Small Wars Journal

A Starting Point?

The anti-COIN beat goes on with Gian Gentile's latest - this time at War and Game.

Writing "current history" is not an easy task for historians because it involves delving into topics that are often loaded with domestic political implications. It also involves writing about people who are still active in the topic of the current history. Yet, it is very important for professional historians to bring their expertise to the field of current history, if for no other reason than to provide an important corrective to other accounts of the recent past by pundits, so-called experts, journalists, and bloggers of various shapes and sizes.

The war in Iraq is a perfect case in point. Already, a very misleading narrative has been created by memoirists, journalists, and others. That narrative goes like this: because of the U.S. Army's lack of counterinsurgency doctrine and preparation prior to the start of the war it fumbled at counterinsurgency after the fall of Baghdad in spring 2003 until the end of 2006. But then, as a result of newly written counterinsurgency doctrine and inspired leadership, plus an additional five U.S. combat brigades that all entered into the mix in early 2007, Iraq and the American army were rescued. This flawed narrative puts the U.S. Army and U.S. foreign policy on a trajectory toward more Iraqs and Afghanistans.

The interlocutors of this flawed narrative are legion. But a few examples of the texts, articles, and blog entries that have built the matrix-cum-metanarrative include Tom Ricks's Fiasco, published in 2006 (and one can only assume Ricks will add more force to the matrix in his forthcoming The Gamble); Steve Coll's recent lengthy and gushing article in the New Yorker on General David H. Petraeus ("The General's Dilemma," September 8, 2008); and Pete Mansoor's, John Nagl's, and Fred Kagan's numerous writings arguing that prior to the surge the U.S. Army just didn't "get it."

More at War and Game.


On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign - US Army

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq - Tom Ricks

The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 - Tom Ricks

The General's Dilemma - Steve Coll, The New Yorker

Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander's War in Iraq - Pete Mansoor

Ground Truth: The Future of U.S. Land Power - Fred Kagan and Tom Donnelly

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam - John Nagl


Rob Thornton

Sat, 12/27/2008 - 3:31pm

Schmedlap said: "... rather than a Colonel attempting to make a salient point about how we continue to learn and grow as a profession."

I think this captures what we (the Army) really need from leaders such as COL Gentile. I often find myself agreeing with COL Gentile's points and concerns, but as often disagreeing with his methodology and analysis.

I think the notion that there is a "graduate level of war" which elevates counter insurgency from conventional is false, and moreover dangerous. Statements and qualifications like these seem largely based on relative opinion. It is an attempt to define one set of unique conditions by contrasting it against another unique set of conditions, both of which came into being based on decisions that were made by people whose experiences were shaped by yet more unique conditions.

We did not simply wake up one day and decide to be good at waging war - we worked at it, built doctrine for it, figured out how to organize for it, trained long into the night for it, developed leaders for it, educated for it, decided on what types of personnel were required for it and learned how to build facilities which would enable us to do it. It took years, blood, treasure and intelligence. While our successes with regard to this may have seemed easy to some, they were hard fought, and were in themselves the result of generations of officers, NCOs and EMs who worked at being the best.

That our success looked easy was an illusion. This comes from our tendency to linearize and compress history. That is we see cause and effect as it is most easily digested, and the events that happened before we came long ourselves are compressed (or compacted) at the bottom of our historical line. We cannot hope to account for their effect, so we relegate them to the dense bottom - a kind of heavy water we recognize as being rich, but which is not terribly relevant to our current needs.

So then we find ourselves in a new set of conditions in which we did not prepare terribly well for. It is one that demands our immediate attention. It is one that as we look at our collective institution we assign fault to for not having prepared us better. Our clearest perception is not from a vantage from the past or from a decade from now, but from right here, right now. This is what matters most to us because it is most relevant. We assign values to things based as much on our emotions as on our analysis. We apportion blame to some of those who went before us without trying terribly hard to consider the conditions in which they made decisions, or what the adverse outcomes may have been had they not made the decisions they did.

I think our own discussion and discovery about the hard the choices we have to make, or the positions we take on what is best for our military will also be questioned by those who inherit its outcomes. While in the short term these decisions will likely make sense, and for those already serving they will have a sense of why the decisions were made or required, but for those who will enter service in the decades to come it will probably not be so apparent. For someone to really understand history, to make it a tool from which to learn vs. a paginated regurgitation of stuff that happened, there has to be some relevance, something which compares what was with what is, or what might be.

The experiences which are shaping what our military will become are occurring right now, but they are also being shaped by leaders with at least some sense of where we have been. In the future, our posterity may not have that benefit in the way we have it, but will instead shape their future based on what they have known (or not known), or have read.

Its funny, I thought Clausewitz was formulaic until I went to war. My only frame of reference was some peaceful deployments and some good training; all done in relative peacetime. The only ones I had some real appreciation for was the concepts of friction and entropy - the conditions such as they were could simply not rise to the occasion to present themselves in such a way that I understood Clausewitz - the experience and knowledge that produced "On War" required some real experience to understand it.

My point is that if there can be some such classification of war; I think it is that there are only "war" and "not war". "Not war" includes everything up to that, to include the organizing, training, equipping of oneself and the things one does to position themselves better for war, such as training, equipping and advising standing and potential partners with an eye toward future allies, balancing power, deterring enemies, preserving your means, and furthering your own policies. War then includes everything that goes on after a decision has been made that military force (not military forces employed in "not war")must be used to achieve a political end that cannot be secured or achieved by other means. This covers everything from the destruction of enemy forces, the removal of foreign regimes, the actions which support those, and the actions which follow those. They are a chain of events which should not be broken out with one emphasized at the expense of the others - they need to be seen as a whole.

The "graduate" level then might be the one in which war is viewed in its ugly, necessary entirety - one where political and military leaders see the requirements and the consequences and as such develop the best ways and ensure the means are provided.

I think this is the value of COL Gentile's arguments. From his perspective, we are in danger of blinding ourselves to that entirety. He is not nearly so concerned about the leaders who today have some understanding of how we got here, but he is very concerned for future leaders who did not get the value of past experience, or of participating in the discussion; but who might instead take what they are told at face value. His concerns on current doctrine are possibly more grounded on the lack of debate that one day might have been available and which provided context for the decisions that were made.

We have a different perspective in that we have lived with our perceived doctrinal gaps for some time, and we are happy to see some progress made in filling them. I read John Nagl's comments on SWJ ref. the DoD IW Dir to the effect of it being a Christmas present that ensures the work and discovery that has come with this war will not be lost.

I empathize with John Nagl to a degree, but I also know that there are consequences to every decision, that we are a culture of extremes (perhaps physically and mentally disposed to such), and as much as we'd like to be the best at everything physics gets in the way - and we will likely not be resourced to even come close. We will accept risk - by either acknowledging it and having some understanding of it, or by omission (tacit or not) and confuse our future selves.

So here we are. We believe we are required to be good at IW in order to reduce risk to our policy objectives, and that the capabilities required to do so require some hard work. However, we also recognize that what might be "not IW" capabilities also require work in order to retain them to an acceptable level or proficiency - a mark that is only really defined in combat).

In T.X. Hammes' recent article "The Art of Petraeus" in the National Interest had one mistake in it - he referred to the 3 authors of the "King & I" on the atrophy of artillery as "artillery colonels". They were not - they were successful maneuver BDE CDRs who have been hailed as Army leaders who "get it" referring to their success in COIN. They were not artillery commanders lamenting their change in mission from putting steel on target to heading up a PRT or running a prison. What these leaders get is how to wage war from start to finish, and the possible adverse consequences of emphasis of one capability in war over over another. What these leaders get is that as conditions and policy objectives change, so must tactics, operational focus, and strategy adapt to see it to a successful conclusion.

Like I said up front, I have disagreements with COL Gentile's analysis and methodology, but I also have them with others here. It is through these disagreements and tensions that new knowledge and understanding is brought out. The point to his argument then is worth the time to read and think about, that it is unpopular and forces us to reconsider our closely held beliefs is all the more reason to. Making the kinds of choices that put us in a better future position depends upon our willingness to think about things wed rather not, and be intellectually uncomfortable.

Best, Rob

Schmedlap (not verified)

Tue, 12/23/2008 - 1:05pm

Hi Steve,

You and I are in agreement on most of your points. My only objection to this thread is the assertion that questioning the simplicity of the narrative somehow makes Gentile "anti-COIN." I think that is an unfair and inaccurate dismissal of his point of view. I think the "beat goes on" and "Energizer" ribbing are well-deserved. He is repeating his argument in slightly different form. He has stated that the role of the intellectual is to be a contrarian. I think he would better fill that role if he were to be a contrarian in a publication that has a professional audience.

Regarding your first paragraph about the public not understanding the narrative versus the military profession not understanding it, that was my point as well. I think Gentile's point of view would be better directed towards the military profession, rather than the general public. If he continues writing about this issue in IHT and WSJ, then editorial constraints will require that he write for the lay audience of each publication. Those publications either cannot or will not provide him the space and flexibility needed to discuss the issue in a manner appropriate for the military audience. At the current pace, I think he runs the risk of being portrayed in the popular media as a Colonel speaking truth to power, rather than a Colonel attempting to make a salient point about how we continue to learn and grow as a profession.

Steve Blair

Tue, 12/23/2008 - 10:24am


I actually think that this statement - "The public is never going to have the right narrative on anything that requires more than 9 seconds to explain - and even that is pushing it" - from your post above could be just as easily applied to some within the military as it can be to the "public" (a favored whipping boy that is never easily defined and seems to shift depending on the agenda being driven).

It's always about narrative. It was narrative that allowed the Army to backburner COIN for many, many years at various points in its history (not just after Vietnam, by the's been something of a tradition). What has always concerned me is that this debate might be used by some to return to the "business as usual" model that left the Army unprepared for what it found in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. We can't always count on being able to make it up as we go or learn on the fly (both of which seem to be something of an American military tradition).

Being able to contend with a near-peer opponent is obviously important, and I agree with Gentile that we need to preserve this capability and not swing too far into a COIN focus. But I remain concerned that the pendulum will swing too far away from any sort of preparation for low intensity conflict. It's done that far too many times historically for my liking.

And I'm also not convinced by the narrative that having a military that trains for COIN makes us more likely to get involved overseas. while that makes for convenient narrative, it flies in the face of most of our history. Two of our most interventionist presidents before the current administration (Wilson and Clinton) certainly didn't have a military that was trained for COIN, yet they were perfectly willing to commit forces to overseas commitments.

If "train like you fight" is going to be anything other than a nice buzzword, we need to look at the full spectrum of conflict and actually train for it. "Any good solider can handle guerrillas" might sound good, but it's not accurate. Likewise, a force that is mostly constabulary in training and focus isn't going to be able to handle a major conflict. We need to find a balance, and selective rewriting of history by either side in the narrative debate isn't going to help us reach this goal.

Schmedlap (not verified)

Tue, 12/23/2008 - 3:07am

I disagree sharply with many of the assumptions, statements, and reasoning in earlier "drumbeats" on this topic. But in spite of those issues, Gentile arrives at the right conclusion. The turn around in Iraq has not been as simple as shifting from conventional to COIN. I think it is inaccurate to interpret these essays as "anti-COIN." The issue is one of narrative, as he has written repeatedly. If I say that there was more to the Patriots 16-0 season than just Coach Belichick, that does not mean that I am "anti-Belichick." It just means that I don't like deceptively simplistic explanations.

That said, the "COIN narrative" is simple enough for public consumption and that is why it is out there and why it is popular. I don't see any real cause for concern there. The public does not write doctrine and they do not train our Soldiers. So long as the military profession understands that the narrative is more complicated, then that should suffice. The public is never going to have the right narrative on anything that requires more than 9 seconds to explain - and even that is pushing it.

I think the drumbeating on this issue belongs in the pages of Parameters or Military Review, rather than IHT and WSJ.

Steve Blair

Mon, 12/22/2008 - 12:27pm


I have read both essays, and still contend that much of what they write is based on a flawed or slanted understanding of the primary sources. Note that this does not mean that I 100% agree with Krepinevich's point of view (I don't think that this is an "either/or" proposition), but he does speak to the position that in the case of Vietnam actions speak louder than words or after-action reports. By that I mean that no matter what Westmoreland said (or how his comments are interpreted by others after the fact), the main thrust of his actions were oriented more toward conventional warfare (which was in keeping with his own view of the conflict...although ARVN was never organized to execute the role he seemed to envision for it).

For every Sorley you'll find a Krepinevich. That's the nature of historical writing. Both contain elements of truth, as well as elements of the slant of the author. That's how it works.

Gian P Gentile

Mon, 12/22/2008 - 11:49am


Disagree and I have stated as much in many published writings and on blog postings here that the Army does, repeat does, need the capability to do Coin and other forms of stability operations.

And agree with your point that the army does need a force that is capable, to use your words, of doing "operations in both directions." I have stated that too in many places, the most recent was in one of the concluding paragraphs in my point-counterpoint piece with John Nagl in JFQ. What I have argued is that the kind of force that we need to be able to step in either direction should be built around the fundamental capability to fight, rather than constabulary nation-building type force to police the world's unstable areas.

Clearly, the American Army in the 80s and 90s was focussed primarily on conventional warfighting. In the 90s, sadly, that conventional focus took a wrong turn with its seduction by the RMA and the notion of perfect knowledge of the enemy. however, what I dont accept is the idea that because the American Army had focussed so heavily on conventional warfighting that that was the primary reasons for the way Iraq turned out from 2003 to 2006. Such thinking typifies American hubris in that all things that have happened on the ground in Iraq were centered on American action or inaction. There were many other things and conditions that were shaping events from 03 to 06 and beyond even to today than the application or mis-application of American ground military power.

As for my use of history; well if you read my review of Andrew Birtle's new scholarly essay in the Journal of Military History on PROVN you would see that I base my historical arguments on cutting edge, current historical scholarship. It is scholarship by historians like Birtle who are trying to demolish the flawed understanding of Vietnam created by books like Sorley, Krepinevich and others. Some folks may not like to hear these things because it challenges the conventional knowledge on Vietnam. It also challenges memories of Vietnam too.

So recommend you read for example Birtle's essay on PROVN or Dale Andrade's essay on Westmoreland (in Small Wars and Insurgencies Journal) and then come back with an argument based on scholarship and analysis rather than accusations of "agenda."

Steve Blair

Mon, 12/22/2008 - 10:42am


Actually I think this tends to hit your position rather well. Your use of history (especially when it comes to Vietnam) is flawed by agenda-driven reading and selective use of examples. Ken's called you on this several times, and his comments have been spot-on in that regard.

The simple fact is that we need a force that is capable of operations in both directions. And it's also a fact that the American Army has historically leaned heavily in the conventional or high-end conflict direction more often than not in its training and doctrine development. This is one of the real constants in American military history. Over time we've been saddled with a mindset that is best suited for a draftee-based force that is focused on the "big battles" only, leaving the rest to chance. We can't really afford to keep doing that.

Gian P Gentile

Sun, 12/21/2008 - 10:14am

Dear Dave:

I am not as you label me "anti-Coin" nor am I beating, as your picture suggests, an anti-coin drum.

I thought I addressed your beating of that drum pretty well a few weeks ago when you applied that moniker to me (see

What I am about is pro truth, pro-clear thinking about the recent past and history in order to assess where we are at today, how we got here, and the path ahead for American security in the future. If that means challenging certain texts, narratives, assumptions that I think are flawed then so be it.

By you continuing to beat the drum as me being "anti-coin," Dave, confirms at least in my mind that you (and NOT the members of the SWC) but you have become a true-believer who has problems with deep dissent, alternative views, or challenges to your matrix.

As I suggested on my last post in this regard, perhaps you should go back and re-read Eric Hoffer's classic "The True Believer." Better yet recommend you read Reinhold Niebuhr's classic the "Irony of American History" and his warning about hubris.