In his opinion piece, COIN is Dead: U.S. Army must put Strategy Over Tactics published November 22 in World Politics Review, Colonel Gian Gentile appears to base his argument on the premise that COIN is not a strategy, but rather a collection of methods and tactics. Given his extensive combat experience and his impressive academic accomplishments, it is clear why his analyses of recent operations carry significant weight with leaders at all levels of our Army. However, I am unconvinced that his desire to reduce COIN from doctrine to a collection of methods and tactics is prudent at a time when we appear to be on the cusp of a scientific understanding of what fuels violent group behavior and the establishment of a strategic framework to determine when and where COIN may be best applied.
The scientific approach to the study of war has resided in the backwaters of military theory since the years immediately following the First World War. However, recent advances in evolutionary biology led by Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson are providing insights to what generates warlike behavior within, between, and among groups of the social species, including our species Homo sapiens. Today, evolutionary behavior can be rudimentarily characterized by adaptations that are considered either beneficial toward the individual and their kin, or to a larger group or even a species.
These forces of natural selection, individualistic and altruistic, are in a continual “tug of war” for primacy and may correspond to individualistic adaptations of governments and altruistic adaptations of populations respectively (think the Arab Spring uprisings). To visualize this relationship, it is instructive to array the dual forces of natural selection along the axes of a Cartesian coordinate system. Given individualistic behaviors as positive values and altruistic behaviors as negative values on both axes, the resulting graph produces a “quad chart” that serves well to characterize the four different, and surprisingly recognizable, types of war. The two symmetric (or regular) forms of war erupt under the combinations of two positive or two negative values. They are individualistic v. individualistic wars (wars of choice) and altruistic v. altruistic wars (just wars), which are both traditionally characterized using classic theories and doctrines. The asymmetric or irregular forms of war erupt under combinations of a positive and a negative value and appear when individualistic adaptations have primacy over the altruistic adaptations, and vice versa. With regard to these latter types of war, referred to as counterinsurgencies and insurgencies respectively, I believe regular doctrine must be replaced with irregular doctrine such as COIN and guerrilla warfare.
If we as a nation desire to avoid conflict in the irregular quadrants this does not equate to discarding the doctrine developed over the past ten years, which appears to have been the case following the Vietnam War. And to say that counterinsurgency does not have a doctrine is to imply that insurgency does not have a doctrine as well. Rather than separate into camps, it would be better to recognize the doctrinal differences of the four quadrants and recognize that because a nation chooses to no longer operate in the counterinsurgency or insurgency quadrant of war, this does not mean the doctrinal tenants no longer exist.
Indeed, as we develop and implement national-level strategy it makes sense to scientifically investigate the relationship between the individualistic and altruistic forces of natural selection to recognize the type of conflict in which our nation is to engage or deter and then apply the appropriate doctrine and strategy. In a paper I wrote during my year at the Army War College, I described this over-arching framework in what I deemed The Nature of War Theory and would welcome to opportunity to develop these concepts in congress with military leaders and thinkers who are willing to consider war’s biological underpinning.
The views expressed here are those of Colonel Olsen and do not reflect the official views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.