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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.

Mao ZeDong is an odd historical choice for Peters to expound upon here, on several levels. First, while Mao is oft-cited in the annals of military history and counterinsurgency theory, the United States military is not in a position in Iraq that is analogous to Mao’s guerillas. Or Mao’s totalitarian dictatorship either. Secondly, Mao never fought the kind of thoroughly decimatory campaigns in the Chinese civil war that Peters clearly envisions – at least not against a formidible military opponent; whenever possible, Mao tried to politically co-opt the toughest warlords allied with the Kuomintang into the CCP. When giving battle, Mao’s forces usually suffered a beating at the hands of first-rate Nationallist armies. If anything, Mao’s military leadership was probably a greater menace to his own Red Army troops than to their Nationalist and Japanese enemies. Thirdly, by contrast, Chiang Kai-shek and the Imperial Japanese Army both undertook truly exterminatory campaigns in China, the former with the help of German advisers, against the Communists; and the latter with their “Loot All, Kill All, Burn All” scorched earth strategy. Unlike Mao, neither the Generalissimo nor the Japanese achieved any lasting success despite employing the most brutal tactics this side of Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen.

Dave Dilegge, Editor-in-Chief of the excellent Small Wars Journal, responded to Peters, refuting his assertions point by point in his post “Peace, Love, COIN?”  at the SWJ Blog. Most of Dave’s rebuttal is beyond the scope of this post but he too takes Peters to task on the Mao citation:

“But I surmise that some of Peters’ annoyance comes from the fact that non-military professionals, in concert with their military counterparts, had a hand in the production of FM 3-24 as he takes exception to the doctrine’s use of the General Chang Ting-chen 20 / 80 percent quotation.

‘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.Anyone looking objectively at the situation in Iraq could hardly claim that it’s only 20 percent military and 80 percent diplomatic. Even the State Department doesn’t really believe that one – or they would’ve kept a tighter leash on their private security contractors.Wishful thinking doesn’t defeat insurgencies. Without the will to establish and maintain security for the population, nothing else works.’

Peters misses the mark here by misrepresenting FM 3-24’s intent of presenting the 20 / 80 “rule of thumb” as a metaphoric means of conveying that political factors are primary during COIN.

‘General Chang Ting-chen of Mao Zedong’s central committee once stated that revolutionary war was 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military. Such an assertion is arguable and certainly depends on the insurgency’s stage of development; it does, however, capture the fact that political factors have primacy in COIN. At the beginning of a COIN operation, military actions may appear predominant as security forces conduct operations to secure the populace and kill or capture insurgents; however, political objectives must guide the military’s approach. Commanders must, for example, consider how operations contribute to strengthening the HN government’s legitimacy and achieving U.S. political goals.

This means that political and diplomatic leaders must actively participate throughout the conduct (planning, preparation, execution, and assessment) of COIN operations. The political and military aspects of insurgencies are so bound together as to be inseparable. Most insurgent approaches recognize that fact.Military actions executed without properly assessing their political effects at best result in reduced effectiveness and at worst are counterproductive. Resolving most insurgencies requires a political solution; it is thus imperative that counterinsurgent actions do not hinder achieving that political solution.’

While using the current situation in Iraq as an example Peters conveniently neglects to acknowledge (or does not believe) that we paid dearly for not implementing a strategy of political primacy early in the execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead, we had a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) responsible for the non-military elements of national power. The CPA and its Chief Executive L. Paul Bremer were a disaster – inexperienced and political ideologues in critical jobs, disbanding the Iraqi Army, “de-Ba’athification” and the hate-hate relationship between the CPA and the military’s Combined Joint Task Force 7 (later Multi-National Force-Iraq) are but a few examples of what can be called a classic case study in how to create and fuel an insurgency due to political neglect.”

In this section Dave did a nice job demonstrating, unlike Ralph Peters, the vital importance of context, both for scholarly accuracy as well as for the construction of valid historical analogies.

Joining Dilegge in his criticism of Peters was Dr. Chet Richards of Defense & The National Interest . Richards then used that to springboard into a general historical discussion of maximalist vs. minimalist approaches to using force in a COIN scenario:

Ave Caesar!

“As delightful as it is to see anybody deflate Ralph Peters (although Peters has trumpeted his “kill them all” tough guy rhetoric for so long that he’s become a parody of himself), it’s disturbing that as astute an observer as Steve Metz has forsworn counterinsurgency and is pining away for tactics based on mass killings and genocide (… that the Roman method is more effective).

Van Creveld makes a strong case in his latest book, The Changing Face of War, that this is true where local governments are fighting local insurgencies (which also covers Peters’ case of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. Even there, however, the British were eventually forced out).

When it comes to suppressing insurgencies that are fighting foreign occupiers, however, nothing has worked very well since about the middle of the 20th century. The Belgians probably hold the modern record for use of the Roman method, killing by some estimates 50% of the local population in the Congo, but were still driven out. The Soviets didn’t hesitate to use it, and where is their empire? We killed several million people in Southeast Asia. Gen Hermann Balck told Boyd that shifting the Schwerpunkt towards Leningrad would probably have worked, but in the end, the excellence of the German Army couldn’t compensate for the fanatical opposition generated by Hitler’s racial policies (van C notes that forces available to Germany for long-term occupation would have amounted to less than 1% of the population of the planned Nazi empire).

As Gen Sir Rupert Smith writes in The Utility of Force, if you’re going to use coercion as your C/I tool, you can never, ever let up. The moral and financial toll this extracts eventually saps the moral foundation – in a democracy, popular support – for continuing the war. OK, it’s true that if you can kill 100% of the inhabitants, the job is easier, but somewhere along the line we have seriously degenerated into fantasy.”

While I am in general agreement with Dilegge and Richards in principle, I think that Chet has selected a particularly poor example to support his argument. The assumptions regarding Nazi occupation policy used by Martin van Creveld  in his counterfactual example in The Changing Face of War (pp 214-219) to criticize fellow historian John Keegan are at best, highly arguable and at worst, wrong. We all like to see the good guys win and root against the Nazis but such a hypothetical argument based on relative demographics would not be accepted as proving that 4GW forces were doomed just because states like India and China have inexhaustible manpower reserves.

Neither the Wehrmacht campaign against Tito’s Communist partisans in Yugoslavia nor SS operations in “the East” represent the whole spectrum of Nazi occupation policies or the advantages the Germans were exploiting or could have exploited. Hitler did not, as far as we are able to discern from records, intend for the Wehrmacht to permanently garrison every state in a postwar German Europe nor did he try to do so even while at war, except in extremis. Autonomous satellites under reliable military and radical right dictatorships, as in Axis Hungary and Romania, suited the Fuhrer perfectly, as did neutral regimes that were intimidated by Nazi might (Sweden, Switzerland) or with ideological affinity for National Socialism ( Spain, Portugal). A  dystopian but functional Nazi “New Order”, leveraging local fifth column fascists and appeasing Nationalists in European countries, would have been no less viable than Stalin’s postwar Soviet bloc, which took several years to crush anticommunist guerilla armies in Ukraine.

None of the above however, suggests that Peters is right; simply that most intelligent counterinsurgent powers, even Roman legions or Nazi Germans, will not entirely rely upon democidal tactics. The British assassinated the dreaded SS intel chief, Reinhard Heydrich not because he was cruel but because “the Hangman” was winning over the Czechs with astute occupation policies. Cartoonish appeals for indiscriminate general slaughter remain unhelpful and unwise for states fighting insurgencies, particular if these states profess to be liberal democracies.

One Response to “Uses of History in the Debate Over COIN”

  1. Larry Says:

    I think Peters and Chang Ting-Chen were simply talking about the same thing, displacement. In that event, you use what you have. If your resources are small you use political displacement (heart), if you have massive resources it might be easier to take the image of your enemy from your mind (exterminate). But either way you have to displace your enemy with you own people, of the same heart or mind.

    I think the Arab government of Sudan used classic 4GW against the non-Arabs of Darfur. The non-Arabs responded also in classic 4GW. If this warfare actually works for the Arabs, it will depend on who actually ends up in Darfur. Will the Arabs actually displace themselves into Darfur? I doubt it.

    "Imperial Japanese Army both undertook truly exterminatory campaigns in China, "

    The Japanese may have carried on exterminatory campaigns, but I doubt they carried out any a displacement campaign as the whites did to the Native Americans. That is just a guess. Maybe the Japanese had their own version of Over Sea Chinese, I don’t know.

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