Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Counterinsurgency Comeback

After a hiatus of several years, I am happy to report that I have returned to the pages of the Wall Street Journal with a piece today on the US Army and counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, a subscription is required so I can’t provide a link.

Here’s the gist of my argument. Citing the late Carl Builder of Rand whose book "The Masks of War," demonstrated the importance of the organizational cultures of the various military services, I observe that each service possesses a preferred way of fighting that is not easily changed. Since the 1930s, the culture of the U.S. Army has emphasized "big wars." But this has not always been the case.

Throughout the 19th century, the U.S. Army was a constabulary force that, with the exception of the Mexican and Civil Wars, specialized in irregular warfare. Most of this constabulary work was domestic, the Indian Wars representing the most important case. But the U.S. Army also successfully executed constabulary operations in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, which involved both nation-building and counterinsurgency.

Emory Upton planted the seeds of change after the Civil War, and by the 1930s, the US Army had become Upton’s Army, a force designed to fight the armies of other countries and pretty much rejecting the constbulary and "irregular war" focus of the past.

I argue that focused as it has been on state-versus-state warfare, Upton’s Army has not cared much for counterinsurgency, a point illustrated by Vietnam, especially during the tenure of Gen. William Westmoreland as commander of U.S. troops from 1965 to 1968.

Westmoreland took issue with the approach favored by the Marines in Vietnam, which was based on the Corps’ experience in the Caribbean during the early 20th century. His successor, Creighton Abrams, adopted something closer to the Marines’ approach and we almost won.

But after Vietnam, the Army decided it would avoid such conflicts and the service discarded the doctrine and lessons it had learned in Vietnam. The Army that entered Iraq in March of 2003 was still Emory Upton’s Army.

I conclude:

But Iraq proves that we don’t always get to fight the wars we want. While the Army must continue to plan to fight conventional wars, given the likelihood that future adversaries will seek to avoid our conventional advantage, it must be able to fight irregular wars as well. Gen. Petraeus’s success in Iraq so far indicates that the Army has begun the necessary transformation. Let us hope that the Army will internalize these lessons, something Emory Upton’s Army has not done in the past.

Sorry. Nothing about Lincoln or Jaffa.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Sorry. Nothing about Lincoln or Jaffa.

Remember, before posting anything to the Ashbrook blog, ask yourself one final question:


There is a possible link to Lincoln in the article in the idea that once a President finds an aggressive general who can do what is needed, change the military to suit the circumstances, we may be able to see the end of an uncomfortable war. Isn't that what Lincoln did?

Not even a person changes easily. Changing an organization's preferred mode of operation must seem glacially slow, and must take great pressure, such as serious failure to provide impetus.

That is a good article, Mac. I am happy to see your work in my favorite newspaper.

For Mac Owens:

Is it accurate to say that the Marines knew how to fight insurgencies, tried to do so in Iraq, but when their units rotated out, Army units replaced them with a big-army style of warfare that forgot about securing the population and focused on killing the enemy?

If so, it seems to me that when they look back at the major mistakes of Iraq, a very large share will lay with the Army for not having, not wanting,and not pursuing a true counterinsurgency strategy in an insurgency.

Or is it really true that both services really did not have a handle on how to fight insurgency?

The debates surrounding Lincoln and the Civil War are nothing but an academic exercise.

They do nothing to help the current state of affairs of the Unites States of America. They do not hurt, but they do not help either ... neutral in other words.

Back on topic, we have been in counterinsurgency in Iraq for some time now and it is good to see that someone is in charge who is well versed in that area.


The Marines have more of an active counterinsurgency tradition than the Army for the reasons I cite in my article. But many Army units were beginnning to adapt to the circumstances before Petraeus and the surge. Indeed, it was an Army officer who was the author of the "Anbar Awakening."

However, the fact is that our rules of engagement and our focus on "force protection" until recently made it difficult to execute COIN. Success against insurgents requires that we gain the trust of the people. You're not going to achieve this if all of your patrols are mounted and the troops are "buttoned up" in armored vehicles.

Gen. Petraeus deserves our admiration for what he has accomplished. But this still needs to be internalized. Given the Army's culture this may be difficult. The Army officers I know are uniformly outstanding and most of them know what they have to do, but they still have to overcome a very robust service culture that pines for another Kursk.

The Army is very much "buttoned up" and has only got more and more "buttoned up". Ever since that SPC opened her mouth and Cheney had to admit that you go to war with the army you have and not the one you want...the focus has been on more and more armor. Hell our Humvees have so many systems on them...they look like giant turtles...Some of the new ones even have remote controled 50-cals. So the gunner can stay inside the humvee and use a joy stick and video camera while remaining "buttoned up". The only interaction I ever had with Iraqi people was with the guards at checkpoints, while "buttoned up". In addition to this the crazy thing was that we never could trust the Iraqi checkpoints...all the IED's seem to mysteriously appear near them...Never once did a dismounted patrol. My interaction with Iraqi's consisted of barganing with the kids yelling mista! mista! as they tried to sell me pirated american DVD's, fake Rolex's, and cheap cigars In the Haji-marts at base camps.

As far as I can tell "force protection" is a sacred cow...we have so much damn armor it isn't funny, and the side plates are uncomfortable. But the marines aren't that much different as far as I can tell... if anything maybe the marines are a little bit looser with the ROE, and a little bit more discontent with all the body armor.

The Marines are marginally more trigger happy...but it depends on the type of unit, the mission...ext... Interestingly enough if I was stereotyping from limited experience I would say that the Regular Army and Marines are probably much more "force protection" conscious than the National Guard or Reserve...those crazies were always trying to befriend Iraqi's and always wanted to get out of vehicles unecessarily...they seemed to be more casual/fearless...or perhaps they felt a need to put on airs because they felt stigmatized.

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