Small Wars Journal

The Colonels and 'The Matrix'

Fri, 03/07/2008 - 7:27am
In what is billed as the First in a Series: The Rise of the Counterinsurgents, Spencer Ackerman of Washington Independent profiles the current debate concerning COIN in The Colonels and 'The Matrix'. The 'colonels' are LTC's Gian Gentile and Paul Yingling...

... Ultimately, the answer to that question will probably be endlessly debated. But the counterinsurgency community—they call it "COIN"—has perhaps the most organized answer. Counterinsurgency is a much-disputed concept, but it refers to methods of warfare used to divide a civilian population's political and sentimental allegiance away from a guerrilla force. From the start of the Iraq war, a cadre of warrior-thinkers in the military has questioned the use of tactics that focus more on killing enemies than giving the Iraqi population reasons not to support terrorists, insurgents and militias. "We don't just talk about the enemy, we talk about the environment," explained Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, until two weeks ago the corps commander in Iraq, in a lecture Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation. Not all of them assert that the early use of a counterinsurgency strategy could have won the war. But most contend, after the decline in violence in Iraq during the last half of 2007, that a counterinsurgency strategy would have allowed the war to have been less deadly than it is.

This small but dedicated group includes, most prominently, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq and Marine Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command. Other luminaries are Petraeus COIN braintrusters like David Kilcullen, a gregarious former Australian Army officer and State Department adviser; Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who will soon teach military history at the Ohio State University; and Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft Petraeus and Mattis' much-praised Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a seminal text for the COIN community known as FM 3-24.

Less visible but highly influential members—many are lieutenants, captains and enlisted soldiers and Marines who came of age in Iraq and Afghanistan—include Janine Davidson, who works in the Pentagon's directorate of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict; cultural anthropologist Montgomery McFate; Harvard human-rights expert Sarah Sewall (an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign); and Marine Corps University Professor Erin M. Simpson. The Democratic-aligned Center for a New American Security think tank plays host to many emerging counterinsurgency figures, like Colin Kahl, Nate Fick, Roger Carstens, Shawn Brimley, and, starting in the fall, Nagl. During moments of downtime, the community obsessively reads and comments on the Small Wars Journal and Abu Muqawama blogs...

...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?

Charlie at Abu Muqawama has more commentary on The Colonels and 'The Matrix'.


Rob Thornton

Sat, 03/08/2008 - 8:48am

Its a good article, but I'd mention that although both officers have strong opinions, they represent only part of the debate. Many officers, including myself, recognize that while both arguments have strengths, neither argument completely reconciles itself to the realities of what we (the Army) are being asked to do (both in terms of today, and in terms of looking ahead to the many possible uses of military force to achieve political objectives, nor do I think they completely capture "why" we are, or are not, one way or another - we are big and complex, and to the extent we are plugged into American culture and society, and the nature of our government you could easily misidentify, or wrongly attribute cause and effect.

To their credit, both officers articulate their positions well, and both should be heard from, but its important to remember they offer a perspective - there are no "camps" to which these officers belong except the broad sea of Army green. Anyone reading the arguments of these two officers should also read the published thoughts, or consider the interviews of the many other Army leaders that have been done since 2003. My thoughts are that they are both concerned about our Army, and have a strong sense of duty in voicing their concerns. The rest of us benefit by their candor (candor is something I believe the Army wants in its leaders), and we should all consider the questions they (and others) pose, and reason through them based on our own experiences, beliefs, concerns, and broader thoughts. I'd argue that as a leader you should also consider voicing those concerns in an articulate and constructive manner that adds to the debate - ideas such as both officers represent are important, and should be discussed, or at the very minimum considered by the individual - read, think, write and discuss and growth will occur.

My broader point is that no one should think that because these two very articulate officers have publicly expressed their perspectives, that the broader Army is constrained to one perspective or the other. We are a diverse service, with diverse experiences, and diverse opinions on where we are, and where we might should be going. However, we are all bound by the oath we took, and while we all believe passionately in the purpose we serve, we recognize the strength and value of constructive dissent by quality leaders to the Army as a whole. That such debate can occur is a fine measure of the Army itself in terms of representing the nation it serves.

Best, Rob


Fri, 03/07/2008 - 4:50pm

I agree, that was well-written and deserves wider dissemination.

One thought troubled me as I read it: regardless of who might be "right" in the Yingling-Gentile debate, even if that was resolved we would still have an intersecting problem of a " Failure of Statesmanship".

The civilian agencies of DIME are not up to par in terms of either formation or execution of policy in coordination with the military nor, more importantly, in terms of strategic vision. The constellation of gifted "wise men" that we had during and after WWII or the talented (if machiavellian) dynamic of Kissinger-Nixon in the Vietnam drawdown are absent today.

What we have now are a generation of politicians with an orientation toward domestic policy who try to rely on a horde of niche analysts and experts to handle global, interrelated, problems on an a la carte basis. That doesn't cut it, we need statesmen.

SWJ Groundskeeper

Fri, 03/07/2008 - 3:15pm

What a great article. I hope the series does continue. And may the healthy and needed debate continue to rage on at SWJ and AM!