Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Never Again

The post regarding Mr. Cohen's articles on Democracy Arsenal on COIN and specifically John Nagl and Brian Burton's article in the April issue of Washington Quarterly was cited on Abu Muqawama and began a lively discussion thread over there. This is good, since the COINtras are raising a point that needs to be discussed, dealt with, and moved past. It is the politics of fear.

More after the jump

Here is the lone comment that was left on this blog (there are nearly 140 over at AM) regarding the post, made by Mr. Anonymous:

You completely miss Michael Cohen's point. Utterly.

As simply as possible: There is an upper bound on the efficiency of COIN. No matter how good you get at it, as a policy option, it's always bloody, expensive, and comparatively undesirable.

The problem with the COIN industry is that getting better at COIN is on some level a futile endeavor. You can get better enough to perform better tactically, or operationally, at the current goals of your campaign. But you can never get enough better to make being in COIN strategically positive.

Through the power of agent theory and path dependence, by making us better at COIN, you are making us more likely to use it, thus making us actually worse off, because two competent COIN engagements are still worse for us as a country than one incompetent COIN engagement.

It would be one thing if you actually engaged this argument, but you instead quite failed to comprehend, articulate, or rebut it.

I do get Mr. Cohen's point, actually. Mr. Cohen is afraid that if we grasp the doctrine of counterinsurgency well enough to be successful in Afghanistan, we will be, as a nation, forever seeking new venues in which to display our counterinsurgent prowess; that the civilian masters of the military will find a new and irresistible toy with which to play endlessly.

The operative word is afraid. It's the operative word in all of the COINtra dialogues. They are afraid that by retaining the lessons learned in Iraq and the lessons being learned in Afghanistan, they will lose control of something. Some fear that the United States will lose its conventional edge. Some fear that they will lose massive budgets for very expensive new aircraft. Some fear that the stigma of Vietnam will be lost, and that the deterrent to engaging in counterinsurgency or nation-building will melt away, allowing America to be drawn endlessly into long and messy engagements in strategic backwaters.

The commenter writes about a COIN industry. Aside from a few publishers (have you seen the price of Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice lately?) I fail to see an industry. I do see a massive conventional weapons industry. I do see that the funding for the F-22 has been cut. I do see an industry to support the military that guards us from the bogeyman who can nuke us to death or supposedly invade our country and subjugate it. I don't see a COIN industry. COIN actually pushes back against the greater defense industry in many ways. It does not play to technological strengths, heavy equipment, or present a technical challenge in overcoming enemy systems. It does not respond to advanced radars that can pick out a gnat at a hundred miles at 50,000 feet. It does not spur the development of more capable fighters or of advanced armored vehicles networked seamlessly together. It doesn't respond to generals who can see each detail through a Predator feed and a networked map.

It responds to a man on the ground, dirty and tired and frustrated, trying to get a bunch of backwards people to feel safe enough to tell him that their neighbor likes to play with explosives at night and threaten to cut their heads off if they tell anyone.

COIN strategically positive. Now there's an idea. COIN is not strategically positive. It never was. It may support a strategic goal, but it is never strategically positive. COIN is the end result of failed strategy or the failure to strategize. It is the end result, as are all wars, of failure to resolve problems non-violently.

Failure in an endeavor is not strategically positive, either. In fact, it is strategically disastrous. Maj.Gen. Charles Dunlap states that the loss in Vietnam didn't cost the United States the Cold War, and it didn't cause the nation to become a failed state, and therefore loss in Afghanistan is acceptable, perhaps desirable. Yes, it would be desirable to him. It would once again cause a version of the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine to be adopted, perhaps by law. The lesson learned from Vietnam; "Never again."

Never again would an advanced fighter be put on hold while the military pursued an objective in which they held air superiority by default. Never again would all of his training and planning for a conventional knockdown of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Air Force be rendered useless. Never again would he face internal dissent from a guerrilla group of junior officers who point out that a two-engined version of the Spooky gunship could be bought by the squadron full, to include crews, for the price of a single F-22.

I don't know where Maj.Gen. Dunlap was in the years following the humiliation of Vietnam. Of course, Vietnam had positive effects on the Air Force in many ways. The Red Flag school was begun, the F-15 and F-16 learned from the challenges faced by the F-4, and the United States fielded the best fighter in the world as the world watched America's panicked flight from Saigon.

The disaster in Vietnam did irreparably harm the United States. We were lucky that the Soviets did not view our weakened Army as the easy prey it would have been in the mid-'70's. The services struggled with drug addiction and the Vietnam veterans suffered from the double edged sword of fighting the wrong doctrine in an insurgency, which to me complicates PTSD, and the stigma of failure which cannot but increase their suffering. These men and women who fought as well as any in the history of the United States were failed by their leadership and training.

Laos and Cambodia fell. Millions perished. To this day, none of these countries match their liberal neighbors economically. Malaysia, which survived an insurgency only a few years before Vietnam collapsed, produces computers. Vietnam produces cheap clothing and hats.

The loss of American prestige, the aura of invincibility shattered, led to numerous confrontations abroad. The USS Pueblo, the Embassy in Tehran, and a myriad of other incidents demonstrated our loss of standing. It changed the way that America views itself and its government forever. It emboldened asymmetric threats around the world as they saw the limits of American resolve and learned that if they had more patience, we would tire and concede any fight.

It made our media and our Armed Forces mortal enemies, which they remain to this day. The relationship between the American people and their Armed Forces did not heal until the Gulf War. I know. I wore a uniform during the 80's, often in public on American streets.

One incompetent engagement is better for those who live in fear of the future. It is not better to me, who has lost friends and allies and has sacrificed months and months of my life and family time for it. It is not better for the legions of Vietnam veterans who live daily in the aftermath of futile sacrifice. No. It is not, and it never will be. Question the motives for engagement, do reasonable work to prevent such occurrences in the future; but do not make our sacrifices mean nothing so that your fear can rule you.

The military response, following the insidious behavior of those who had resorted to lying, cheating and cover-ups to justify failures and poor behaviors, learned a lesson; "Never again." To them, "never again" meant never again engaging in asymmetric warfare. Documents were written, studies done, to demonstrate the failures and point the fingers at everyone and everything except themselves. First the Weinberger Doctrine and later the Powell Doctrine aimed at avoiding all such engagements, keeping our military restricted to "short, sharp" engagements, which to military officers was both exculpatory and very desirable. It simplified their jobs, and, confident that they would never again be called upon to perform in an asymmetric environment, allowed them to focus strictly on AirLand Doctrine and the weapons required to prosecute it.

Meanwhile, the government failed to learn how to engage the true might of our nation, its economic might and the freedom of its people, to engage in the diplomatic and developmental activity that would prevent the failure to thrive that pushes individuals towards extremism. We set up our own enemies of the future.

As the Armed Forces recovered from the TBI of Vietnam and built into a force that the Soviets dare not challenge across the Fulda Gap, American Soldiers and Marines muddled through a series of asymmetric disasters for which they were untrained and unprepared. Having thrown out what we had learned from Vietnam, eager to distance ourselves from the memory of having our collective asses handed to us by a nation of rice farmers, hundreds of Marines were killed by what we later came to call a VBIED in Beirut. The ignominious withdrawal from Somalia and the vision of naked American dead being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing Somalians did not wake up the leadership but instead inspired the Powell Doctrine.

Yet the political masters of our Armed Forces ventured forth again, into fields where our mighty M-1 Abrams meant nothing more than a really nice roadblock.

I see the fear in every argument made by the COINtras. Fear for their particular rice bowls, fear of losing a glorious image, fear of success driving future endeavors. I am a Soldier. This does not mean that I do not feel fear; far from it. It does mean that I am not bound to a course of action or inaction because of it. Cohen's fear is that by adopting the doctrine that is necessary for success in the current war, and by being realistic enough to look at our past and maintaining the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed again, we will ensure the advent of future instances of involvement in foreign insurgencies. We, however, realize that civilians will, for whatever reason, throw me and my brothers in arms into a similar situation, regardless of their fluffy expressions of goodwill and world brotherhood.

When they do, after we have taken their well-intentioned advice and planning for a raging conventional holocaust and the righteous, clear-cut conventional victory Americans crave, we will once again make mistakes that cost young men their lives.

The right lesson that we should have derived from earlier failures in such situations was indeed, "Never again." Never again will we send young men out to "chase ghosts" untrained in the doctrine and tactics that will keep more of them alive, end your adventures more quickly, and avoid failures that invite such events as the Tehran Embassy due to our loss of prestige. Never again will we have officers who attempt to fail at their tasks with cries of, "We don't do windows." Never again will we, through willful negligence and wishful thinking, endanger the lives of our Soldiers and the accomplishment of whatever mission our nation calls upon us to perform.

I see the COINtras fear, and I see Cohen's. It's okay to be scared. It's not okay to let it rule your life or your decisions, and it's not okay to allow it to rule the advice you give to others. It is particularly not okay for it to rule the minds of military officers, and especially not for reasons of individual or service-related selfishness, parochialism, or their boyhood visions of glory.

I get Cohen's point all too well. His point was arrived at before his readings and his writings and that, to me, is intellectually dishonest. That's why I wrote about it.

If anyone wants to avoid such future entanglements, then learn your own, "Never again." Learn that by establishing an excellent Phase 0 capability, you position yourself better to never have to consider Phase IV COIN in a kinetic environment. Influence your government to deal with the development of radicalized elements by addressing them at their birthplace, before they plan attacks on our home soil for whatever crazy reason that their minds grow into. Start addressing the next Taliban or al Qaeda now before they kill Americans.

COIN is awful business. It boggles the best minds. It can never be done perfectly, only adequately, but it can be done. I hope that Afghanistan is the last time this nation ever engages in foreign COIN or FID, but I don't for one second believe that it will be, especially in a world where the only way to really interfere with American interests or strategies is asymmetric. I am here to tell Michael Cohen, Maj.Gen. Dunlap, or anyone else that never again will I listen to someone who tells me to be willfully negligent in my duties to my Soldiers and my nation, and to help them prove their points by purposely failing in Afghanistan; or that it would be alright to do so. Never again will I heed leadership that tries to guide me away from having the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform in whatever role my nation tells me I need to function in. That is my never again.


  1. I don't believe the media and the armed forces are natural enemies, at least a sizable swath of capable journalists and the armed forces, but that's a separate discussion.

    I think you nailed part of the problem. COIN has no natural constituency outside of a part of the military and some policy wonks. It's risky like you pointed out and that makes elected politicians and career military bureaucrats nervous. The Powell Doctrine is the perfect policy junk food for Congress and the Executive. Quick, easy(?) and minimial risk, or at least that's the way it was perceived.

    The COINdinista's have this narrow window of opportunity. The President seems open to the arguments that Petraeus and Gates are making, and he has enough political capital in the bank right now to gamble on COIN.

    The Cohen argument seems to me to be the classic slippery slope fallacy. If it works, it's just one more policy/strategy option to pull as needed, not some game changing ideology that will drive American political elites to try it everywhere. It really makes you wonder what they are really afraid of.

  2. I will try to be polite. The politicians need to leave the war up to the men and women who actually know how to win whatever war we are fighting, not these armchair generals or congressmen. That's my 2 cents. May be wrong, but at least you know what you're talking about. I trust you with my life. I would not trust politicians with my school lunch money. Need I say more? Thank you for everything you do for us! :)

  3. Meanwhile, the government failed to learn how to engage the true might of our nation, its economic might and the freedom of its people, to engage in the diplomatic and developmental activity that would prevent the failure to thrive that pushes individuals towards extremism. We set up our own enemies of the future.That is the quote of the week, month, year.

  4. My formatting didn't work out so well, did it?

  5. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/06/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  6. Brother I do enjoy when you get your teeth into something Blue - excellent post. I can see where academics would believe that proficiency in COIN could reduce the trigger point for letting lose the dogs of war. The problem is here on planet earth things don't work that way and our nation tends to frequently deploy her military regardless of their level of COIN ability.

    Seems to me that the "Black Hawk Down" fight in Somalia occured in 1993 - the ionasion of Iraq a full decade after that and what was our SECDEF Rummie catching flack about? Armored vehicles to protect the troops. What is the one thing you would think to procure if you had just watched Black Hawk Down and had anything to do with military procurement? I'm guessing armored vehicles to protect the troops.

    But we had the F 22 bat wing super secret joint terminal attack stealth air superiority (or whatever its called..I could care less) fighter. And their is one in the pipeline to replace that "dated" technology.

    Infantry guys like slow moving planes which hang lots of ordinance and can loiter overhead for hours at a time. That makes us feel loved - having a fast mover check in with 10 minutes until he has to bingo for fuel rarely does anyone any good at all. I'm with Blue keep the jets.

    Baba T

  7. Bravo. IMO the lessons that many chose to learn from Vietnam have warped our nation's perspective on the use of our military and national powers for way too long.

    Thank you for doing the heavy-lifting...in more ways than one.

  8. Excellent post Blue. Thanks very much.


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