Uses of History in the Debate Over COIN

As some readers may be aware, the seldom subtle military writer Ralph Peters, launched a bombastic salvo at the authors of the Army-Marine COIN doctrine in the AFJ, crediting the degree of success enjoyed in Iraq by General Petraeus to the extent to which Petraeus has ignored his own strategy: 

Dishonest doctrine A selective use of history taints the COIN manual

“….Entrusted with the mission of turning Iraq around, Petraeus turned out to be a marvelously focused and methodical killer, able to set aside the dysfunctional aspects of the doctrine he had signed off on. Given the responsibility of command, he recognized that, when all the frills are stripped away, counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help – and knowing the difference between the two (we spent our first four years in Iraq striking out on all three counts). Although Petraeus has, indeed, concentrated many assets on helping those who need help, he grasped that, without providing durable security – which requires killing those who need killing – none of the reconstruction or reconciliation was going to stick. On the ground, Petraeus has supplied the missing kinetic half of the manual.

 The troubling aspect of all this for the Army’s intellectual integrity comes from the neo-Stalinist approach to history a number of the manual’s authors internalized during their pursuit of doctorates on “the best” American campuses. Instead of seeking to analyze the requirements of counterinsurgency warfare rigorously before proceeding to draw impartial conclusions based on a broad array of historical evidence, they took the academic’s path of first setting up their thesis, then citing only examples that supported it.

To wit, the most over-cited bit of nonsense from the manual is the claim that counterinsurgency warfare is only 20 percent military and 80 percent political. No analysis of this indefensible proposition occurred. It was quoted because it suited the pre-formulated argument. Well, the source of that line was Gen. Chang Ting-chen, one of Mao’s less-distinguished subordinates. Had the authors bothered to look at Mao’s writings, they would have read that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” that “whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army,” and that “only with guns can the whole world be transformed.”

The rest of the article continues in this vein, until no straw man remains standing and Peters emerges from the top of an ancient stone temple and hurls the severed head of LTC John Nagl down some steps to a savage crowd of painted milbloggers. I exaggerate here – but only slightly.

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