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Carl Prine’s Rebuttal to “Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?”

My amigo and SWJ News co-columinst Crispin Burke recently put forth a very interesting and provocative jeremiad “Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?” and one of his targets, journalist and Iraq war veteran Carl Prine, has been duly provoked, Prine has responded in great detail yesterday at Line of Departure:

Starbuck is wrong

Starbuck is wrong.

And in his drive to keep getting it wrong, he’s trying to rewrite FM 3-24, the military’s chief doctrinal publication on counterinsurgency.

But that just makes him more wrong.

He’s wrong about me.  He’s wrong about what I believe.  He’s wrong about the literature that informs FM 3-24.  He’s wrong about what the manual says and he’s wrong about what it left out.  He’s wrong about historiography.  He’s wrong about how a caste of top officers and diplomats came to understand “strategy” in the wake of the occupation of Iraq.

Let’s help get him right.  Or, at least, less wrong.  He’s a good man.  We need to turn him and ensure he quits taking shots at me I don’t deserve!

….The problem to anyone who studies Malaya, however, is that since the publication of the memoirs of exiled communist leader Chin Peng a dozen years ago, we now know that the civic, military and political policies under the British “hearts and minds” approach didn’t defeat the revolution.

Instead, the revolt was irreparably broken by brutal operations against the guerrillas, then a most coercive “screwing down the people” phase that dispossessed or killed thousands of Chinese, followed by draconian “population control” measures that, as Peng put it, starved the guerrillas in the bush because they snapped their rat lines and cut off their rice.

The “hearts and minds” initiatives designed to bring medical care, education, social welfare and other aid to the resettled Chinese and woo them to the colonial government’s side from 1952 – 1954 didn’t crack the back of the insurgency, a point now pretty much beyond dispute.

Why?  Because the previous “hearts and minds” claptrap as the cause of pacification in Malaya was contradicted by the Malayan Chinese, most especially those guerrillas who took up arms against the British regime!

You know, the people targeted by a population-centric counterinsurgency.  The people most counter-insurgents in their pop-centric fantasies almost never discuss except as abstractions, the human yarn wefted and warped by their long needles of war.

One finds “Hearts and Minds” prominently mentioned 11 times in Dr John Nagl’s valentine to Templer and colonial Malaya, Eating Soup with a Knife; to Nagl it’s the stuff of police services and economic development and whatnot with the psychology of the people being the center of gravity those reforms are meant to snatch.

And Nagl would like the best burglar of hearts and minds to be a learning, nimble and evolving military-political institution such as the U.S. Army.  It’s no small wonder, then, that Nagl became a dominant voice in FM 3-24 and that many of this thoughts in Eating Soup came to dominate the manual, too.

Or, as the introduction to FM 3-24 echoes soupily, “by focusing on efforts to secure the safety and support of the local populace, and through a concerted effort to truly function as learning organizations, the Army and Marine Corps can defeat their insurgent enemies.”

This is mere euphemism and wasn’t worth the ink that it cost taxpayers to print it.  But it sets the stage for the rest of FM 3-24, which follows a hearts and minds template that Starbuck doesn’t apparently realize is borrowed from mid-century….

Ouch. Note to self: if I ever decide to square off against Carl, I will make sure to do my homework. Read the rest here.

First, I would point out to readers here for whom some of this in both essays is inside baseball, that the tone is less harsh and the substantive distance between Burke and Prine less great in  the comments sections of both blogs than it first appears in reading their posts. It is a healthy, no-holds barred exchange and not a flame war.

Secondly, it is an important exchange, tying together COIN disputes over theory, historiography, empirical evidence, operational and tactical “lessons learned”, strategy, policy (Clausewitzian sense), politics (colloquial sense) and personalities that have raged for five years across military journals, think tanks, the media, the bureaucracy and the blogosphere. In some ways, these essays can serve as a summative of the debate. I say “some ways”, because what is the most important element or effect of America’s romance with COIN will differ markedly depending on whom has the floor. My own beef is not with doing COIN, it is with not doing strategy.

As Crispin and Carl’s vignette about General Creighton Abrams demonstrated, American historians are still having savagely bitter arguments about the war in Vietnam. For that matter, everyone who lived through the era did and still does. It is a wound that never seems to heal and has crippled our politics to this day, even as the veterans of Vietnam now turn to gray.

The 21st century COIN wars have not ripped American society apart down to the soul the way Vietnam did. As with the Korean War, the soldiers and marines in Afghanistan and Iraq fought bravely, at times desperately, to a general and mild approbation back home that sometimes looked a lot like indifference. Even the anti-war protestors mostly made a point of stating they were not against the troops, the venemous public malice of the 1960’s New Left radicals in the 2000’s was a property only of the lunatic fringe.

But COIN itself will be a historical argument without end.

4 Responses to “Carl Prine’s Rebuttal to “Be honest: Who actually read FM 3-24?””

  1. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Those who persist in acting like FM 3-24 is relevant to implementing population control on the ground are the the military equivalent of those who persist in acting like political party platforms are relevant to implementing legislation. 
    FM 3-24 was an exercise in pure propaganda. It was intended to win the hearts and minds of Coalition civilian policymakers, not the populations it supposedly targeted. In that it succeeded.
    Using the cliche of the "Maoist" insurgency as the organizing narrative frame helps senior policy makers, often Baby Boomers who smoked Maoism during the Sixties, grasp FM 3-24’s intended messaging. 
    Any similarity between FM 3-24 and real life population control is purely coincidental.
    No military theories were harmed during the making of this manual.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi JF.
    FM 3-24 wasn’t "pure propaganda", that is an exaggeration, the Army needed an institutional refresher on the breadth of COIN tactics and things only happen in terms of training changes and operational planning if the Army blesses a piece of paper to go into the file cabinets of COs and DoD bureaucrats as the new Holy Writ. But, in large picture, you are right – the manual was used as a totem (or a club) for a domestic, political, policy effect as proof "We finally know what we are doing, all will be well!" to sedate the panicky beltway punditocracy, the media and Congress and gain time to stave off a rout in Iraq.  As bad as Iraq was in sum, a rout would have been a geopolitical implosion for the US so another analogy might be that of a tourniquet

  3. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    I think the manual was more of a catalyst for a conversation that needed to happen.  Pure propaganda, it was not.  It was one side of a continuing Socratic dialogue.  Hence COINtra & COINdanista. 
    If we’re smart, we’ll keep the conversation going.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Nate
    "If we’re smart, we’ll keep the conversation going."
    Yes, agreed. We need a lot of conversations. Hard choices are ahead due to fiscal restraints and they can be made intellgently or stupidly be default. Right now, we are cruising toward the latter

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