March 06, 2008

The Colonels and 'The Matrix'

Hot on Cullen's heels, the intrepid Spencer has an outstanding piece that chronicles a fight for the soul of the Army via two competing profiles of LTC Paul Yingling and LTC Gian Gentile. Now, Charlie loves a good profile. And the best profile writing is usually found where the actual topic of the piece isn't the human subject. Spencer threads that needle brilliantly:

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?

(Lest we be accused of bias, let us disclose our profound bias! Spencer sees fit to both highlight the contributions of many friends of this your faithful bloggers, but also gives a hard core shout out to this blog itself!)

Now back to the substance. First, Charlie hopes that that subsequent pieces in this series are able to untangle the dense network of networks that provide the underpinning for the COIN community. Spencer hints at at the social enterprise that runs parallel to these intellectual efforts, but there's clearly more to be told there.

Next, witness perhaps the best one-paragraph distillation of COIN theory Charlie has come across:

Drawing on arcane military and academic histories of largely forgotten "small wars" in places like Malaya and the Philippines, the counterinsurgents place a premium on using the minimum amount of violence needed to target a shadowy enemy; on intimate knowledge of foreign cultures to cleave civilian populations from an insurgency; on distinguishing enemies that can be co-opted from "irreconcilables" that must be killed; on using proxy forces whenever possible; and on the central recognition that military force can never substitute for a political strategy that offers better, deliverable alternatives to a population than those presented by an adversary.

[cuts out and tacks to her bulletin boad]

Finally, Spencer also highlights a little observed rift in the broader COIN community: between those who think that the right amount of training, education, and personnel change will enable victories in counter-insurgency campaigns and those who think the task at hand is infinitely larger than that, and likely beyond the bounds of American power. We don't talk about this much; strategic nihilism is rather unattractive.

We do occasionally discuss over-learning the lessons of Iraq. Now for the COIN crew this means something different than for LTC Gentile, et al. In terms of counter-insurgency or irregular warfare, over-learning Iraq means making policy or institutionalizing lessons based on a worst case example...extrapolating from an extreme outlier to all other endeavors in The Long War. This tendency can cause problems from the tactical to the strategic level and may be just as dangerous as "over-correcting" for COIN, as it seriously circumscribes future strategic options. But both Yingling and Gentile are right to argue that this is a debate we desperately need to have. And sooner rather than later.

So bravo, Spence. Looking forward to the next installment.