Col Gian Gentile is a man on a mission—to save the US military from the scourge of counter-insurgency or COIN operations.
Freeing the Army from the Counterinsurgency Straightjacket
A (Slightly) Better War: A Narrative and Its Defects
His new book Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, is a short, but intense tome where he rails against COIN, “savior generals,” and the US Field Manual 3-24, the official US doctrine manual on COIN. COL Gentile has no doubts of the righteousness of his cause, and he has been a curmudgeonly critic of the so-called “COINDINISTAS” of the Washington think-tank circuit. Now the question is—Does he have a point? Is he right? Or, has he just mangled history to push his viewpoint and be contrarian? So, let’s look at the good, bad, and the UGLY of his arguments and then look at what he DIDN’T talk about…which, as any good historian will tell you, is almost as important as what he DID say.
1) The Good: Col Gentile takes a long time to get to his real point—armed nation-building in a country of backwards, tribal, Muslim sheep herders from the 7th century rarely works. Yup, this seems to be his entire point, although he meanders around in terms of strategy, tactics, etc. I have to say, I don’t disagree with him. I have become a real proponent of the concept of the “punitive expedition” mode of foreign policy, whereby you inform the Afghan, Pakistan, or Yemen village elders that we don’t really care what they do with their sheep or women, but if Al Qaeda shows up, we will make the rubble dance. Col Gentile, uses Malaya and Vietnam as allegories for Iraq and Afghanistan, and makes a key point that Vietnam was not Malaya, and Afghanistan is not Iraq. Here I also agree with him, as I mentioned in my review essay on books discussing both campaigns--the US military’s efforts to “cut and paste” the Iraq Surge into the Af-Pak border was strategically dangerous and foolish.
2) The Bad: Col Gentile spends a lot of time wailing against the “savior generals” such as Creighton Abrams, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal. In a more snarky moment, one could see an angry permanent O-6 peeking through, but I will defer that line of reasoning without evidence. What I will note is that throughout history, savior generals are a proven fact. Whether they are actual saviors, like U.S. Grant or Matthew Ridgeway, or public relations saviors like Douglas MacArthur after Bataan, the psychology can be just as important as the reality. In all wars, political will is needed to win, or at least to successfully conclude wars. Sometimes this means putting a fresh face on the military command. In Iraq, the public face of David Petraeus, combined with the courage of President Bush allowed the Surge, which Col Gentile basically dismisses as a major factor in allowing President “Duck and Run” Obama to pull out our troops and declare “Middle East peace in our times” and “Osama is dead and GM is alive” The whole topic of the surge is a huge sore spot of the author. Personally, I think the evidence shows that the Sunni Awakening and the Shia standdown, which Gentile credits for the drop in violence through 2007-2008 would not have occurred without the additional US troops AND a change in willingness to engage with the Sunni tribes and schwack Mooki Al Sadr and get Maliki to do it as well. I think the good Col doth protest too much in poo-pooing the Surge.
3) The Ugly: While Col Gentile spends a lot of time discussing (pillorying) FM 3-24, he doesn’t mention any other Army doctrine or strategy pubs, which I think is a significant shortfall if he wants to change the outlook, strategy, and policy of the US Army. Unfortunately, just like the US Army tried to institutionally forget COIN after Vietnam and concentrate on the Fulda Gap, the US Army, whether it wants to or not, is not likely to be able to forget Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrate on ?????.
This, of course is the $10,0000 question…WHAT are the most likely threats and missions the US Army will face in the next 20 years? Will it be a major conventional conflict on the Korea Peninsula? Or will the major security issues the US faces continue to be failed states, criminal and terrorist organizations…or some combination of all of these in Mexico, somewhere in the Middle East or Africa? This is the question the US Army must grapple with, because it will affect everything from equipment procurement, training and doctrine, and strategic options available to US policy makers. Should the Army keep heavy tank and mechanized infantry brigades, or should more brigades be made “lighter” and more mobile? What is the role of Special Operations units? These are important questions…and Col Gentile strangely, offers no insight or opinions on what he thinks the Army should do, although from other articles he has written, he clearly favors a heavier, more conventional force.
If you're going to complain about something, my old CO used to say, then you'd better have an alternative solution. Col Gentile does not come up with one at the end of this book, something I was looking forward too. It just kind of ends, without offering alternatives for discussion. This was a major disappointment. However, the book does raise some excellent points that will be addressed in some forthcoming blog posts.....