Small Wars Journal

On Teaching the COIN Canon and Speaking Truth through Fiction

Sat, 08/27/2011 - 8:22am

In “Teaching COIN to a (Mostly) Non-Practitioner Audience,” Dr. Robert Farley discussed his experiences teaching a class on counterinsurgency at the Masters level.[1]  His intent is to give would-be instructors “a sense of the promise and possibilities of a Counter-Insurgency course.”[2]  Nearly ten years into the United States’ multiple interventions following 9/11, the promise and possibilities of such a course should be self-evident to those who have devoted themselves to the serious study of counterinsurgency across the diverse practical and philosophical spectrum of its proponents and critics.  What remains are some serious questions that have been left unexplored in regards to the pragmatic and canonical choices in teaching counterinsurgency to practitioner and non-practitioner alike.

What is the value of teaching counterinsurgency—especially to non-practitioners?  According to Farley, knowledge of counterinsurgency will “help them get jobs and (more importantly) excel at the jobs they got.”[3]  With troop levels declining abroad and a rash of civilian hiring freezes in federal agencies and departments, these good intentions may be two or three years too late.[4]  Moreover, the value of counterinsurgency expertise may be flagging if history repeats itself.[5]  Few would dispute Rupert Smith’s contention that the wars of the future will be “amongst the people,” but the shadow of budget cuts will likely mean the Obama Administration will look to more limited and indirect options than the costly, time-intensive counterinsurgency proposed by some.[6]  Better advice to students might be to adapt that experience into a broader specialty less sullied in the strategic and political debates of the last decade such as “irregular warfare.” 

However, there are larger lessons to draw from that thing we call “COIN”—and they are not limited to counterinsurgency operations.  Farley writes, “If we know anything about counter-insurgency, we know that it fails when there is insufficient cooperation between civilian and military agencies.”[7]  Indeed, so do other operations of strategic import.  When the BATFE allowed thousands of small arms across the border and into cartel control during “Project Gunrunner,” it did so without cooperation of the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, and their counterparts in the Mexican government. [8]  As such, a select few damaged the credibility of an entire agency and produced a disastrous strategic outcome with considerable domestic and foreign blowback.  Teaching counterinsurgency is less about assembling a list of ‘what works’ as it is fostering creative and critical thinkers regardless of “pay grade.”[9]  These are not only the “strategic corporals” but also the strategic analysts, strategic FSOs, strategic policymakers, and strategic citizens who constitute the bulwark of national security.[10]

Secondly, what theorists do we select?  Farley offers his selection of ‘classical’ and contemporary counterinsurgency texts; John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus have theirs.[11]  However, choosing among the various theorists of counterinsurgency and their theoretical and practical frameworks—“population-centric,” “enemy-centric,” “leader-centric,” or the multitudes of others—matters less than the critical lenses we apply to them. With the uniqueness of every conflict and each stage within those conflicts, a counterinsurgency course must examine the inevitable gaps and blind spots in selecting such a reading list.  As Sebastian L. v. Gorka and David Kilcullen have argued, the American brand of “COIN” has been based largely upon the superficial study of a small, selective sample of conflicts.[12]  Furthermore, these conflicts are rooted in a long history of foreign intervention.[13]  If this history goes unexamined, students of counterinsurgency—particularly those who have not fought on its battlefields—will not grasp its ugliness.

Among the texts Farley selected for his course were two novels, Sadie Jones’ Small Wars and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn.[14]  Farley also included the films The Wind that Shakes the Barley, The Battle of Algiers, and Stephen Soderbergh’s Che.  This broaches an important pedagogical question:  What is the value of fiction in teaching counterinsurgency to current and future stakeholders?

We have all read accounts of Pashtun tribesmen and their handlers in intelligence services making the liminal passage between Pakistan and Afghanistan; however, Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim reminds us that—while some of the players have changed—we continue to relive the strategic and political decisions of a British India long gone from the map.  We can read the policy papers on the long-standing antipathies between Pakistan and India, but would they express the anguished legacies of colonialism and the tragedies following partition better than Salmon Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children?  Like any text of counterinsurgency, these two have their blind spots, but coupled with a broad multidisciplinary analysis they can give depth and complexity lost in Political Science journals and cube farms in Northern Virginia.

Certainly, misreading a novel or film can lead to a poor understanding of the conflicts they represent.  The famous—indeed, infamous in many circles—Department of Defense screening of The Battle of Algiers has been critiqued as giving the wrong ideas about what constitutes a successful counterinsurgency.[15]  The film’s director, Gillo Pontecorvo, was an adamant critic of the French intervention including the use of torture to—in contemporary terms—“dismantle the network.”  As interrogators piece together the pyramid of the insurgency, Pontecorvo casts a shadow of doubt on these confessions.  Very clearly, his sympathies lie with the meek Algerian man who ‘gives up’ another name, leaving us to wonder if the confession can trusted.  Has he turned over an individual with whom he had some long-standing grievance as has happened in even the most benign interrogations of Afghanistan or Iraq or has he simply said anything to make the pain stop?  Such readings are best accompanied with thoughtful and measured explorations of torture such as Mark Bowden’s 2003 article “The Dark Art of Interrogation” and Christopher Hitchens’ 2008 op-ed “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”[16]

More importantly, teaching The Battle of Algiers offers instructors and students in the United States an opportunity to explore their own sometimes-hidden, sometimes-overt enmities and prejudices as Americans who have lived through the conflicts formerly known as the Global War on Terror.  In undergraduate classes, it is not uncommon for a student to respond, “I wasn’t sure who to root for.”  I suspect this reaction is not unique to undergrads; even counterinsurgent extraordinaire Director of the CIA David Petraeus is renowned for his affection for General Bigeard and his paratroopers.[17]  At least for audiences in the United States, the French paratroopers may be a tempting protagonist when juxtaposed against the Arab nationalists of the FLN.  Cultural competency—so prided among civilian and military practitioners of counterinsurgency—must not stop at the recognition of difference but also extend to a critical examination of how we react to those differences.  How do we react to the wails of the casbah?  Is it alienating or do we see the creation of so many “accidental guerrillas” in a revolution against a colonial power every bit as entangled in religion and politics as was our own?[18]  What is our response to the Algerians’ hijab?  We cannot be trusted to speak truth to power if we cannot speak truth to ourselves about those different than us who we may leap to defend whether they ask for it or not.

The fact is that every genre in the counterinsurgent’s repertoire is itself a kind a fiction.  Each work is but a theory; each text is but a story told through a solitary and incomplete vision of complex conflicts for those who choose to study them as well as those who must endure them through duty or misfortune.  The ultimate lesson we ought to learn—and teach—when we take upon the study of “COIN” is that we must not only speak truth to power but challenge the ‘truths’ we find in the theory and practice of ourselves.

[1] See Robert Farley, “Teaching COIN to a (Mostly) Non-Practitioner Audience,” Small Wars Journal, August 26, 2011, blog/teaching-coin-to-a-mostly-non-practitioner-audience.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Kate Brennan, “U.S. Army Starts Making Hard Funding Choices,” DefenseNews, February 6, 2011, i=5636887; “Extension of Marine Corps Wide Civilian Hiring Freeze,” Official U.S. Marine Corps Web Site, March 11, 2011, Pages/MARADMIN154-11.aspx/; and, “Hiring freeze, pay cuts to save DOD $25 billion,” FederalDAILY, March 20, 2011, 03/30/dod-civilian-hiring-freeze-pay-cuts-to-save-25-billion.aspx.

[5] At least among U. S. national security institutions, lessons of counterinsurgency have not been valued over the long term.  See John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Lessons from Vietnam and Malaya (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2002).

[6] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force (New York: Knopf, 2007). Kindle edition.

[7] Farley.

[8] William La Jeunesse, “Obama Administration Under Mounting Pressure for Botched Gun Trafficking Investigation,” FoxNews, March 28, 2011,  http://

[9] Farley.

[10] Charles C. Krulak, “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” Air University Lessons Learned, strategic_corporal.htm.

[11] See John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “COIN Graduate Seminar,” Small Wars Journal, December 23, 2008,

[12] Sebastian L. v. Gorka and David Kilcullen, “An Actor-centric Theory of War: Understanding the Difference Between COIN and Counterinsurgency,” Joint Forces Quarterly 60 (2011): 14-18.

[13] For a broad history that introduces major theoretical figures, see Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: A Historical Introduction (Malden: Blackwell, 2001).

[14] Farley.

[15] See Charles Paul Freund, “The Pentagon's Film Festival,” Slate, August 27, 2003, and Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?” New York Times, September 7, 2003, http://

[16] See Mark Bowden, “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” The Atlantic, October 2003, and Christopher Hitchens, “Believe Me, It’s Torture,” Vanity Fair, August 2008, hitchens200808.

[17] David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009), 37.

[18] See David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford, 2009).



Erich G. Simmers

Fri, 10/14/2011 - 1:15pm

In reply to by Dr Matthew Partridge

Certainly, that is another good film to explore issues pertinent to counterinsurgency. However, there are racial and gender issues that need to be unpacked much in the same way as with <em>The Green Berets</em> (see my comment below). If memory serves, Slotkin does thorough treatment of <em>The Magnificent Seven</em> as well.

One fact that I cannot stress enough is that using literature or film as a lens to understand conflict is more than assembling examples of what works and what doesn't. Film and literature are these cultural artifacts that can reveal the truth and falsehoods behind <em>our</em> beliefs as they have informed counterinsurgency efforts throughout history and today. They can also be a vehicle to challenge those same beliefs.

Take, for example, a film like <em>Apocalypse Now Redux</em>. That is a great film to introduce to a critical discussion of contemporary American population-centric counterinsurgency particularly given the fallacies that have popped up in regards "armed social work" as a less violent (or even non-violent) mode of warfare. In the Redux version, there is much more meditation on the humanitarian components of a COIN campaign. Kurtz even cites Thompson at one point.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Mon, 09/26/2011 - 12:38pm

What about "The Magnificent Seven" (the 1960 original)? Indeed, not only does it implicitly endorse COIN (the battle is only won after the villagers are persuaded to join in the battle), it also shows the futility of a short-term CT focused approach (the initial victory scares the bandits off but they then return in force).


Tue, 08/30/2011 - 10:47am

In reply to by carl

Would the movie "Go Tell the Spartans" describe FID? Or for that matter, would "The 7 Samurai/Magnificent 7"?

Erich G. Simmers

Mon, 08/29/2011 - 4:58pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I would be interested in a film version of <em>The Village</em>, too.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a film that focuses on FID. Personally, I am not a big fan of <em>The Green Berets</em> unless you were looking at it as an example of some wrong-headed thinking behind American's involvement in Vietnam. In <em>Gunfighter Nation</em>, Richard Slotkin argues that film perpetuated an incorrect vision of Vietnam as conforming to a "wild west," "cowboys and indians" fantasy. Based on this fantasy, there was was no applicability for warfighters and led poor decision-making among policymakers. Slotkin calls it the "John Wayne syndrome." He writes, "Disillusion with the Wayne idea, or recognition of its inapplicability in the real world of combat, could transform the heroic symbol into its opposite, a metaphor of false consciousness, pretension, and military excess, as in the statement attributed to a Marine in I Corps, ‘There are always two ways to do something—the right way and the John Wayne way. We might as well do it the right way.’ […] It is also worth noting that the I Corps Marine identified the ‘John Wayne’ approach with the abandonment of successful Marine pacification campaigns (‘the right way’) in favor of the more destructive big-unit operations."* This might seem a little harsh on the movie--or The Duke, for the matter--but pop culture can have a very destructive impact on strategic thinking. This may be an important issue for a COIN class as well.



* - Richard Slotkin, <em>Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America</em> (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 519-520

Bill M.

Sun, 08/28/2011 - 5:54pm

In reply to by SWJED

We were Soldiers Once told that story well, but I'm not sure how popular it was.

From a political view and one of my favorite movies "Gardens of Stone" presented a different view of the war also through the eyes of professional NCOs working in Arlington.

Those movies addressed the combat and political activities, the only one I can recall seeing that even superficially addressed the FID part was "The Green Berets", which was a popular movie in its time (before Vietnam became unpopular).

If anyone is aware of others, please share.


Sun, 08/28/2011 - 5:20pm

In reply to by carl

I've often thought that The Village would make a good (informative and entertaining enough for the 'American public') movie. I've mentioned this to Bing several times and I think he would agree. That said, there has to be someone in Hollywood willing to take on not only a 'war movie' (chancy in the best of times) and a war movie on Vietnam to boot (no killing women and children by 'not leading them as much' or 'whacked out druggies' burning down a village). It is quite a shame that this story isn't told on the big screen. - Dave D.

An additional reason for using movies, novels or very well written popular accounts (The Village by West) is that the students are much more likely to actually read them, because they are fun to read (or watch), than they are to skim them for class. There are any number of works that can do this, most of which are probably known to the people around here.

David's point is very important, very important. The people who read and contribute to the site mostly know firsthand what violence is. But the people who make up masters level classes don't. At least in the US they have grown up completely sheltered and don't have any idea what it means. Novels and popular accounts are the only way to really acquaint them with the hard reality short of having them do some time as soldiers, cops or EMTs etc. It is important that they have some idea because, like it or not, they will move on to positions of power without having had any personal experience with people who hurt other people for the fun of it.

As an example, Robert Thompson said the best way to know what it is like to like under the threat of terror, killers coming in the night, was to read some of Jim Corbett's man-eater books. You read those accounts and it makes a lasting impression because of the vivid writing.


Sun, 08/28/2011 - 9:35am

What we often miss in countering violent threats is an awareness of what violence means, let alone considering does it work and the many downsides involved. In six years I've only heard two academics pose those questions together; both from the 'Critical Studies in Terrorism' school, Marie Breen Smith and Richard Jackson.

For a college-level course using COIN or CT as the hook will work for a while yet, but I hope any course looks at FIRST educating the students about violence.

I know learning about violence is a feature in Northern Ireland, but for a 'Small Wars' audience this has been pushed away as something to do afterwards.

Thanks Erich.

John T. Fishel

Sat, 08/27/2011 - 4:41pm

As one who teaches a course on Small Wars (and every other of the 100 or so names of this phenomonon) I generally concur with the author. I too use the film, Battle of Algiers, which is both based on the memoir of FLN leader Saadi Yasef and stars him playing a character based largely on himself. It is relevant that filmaker, Pontecorvo, was a communist who wanted to show the oppressive nature of the colonial system but it is a tribute to his intellectual honesty that his French protagonist, Colonel Mathieu, is shown as a complete human being as is his adversary. Oddly enough, the film fails to show that it was the method of asking what Algerian communist, Henri Aleg, calls "the question" - torture - that cost France the war in France and the rest of the world. Granted, saying it this way oversimplifies but no more than Pontecorvo's ending showing demonstrations as driving the French out.