Original and Good: The New US Army and Marine Corps “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies” Field Manual
John A. Nagl
Not long after arriving at Oxford for graduate studies, I submitted a proposal for my Master’s thesis to a terribly formidable don. He provided a curt analysis over sherry a few days later: “Your thesis proposal is both original and good. Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.”
He was right—so right that I couldn’t extend my Master’s thesis into a doctoral dissertation a few years later and had to start over from scratch, choosing the then-esoteric field of counterinsurgency. In the twenty years since that discussion, many, many books have been written on counterinsurgency, and, after a decades-long hiatus, a few field manuals as well. The Army and Marines have been working for several years to update the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual published on December 15, 2006, and have finally completed their work.
The new edition, also numbered FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 but now titled Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, is both original and good. However, unlike my Master’s thesis, the original parts are quite good, incorporating many lessons learned from the last decade of war. The new manual also keeps much of what made the 2006 edition of Counterinsurgency noteworthy, including the strategic principles beginning with “Legitimacy is the Main Objective” that were a key part of the first chapter of the last version of the manual. Also carrying over are the paradoxes of counterinsurgency, beginning with “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be”, although these have moved from the first chapter to the seventh, “Planning and Operational Considerations.”
Carrying over the “Principles” and the “Paradoxes” of counterinsurgency from the 2006 to the 2014 the Manual suggests that the general approaches of the two broadly coincide, and this is in fact the case; like the earlier manual, this one is dedicated to building a host nation government that has the support of the population. It recognizes that accomplishing that objective requires military forces to do things that are counterintuitive to them—accepting risk themselves in order to minimize the risk to the civilian population that is the ultimate target and prize of the campaign, for instance. A new chapter on “Culture” acknowledges that to succeed in a counterinsurgency campaign, an intervening government must understand the politics, language, tribal relationships, and economics (among many other factors) that may create fault lines in a society under strain. Each society is unique; hence the manual’s title, which recognizes that every insurgency is sui generis even as the principles of previous counterinsurgency campaigns can be used to defeat it.
The single biggest change in the new manual is the addition of Chapter 10, “Indirect Methods for Countering Insurgencies”, a tacit admission that the “Clear, Hold, and Build” method recommended in the 2006 edition may be too expensive in lives, time, and treasure for an America chastened by a hard decade and more of counterinsurgency campaigns. The earlier manual, written as Iraq was plummeting into civil war, focused on the problem at hand; there was no chance that anything but a direct intervention of foreign troops using classic counterinsurgency techniques could mitigate that train wreck. The new one advocates earlier interventions with smaller footprints, as often as possible using host nation forces to carry most of the burden, whenever that option is available. This is enormously valuable as a guide to policymakers but perhaps less so to the conventional Army and Marine Corps, as most often it will be Special Operating Forces that will implement future small footprint COIN campaigns.
To its credit, the new manual recognizes that in future wars there may be no small footprint, indirect options available, and so includes the large footprint “Shape-Clear-Hold-Build-Transition” framework in Chapter 9, “Direct Approaches to Counter an Insurgency.” That chapter features one of the most complicated diagrams this author has seen in an Army Field Manual, Figure 9.2, “Example of a Possible Transition Framework”. It replaces the brilliant Peter Chiarelli/Patrick Michaelis diagram that was the cornerstone of the last manual’s Chapter 5, “Conducting Counterinsurgency Operations.”
The other regrettable omission from the new FM 3-24 is more understandable. In recognition of the extraordinary breadth of knowledge required to succeed in a counterinsurgency campaign, and the Army and Marine Corps’ historical amnesia on the subject, the 2006 edition of the manual included an annotated bibliography of additional reading on the subject—to this author’s knowledge, the first ever included in a Field Manual. An updated version that included works like Carter Malkasian’s “War Comes to Garmser” and David Kilcullen’s “Out of the Mountains” would have been a service to the community interested in the subject, but most readers of this review are probably already familiar with these books. It may also be the case that doctrinal manuals should not be used to advocate particular commercial books, no matter how valuable reading them may be as a tool for preparing military personnel for future wars.
For that is the purpose of doctrine: to gather best practices from history in order to inform preparations for and conduct of combat operations anywhere on the spectrum, most certainly including counterinsurgency. After Vietnam, decades passed without the Army and Marines conducting significant thinking about the preparation for and conduct of counterinsurgency operations, leaving an enormous vulnerability which enemies of this nation exploited ruthlessly in the first decade of this century. Relearning the forgotten lessons of Vietnam and earlier counterinsurgency campaigns demanded a heavy price in blood. Writing FM 3-24 took about a year; rewriting it required nearly eight additional years of continuous learning and adaptation. May the next version come more quickly and build on the foundation of these two good, and original, works of military doctrine.