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Counterinsurgency and the American Way of War

By James H. Joyner - December 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Some Iraq war critics have lately argued that the American military is not very adept at counterinsurgency. But the reality is a little more complicated than they suggest.

Reacting to an article in The New Republic about President Bush's strategy for defeating insurgents in Iraq by Lawrence Kaplan, The American Propect's Matthew Yglesias, observed that,

"The U.S. Army is perpetually on the verge of discovering counterinsurgency warfare and stabilization operations, but then never seems to do it. Or starts doing it, but only after the opportunity to do it has slipped below the horizon. Then everything is put on the shelf and forgotten until the next time around even though the books and policy papers and broad theoretical outlines are all pretty well-known to begin with."

He offers an explanation rooted in defense economics, although he's not so sure about it:

"I had a professor once who explained this in roughly public choice terms. There are companies out there that make non-trivial sums of money selling stuff to the military and consequently dedicate a lot of money and energy to influencing the political process. They've succeeded in building a bias toward an emphasis on capital intensive forms of warfare . . . ."

Writing at the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum responds,

"That sounds plausible to me, though I think the causality works in the other direction too (much as Eisenhower suggested). The U.S. military likes big wars against big enemies, not messy little pissant wars, and this keeps the contractors happy and makes counterinsurgency a career killer for ambitious military professionals.

"But I think there's at least one other critical point to all this: nobody ever thinks these wars are going to last very long. The very act of fighting a counterinsurgency is an admission that you're going to be around for years, because that's how long insurgencies last. If your war planning driven by neocon ideologues is so wildly divorced from reality that you don't plan to be around for more than a few months, what's the point of even thinking about counterinsurgency?"

There is some truth to these explanations, to be sure. Congress, charged by the Constitution with funding the military, has every incentive to fund big ticket items, since they provide pork for their states and districts. For reasons of history, careerism, and practicality, the military prefers big wars a'la World War II to small wars like Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Historically, the Army has time and again been caught flat footed by a war for which drawdown from the last war left them unprepared. So, when funding cuts come, they want to save the major end items that take a long time to build. The bias of the armed forces has long been that, if you're prepared to fight the Big Guys (say, the Soviet Union) then you can always take on the Annoying Little Guys (say, the Viet Cong). Conversely, the types of forces needed to fight small wars (civil affairs, linguists, special operators, etc.) cannot defeat a major power. That renders them nice-to-have luxuries.

From a career standpoint, big wars are better than small wars. The way to stars on your shoulders is to command a succession of ever-bigger line units. This is partly due to the historical biases listed in the previous paragraph and the resultant view that fighting big wars is "real" soldiering whereas small wars are a niche. That those who wear stars are called "general officers" is not a coincidence.

Practically, preparing to fight big wars is smarter. The United States public lacks the patience for long, drawn out conflicts that do not achieve big results. In his seminal work, The American Way of War, the historian Russell Weigley argued that, since at least the Civil War, Americans have preferred wars with clean results, preferably the unconditional surrender of the enemy. Counterinsurgencies and other small wars do not provide the necessary closure.

Regardless of the institutional preferences to the contrary, though, the United States military has had great success fighting small wars. The Army has a long history of doing so, from the French and Indian War to the War for Independence to the Indian Wars to the Spanish-American War to Vietnam to Afghanistan. The Marines have made it their specialty. Even in Vietnam, which was both the longest war in our history and the biggest loss, the military did an excellent job of adapting to an enemy that fluctuated between conventional and guerrilla tactics. The Army's Green Berets and the Navy SEALs were specialists at this type of warfare, but the conventional Army and Marines fought it well, too.

The problem in Vietnam and Iraq is not so much that the U.S. military is bad at counterinsurgency but that insurgencies are incredibly hard to defeat. Whereas a conventional force fights in the open and can be taken on directly, an insurgency fights piecemeal and hides among the civilian population. This puts the counterinsurgency force -- especially a foreign power -- at a great disadvantage. On the one hand, they can go in full force to kill insurgents and almost certainly kill innocents, alienating the local population whose support is desperately needed. On the other, being too patient allows the insurgents to continue their reign of terror, not only killing friendly soldiers but also creating the impression that the host government and/or its foreign backers cannot keep order.

A professional military can defeat an insurgency despite these obstacles but, unfortunately, they can not do it quickly. In a society that demands fast results, that time is usually not a luxury the military has. This is even more true in an age of 24/7 television and the constant clamoring of pundits on the tube, talk radio, and blogs. Add to that an increasingly hostile partisan atmosphere and a never-ending campaign cycle, which means that politics no longer end at the water's edge, the pressure is even stronger.

The bottom line is that the United States military is pretty good at counterinsurgency. The American public, however, is not.

James H. Joyner, Jr., is a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran who writes on national security affairs at the Outside the Beltway weblog.

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