Do Civilian Casualties Cause Counterinsurgents to Fail? By Patrick Burke - War is Boring
The Netflix movie War Machine paints counterinsurgency wars as impossible.
All of them.
“The thing about counterinsurgency is that it doesn’t really work,” the film’s narrator says. “We tried it in Vietnam. That went well. The British and the French gave it a shot, trying to hang on to their crumbling empires. It just hasn’t worked. To me, it would seem kind of simple why. You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. You can’t build a nation at gunpoint.”
The film suggests a simple logic to back this message. A counterinsurgent must win over the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population in order to win the war.
However, a counterinsurgent that kills civilians in the course of defeating insurgents can never win “hearts and minds.” Thus, because defeating insurgents hiding among civilians almost always results in civilian casualties, counterinsurgency is impossible.
We could brush this assertion off as “just Hollywood.” However, one of the most critical influences on counterinsurgency doctrine, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, holds a similar view. With one crucial caveat, of course.
FM 3-24 argues that excessive civilian casualties will cripple counterinsurgency operations, possibly to the point of failure. This is especially the case when the counterinsurgent doesn’t seek popular support by implementing public works projects and rendering other forms of aid, according to the manual.
Still, FM 3-24 is not clear on what exactly constitutes “excessive civilian casualties.” The manual’s authors would likely deem civilian casualties as excessive if a ground unit had the option of using more discriminate firepower to kill the enemy but chose otherwise…