war’s principal purpose will be domestic rather than international gain. After all, Hart’s phrase “a better state of peace” falsely implies the benefits of said “peace” are uniformly distributed amongst the victor.

Gentile and others can wish for “satisfying” war, but is there is an objective and reachable standard of satisfaction? Indeed, the problems multiply when Gentile and others attempt to lay out a new one:

[D]efend the American homeland, vital national interests, and friendly nations; maintain open access to the global lines of communication in the domains of air, land, sea, space and cyber; prevent any state, or combinations of states (or nonstate actors)
from dominating by force of arms the European-Asian land mass or allied
nations; support peaceful relations between nations and foster greater understanding among international militaries.


In combination with the standing powers given the executive and
legislative branches of our government in the Constitution, this
strategy provides great flexibility in ensuring the defense and security
of the United States. There is a notable characteristic of this
strategy, however, that distinguishes it from the current version: it
does not advocate using military power to compel other peoples, races or
religions to conform to Western views and governing structures.

Defending vital national interests and friendly nations? A great deal of the American national security establishment thought they were doing so by protecting the Diem regime that held up so many Asian “dominoes” that Communism supposedly threatened to topple. And since the Diem regime was threatened in large part (though not exclusively) by internal subversion, they thought they could shore him up by compelling him to “conform to Western views and governing structures.”

Maintaining open access to the global lines of communication lead to wars with France, Britain, and Barbary pirates. The first two risked destruction of substantial American political and military power and led to widespread domestic political unrest that also threatened national unity. Needless to say the resolution of the American end of the Napoleonic wars was far from satisfying–even in retrospect. The Barbary Wars, as Dan and I are fond of repeating, involved mercenaries and some creative legal reasoning. And it is by no means clear that a hostile power or alliance controlling the Eurasian landmass would pose unacceptable risks to American national security–the question wasn’t even clear in the 1940s.

Furthmore, it’s also worth noting how the question of involvement in a European war polarized interwar Americans along essentially domestic political lines. Opponents and supporters of war (as in the ACW) had strikingly different views of America’s economic, domestic political, and cultural future. Many explicitly viewed war as a mechanism that would bring their desired domestic endstate about. And, of course, in the international realm a cosmopolitan internationalist policymaker is likely to have a strikingly different conception of the world system and how the US contributes than a hard-bitten realist.

From the perspective of the military, these nuances and qualifications are irrelevant. Once policy is advanced, the military creates purposeful violence that can be translated into political currency. Think the Mexican-American War is deeply immoral and unproductive to the vision of the US you favor? Doesn’t matter. Pick up a rifle and start blasting away at Santa Ana‘s boys before they shoot you dead.

Often policy in war can shift radically. The powers that be wanted a rapid and decisive war that would destroy Iraq’s system of government without the USG left holding the bag. The military provided half of the RFP. When those same policymakers suddenly realized they needed an out, they rewarded those who had slaved away in obscurity studying counterinsurgency with power and influence and shunted the late 90s “revolutionaries” aside. Now the policy world wants drones, cyber weapons, special operations forces, and AirSeaBattle—until they change their minds again.

The purpose of the recent stream of anti-COIN op-eds is to fire a few shotgun rounds into the recently buried corpse of counterinsurgency to prevent it from rising again. But the efficacy of such a method will always be in doubt in a world where policymakers can always revive it, voodoo-like, to extricate themselves when someone hits the “Panic!” button. The reality of politics means that wars will always be unsatisfying. George Kennan laid out a security policy a good deal simpler and less ambiguous than the one Gentile and others present, and it still was wrenched away from him because the father of containment couldn’t play the game as well as his more hawkish contemporaries.

If the graveyards are full of indispensable men, they are also cluttered with ideas of American power and strategy founded on “never again.” The mistake of today’s anti-COIN wave, like that of the 1970s, is the presumption that marginalizing or burying the doctrinal tools will ensure that they will be never used again. But the real battles over COIN were never fought in military forums or among Washington defense intellectuals. They were decided in cabinet halls by professional politicians and their associates who could care less about who was really right about historically interpreting Malaya or Algeria. This is a class of individuals that probably would mistake Galula or Trinquier for luxury French fashion brands.

The Pyrrhic victory inherent in continuing to blame obscure military doctrines for the decisions of politicians that operate at a far more rarefied level is that success in such a struggle, though satisfying, will ultimately be illusory. Until America loses the superpower status that allows it to put “boots on the ground” after destroying a nation’s government with overwhelming military power, I could very well be telling my own future children that guerrillas of the mid-21st century aren’t anything new. I might be trying to explain to them the roadside bombs and execution by power drill they’ll see on the news aren’t evidence that war has changed or become “complex adaptive,” as some future military pundit will likely claim.

Heck, I might even be writing this very same blog post–which I write today as a young man in my mid-20s–on another blog as I hurtle past AARP status.

Ultimately, the key to fighting satisfying wars is to convince enough of the American public and key elites to have the same definition of “satisfaction” as you do. That’s a battle far more difficult than beating up on the remnants of COIN—with far more uncertain results. They may right now—but if nothing is final in war, even less is final in politics.