The Romance of Counterinsurgency

John Wayne: the great hero of 1960s counterinsurgency.

The romance of war doesn’t just appeal to conservatives who have spent too much time reading Kipling and watching old John Wayne movies. Liberals also have their own tendency to glamorize war, going back at least as far as Woodrow Wilson’s absurd celebration of the First World War as a great battle for democracy.

For the last half-century, counterinsurgency has been the type of war that liberals are most likely to idealize. In theory, counterinsurgency sounds great: it’s war fought to win “the hearts and minds” of the people, war that involves building alliances with the local population, war done with the best of intentions, war as a giant social welfare program (with guns).


The first great liberal embrace of counterinsurgency was during the Kennedy administration, when the youthful president made the Green Berets, a force created specifically to fight guerrilla wars, the centerpiece of his military policy. That didn’t work out so well, but despite the failure of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, around 2003 some liberals (and many conservatives) once again took up the idea of counterinsurgency as the silver bullet to solve America’s problems in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Matt Yglesias has an important post asking whether counterinsurgency has been oversold.

I’ve got a sort of nagging concern that counterinsurgency advocates have sold the public—or at least a certain swathe of left-of-center elites—on a prettied-up version of what their brand of warfare means. Like it’s really development work and human rights, except the people will carry guns. As Michael Cohen points out, however, the favored success stories of the counterinsurgents don’t actually look like a kinder, gentler form of war… Which is just to say that people shouldn’t kid themselves about what’s involved in a war, even a counterinsurgency war. Undertaking these sort of enterprises when it’s not really necessary is a bad idea.

Yglesias is on to something, and people should pay attention to his post, and the Michael Cohen article he points to. Still, Yglesias doesn’t go far enough.

The fact is, counterinsurgency by its very nature is more brutal than conventional warfare. Conventional wars are all about seizing territories with one army fighting another (often enough with civilian casualties as a by product of war). Counterinsurgency involves trying to seize control of the “hearts and minds” of civilians, not just their physical property or land. That means that civilians themselves become the chief target of conquest, both for the guerrilla rebel and the counterinsurgent. Civilians are the battlefield in counterinsurgency, and thus more likely to be harmed. (All of this overlaps, of course, with the points made in Ian’s earlier, excellent post on  the fallacy of precision warfare).

In 1901, Winston Churchill said, quite prophetically, “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.” He wasn’t speaking about counterinsurgency but rather about the nature of war in a democratic age. But counterinsurgency grows out the democratic age as well: counterinsurgency is warfare aligned with nation building.

 I wrote about the troubles with counterinsurgency in a 2004 Boston Globe article which I think still has some value. (For what it’s worth, my article was cited in a paper  by the RAND Corporation, a major military think tank). Here are some excerpts:


In his classic 1977 study, “The Counterinsurgency Era,” the late Douglas Blaufarb, a former CIA agent who oversaw counterinsurgency operations in Laos, called this the problem of “self-reform in crisis.” Only under favorable circumstances, as in Malaya and the Philippines, where the British and Americans had long-standing ties with local elites and political leverage, could outsiders successfully press for political reform.

As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., ruefully admitted in his 1977 biography of Robert Kennedy, the notion that reforms can be carried out in a wartime situation by a beleaguered regime is “the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation.” …

For the Kennedy administration, counterinsurgency was linked with the problems of “modernization” and “nation-building”: the need to help poor countries develop politically and economically into modern nation states so that they can be strong enough to resist communism. Yet in practice, counterinsurgency could actually undermine nation building. The most effective counterinsurgency often involves building up small tribal groups. Thus the CIA forged a very strong bond with the Meo hill-people of Laos, who turned out to be a fierce and effective anti-communist fighting force. Yet by strengthening the Meo, the government further frayed the social fabric of Laos, which like many other emerging countries lacked a cohesive national culture…..
Counterinsurgency, with its emphasis on improving social conditions and spreading democracy, was initially a favorite among liberals. The Green Berets and the Peace Corps were emanations of the same restless, reforming spirit. But counterinsurgency’s faddish glamour also had its ugly side…
This boyish adventure side of counterinsurgency died on the battlefields of Vietnam. As the war ground on, the Americans started echoing the harsher tactics of the Viet Cong, particularly the targeting of enemy collaborators for assassination. In the infamous Phoenix Program that began in 1967, a direct outgrowth of counterinsurgency, the American government paid for the murder of thousands of civilians allegedly tied to the Viet Cong. This was precisely the type of program that turned many Americans against the Vietnam War (though US-backed military forces went on to use similarly bloody techniques elsewhere, notably in Guatemala). Writing in The New Yorker recently, Seymour Hersh worried that the “preemptive manhunting” of insurgents in Iraq may replicate the horrors of the Phoenix Program.

Counterinsurgency might have had some short-term success in Vietnam, but it was a long-term failure. Numbed by years of killing, South Vietnamese peasants adopted a quietist philosophy that rejected both sides of the conflict. When the North Vietnamese launched a conventional offensive in 1975, South Vietnam couldn’t rally its own population to resist.

As the specter of protracted guerrilla warfare raises its head in Iraq, it’s worth recalling the mixed lessons of the past. Successful counterinsurgency involves a deep familiarity with the local culture, which is difficult to gain on the fly. Gaining political legitimacy is the key to successfully defeating an insurgency, yet building such popular support can take years if not decades. Moreover, there’s an inevitable tension between obtaining security for one’s troops and winning popular support….

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