Thursday, March 06, 2008
no truce, no mercy, no surrender, no less, no more, this is war:
And now for something I'm proud of and nervous about.

For the last several months I've tried to get my head around what I consider to be a tectonic shift in the defense world: the growing influence of the theorists of counterinsurgency. They're fascinating for several reasons. First, they advocate the understanding of a sophisticated and complex method of warfare whose principles come closer to describing the strategic situation the U.S. finds itself in than does any competing group of theorists. Second, unlike previous groups of defense intellectuals -- think McNamara's whiz kids or the neocons -- the counterinsurgents are theorist-practitioners, with many, if not most, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Third, they display an intellectual suppleness that I have not seen any reasonably-coherent group of thinkers exhibit since I began covering national security, and, as a corollary, cannot be placed comfortably in any political category. Fourth, I have come to wonder if their personal experiences and identification with Iraq (and Afghanistan) have left them more willing than your typical bloodless defense wonk to view a war as a test case for a pet theory. Finally, I'm convinced that within ten to 20 years, one or more of them will become defense secretary.

The only problem is I haven't known how to tell the story. Would a focus on personalities -- these guys are colorful -- obscure the issues at stake? Would a focus on the issues at stake be sufficiently captivating for a reader? Isn't it too goddamn early to be writing these pieces?

Today at The Washington Independent, I launched the first installment of my attempt to get at this important story -- a series called 'The Rise of The Counterinsurgents.' Completely unsure of whether I've succeeded, I tried to introduce the issues at play through the perspectives of two Army lieutenant colonels, Paul Yingling and Gian Gentile, who have come to very different understandings of the value of counterinsurgency. Here's "The Colonels And 'The Matrix.'"
In this argument between two respected senior officers, the next major debate over U.S. defense policy can be gleaned. Yingling speaks for an ascending cadre of young defense intellectuals, most of whom are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who assert that the U.S. military must embrace principles of counterinsurgency if it is to triumph in the multifaceted fight against global terrorism. Gentile, formerly one of those theorist-practitioners, believes the military has already moved too far in the direction of counterinsurgency, which he contends allows analysts to ignore the limits of U.S. military power. Both arguments represent an attempt to answer a searing question: What are the lessons of Iraq?
Please do let me know whether you think this piece does or doesn't work and why. I will be writing this series throughout the year, and want it to be the best collection of pieces I've ever produced. I'll need your help for that.
--Spencer Ackerman
The Wash Indy piece is extremely interesting. The key paragraph, which you blockquoted here, could use some more clarity on Gentile's point of view. From the rest of the article, it seems as though Gentile's points are two-fold and not particularly related. (1) The COIN people are winning, so they should stop complaining. (2) Focusing on counter-insurgency as Yingling et. al would like will only make it easier to deploy the Army to take on such a role again in the future. Maybe it is just my disagreement with Gentile, but his points come across as nearly straw men. The overall Defense Department budget still seems extremely skewed to high tech, high cost gadgets, but perhaps the Army's third has been shifting away from this ....
Blogger Jeremy Wallace | 11:38 PM

I'm with you on the clarity issue in general, but the graf I presented was my lede, so it needed to condense Gentile's thinking down to the marrow in order to prep the reader for what's coming next in a very long piece. That's no excuse for not being clearer, though; if the essential bit isn't clear, I haven't done my job.

To your list of Gentile's points, don't forget (3) COIN is an excuse to avoid recognizing that there are some things military power cannot accomplish. He feels the COIN crowd gives this lip service, but nothing more. That, to him, is the lesson of the surge.
Blogger Spencer Ackerman | 4:53 AM

Really interesting read. Thanks. Now I feel like I understand what the hell was going on in that Small Wars Journal thread from a while back where Gentile and Mansoor were mixing it up.

Not sure how you're thinking about the direction of future installments, but there's one thing I'd be most interested in seeing. I'd like to know a lot more detail about exactly what arguments the different sides in the debate are making about the limits of military force. What are the detailed arguments the COIN-people have for why their preferred specific methods are well matched to the relevant aims? What are the detailed arguments for why COIN-skeptics like Gentile think those methods won't achieve the relevant aims?

(Obviously, part of my problem is I just don't have the knowledge to follow these debates as they play out on Small Wars Journal, etc. It's like I need a translator for that stuff.)

Anyway, great piece. Looking forward to more.
Blogger Scott | 6:29 AM

Possibly off-topic, but the simultaneously cold and scary musings of William S. Lind, along with the eclectic places he's worked (Taft and Hart) and outlets for his writings (Counterpunch and Free Congress) could be a worth a look, if only as a sidebar.

I'm less interested in the military mechanics than politics and civilian control over the military. I used to ignore Lind's rants about cultural Marxism and bringing the war back home, but with the Bush Administration's success in cowing Congress....
Blogger jsrutstein | 6:23 AM

Very interesting material, with both points of view explained clearly, but perhaps the presentation is a bit too binary. Gentile plainly doesn't think that the army shouldn't get better at counterinsurgency; how much emphasis it should get would seem to be a matter of degree. In followups, it would be interesting to know whether this debate ties into a debate over whether the "War on Terror" is 'the great struggle of our time," etc. -- or whether many are looking forward to competition with emerging superpower, i.e. China.
Blogger ASP | 2:56 PM