Yesterday the New York Times published the sort of poorly written news article that is all too common in journalism today in that it invents “news” out of thin air.
It starts by suggesting that America’s premier military institution, West Point, is somehow engaged in an “existential” debate. The term, of course, pertains to how an individual or organization conceives of its own existence, so we are led to believe the school (and by extension the Army) is somehow questioning its raison d'être.
But in reality, the piece is simply about two professors with supposedly different views as to the efficacy of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine. To support this argument Elisabeth Bumiller, the writer, marshals all of THREE professors, (one of whom doesn’t even talk about COIN), and claims they represent a “divided” faculty at West Point. While it is possible the professors there are separating into opposing ideological camps and getting ready to have an intellectual throw down over the topic of counterinsurgency, the case certainly isn’t made when all you can do quote a couple people from the staff, neither of whom talks about the institution or professors being “divided.”
(BTW, West Point isn’t questioning its existence or purpose, which is and probably always will be, to educate and train military officers to fight and win our nation’s wars.)
Perhaps worse than the existential bit, however, is that the article really doesn’t address the disagreements surrounding counterinsurgency, and the two professors taken to represent opposite camps don’t really seem to be that much in disagreement with each other. Here’s the part from the article covering the supposed professorial divide:
Colonel Gentile’s argument is that the United States pursued a narrow policy goal in Afghanistan — defeating Al Qaeda there and keeping it from using the country as a base — with what he called “a maximalist operational” approach. “Strategy should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent,” he said.
Counterinsurgency could ultimately work in Afghanistan, he said, if the United States were willing to stay there for generations. “I’m talking 70, 80, 90 years,” he said.
Colonel Gentile, who has photographs in his office of five young soldiers in his battalion killed in the 2006 bloodshed in Baghdad, acknowledged that it was difficult to question the wars in the face of the losses.
“But war ultimately is a political act, and I take comfort and pride that we as a military organization, myself as a commander of those soldiers who died, the others who were wounded and I think the American Army writ large, that we did our duty,” he said. “And there is honor in itself of doing your duty. I mean you could probably push back on me and say you’re still saying the war’s not worth it. But I’m a soldier, and I go where I’m told to go, and I do my duty as best I can.”
Here we have Gentile, a well-known critic of those with the COIN fetish, stating that war is a political act. And that COIN could work, though only over a long time period. Just that most of what we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t seem to have been successful or worth the price in lives and money, and the time frame required for it to be so doesn’t fit with what we’re willing to sacrifice.
Now here is his antagonist:
Colonel Meese’s opposing argument is that warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions — the view advanced in the bible of counterinsurgents, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was revised under General Petraeus in 2006. Hailed as a new way of warfare (although drawing on counterinsurgencies fought by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, among others), the manual promoted the protection of civilian populations, reconstruction and development aid.
“Warfare in a dangerous environment is ultimately a human endeavor, and engaging with the population is something that has to be done in order to try to influence their trajectory,” Colonel Meese said.
Reading this, it doesn’t seem like Gentile and Meese are very far apart on the notion that war is a political act. I'm not sure there is a military officer who even thinks that it isn't. And it’s hard to believe that Gentile, a published author and professor at West Point who gets quoted regularly as an expert on military affairs, doesn’t think that war also includes economic and psychological factors. Nor does it seem he would disagree that war occurs in a dangerous context or that you have to engage with the population and influence them. And I doubt that Meese would disagree with Gentile’s comment that “[s]trategy should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent.”
The bottom line is there is not a whole lot of disagreement between the two, certainly nothing "existential." Meaning there doesn’t appear to be a “divided” faculty at West Point.
This whole article misses the boat about what the disagreements of COIN are about, which essentially deal with whether or not it is an appropriate doctrine for accomplishing America’s national security objectives. In other words, has it been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is it a model to use in future operations? Gentile thinks not, and we know this from his previous writings. Meese, we should assume (though don’t know for sure because the article doesn’t make it clear), probably does. Yet this topic isn’t really covered at all in the article, save Meese’s dubious claim that it was the doctrine that was responsible for the decline in violence in Iraq, an argument Douglas Ollivant critiques pretty well here.
It’s too bad the article isn’t better written. A good piece in the New York Times that goes in-depth into what counterinsurgency is, what critics say, and whether or not it has been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have brought more value to readers. Even better would have been some inside knowledge on the rewrite of the COIN manual that is currently taking place. Unfortunately, this one is so broad and convoluted it reads like a pastiche of others stories the author was writing and decided to cobble together for a Memorial Day special.
There’s really only one thing newsworthy in it, namely, that Gentile has a book coming out. Gentile is the COINdinistas gadfly, and opposing views like his are always useful for avoiding groupthink when big issues are at stake. It’s called: Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace With Counterinsurgency. Based on his previous work I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy it.