August 26, 2009

The "Is Counterinsurgency Stifling the Debate?" Debate: Day Two

From a reader:

Given the sheer mass of articles in my google reader, both sides of the debate are certainly talking at each other enough to make any accusation of "stifling" seem like hyperbole at best.  However, much of the problem is that in the last six months or so there has been a steady calcification of positions in the debate.  That's not to say that the people at the center of the debate are not making a genuine effort to hear out the other side, but when a debate has been going on for this long there just are not many new arguments to put forward that will be sweeping enough to change the mind of anyone who has spent serious time thinking about this already and formed a opinion.

That being said, I have noticed one trend in the debate that worries me going forward.  I've heard it said several times (most recently by Kilcullen) that one of the difficulties of shaping COIN in two different simultaneous theaters is that tactical "Lessons Learned" are lessons learned in the blood of the friends.  The physiological impact of breaking with not only what you believe to be best practice for your men's safety, but also what is in many ways a concrete representation of the sacrifice that others have made, makes incredibly difficult to adjust to the rules of a new environment .  Given the strong role which practitioners have played not only within the defense community itself but also within the beltway more broadly (which I know has been discussed here in the past, particularly with regards to Nagl and Gentile and the role that their past command experience has played in their thinking) it seems logical to expect that that same pressure would come into play at the strategic level, and make it somewhat harder for people to change their opinions about what has worked and what has the potential to work going forward, even above and beyond typical beltway entrenchment.

Obviously, the massive benefits of having practitioners at the forefront of the debate alongside the older beltway hands like Kagan, Biddle, and Cordesman far outweigh this consideration, but I think talking openly about when field experience might be coloring strategic arguments is worthwhile.  This seems particularly important given that the rapid rise of COIN to beltway prominence has pulled many of those who used to approach COIN from a more academic perspective into more of a practitioner/policy maker role.  Again, I think having smart people advising those in power is a unequivocally good thing, but I think the absence of the strong academic component (excepting Bacevich), with all those dubious ivory-tower characteristic like abstraction and detachment, which used to be an strong element informing COIN is something that is missing in the community as a whole's preference for practical wisdom over cutting edge academic work. 

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm an academic myself not a practitioner.  Obviously this makes it more than a little presumptuous for me to tell the vast majority of this blogs readership what you have experienced and how it effects you.  That being said, I genuinely feel that the decline of interest in academic writing and thinking within the broader COIN community, and the effect that may have produced not just in content but also in the tone of debates has been a missing component of the discussion for awhile now.