We May Not Be Interested in COIN, but COIN is Interested in Us

Photo By United States Mint, Smithsonian Institution [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo By United States Mint, Smithsonian Institution [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is the United States Army turning its back on the experience it gained in Iraq and Afghanistan? Retired Brigadier General Robert Scales fears so. After recounting his personal experience with the U.S. Army’s neglect of counterinsurgency lessons following the Vietnam War, Scales sees the pattern repeating itself.

The Army as an institution loves the image of the big war: swift maneuver, tanks, heavy artillery, armed helicopters overhead, mounds of logistics support. The nitty-gritty of working with indigenous personnel to common ends, small unit patrols in civilian-infested cities, quick clashes against faceless enemies that fade back into the populace — not so much. Lessons will fade, and those who earned their PhDs in small wars will be passed over and left by the wayside.

U.S. Army War College professor Andrew Hill found the same neglect in the recent report of the National Commission on the Future of the Army, in which any reference to stability operations “is barely discernable.” As Scales put it, “here is the problem with that approach: The ability to win the big one is vital, but so is the ability to win the small wars. We paid a price for forgetting what we learned in Vietnam. I hope succeeding generations do not have to pay again.”

The U.S. government appears to be repeating the pattern insofar as its support for basic research on insurgency and counterinsurgency. During the early years of the Vietnam conflict, the U.S. government invested significant resources to support research and analysis efforts. This led to some very interesting and promising lines of inquiry by organizations such as the Special Operations Research Office, and scholars like Ted Gurr and Ivo and Rosalind Feierabend, among others. However, as Chris Lawrence recently pointed out, this funding was cut by the end of the 1960s, years before the war ended. After, the fruits of this initial research was published in the early 1970s, further research on the subject slowed considerably.

The emergence of insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan led to another round of research and analysis funding by the U.S. government in the mid-2000s. This resulted in renewed interest in the foundations built during the 1960s, as well as new analytical work of considerable promise. Despite the fact that these conflicts remain unresolved, this resourcing dried up once more by 2009 and government sponsored basic research has once more ground to a crawl. As Chris has explained, this boom-or-bust approach also carries a cost:

The problem lies in that the government (or at least the parts that I dealt with) sometimes has the attention span of a two-year-old. Not only that, it also has the need for instant gratification, very much like a two-year-old. Practically, what that means is that projects that can answer an immediate question get funding (like the Bosnia and Iraq casualty estimates). Larger research efforts that will produce an answer or a product in two to three years can also get funding. On the other hand, projects that produce a preliminary answer in two to three years and then need several more years of funding to refine, check, correct and develop that work, tend to die. This has happened repeatedly. The analytical community is littered with many clever, well thought out reports that look to be good starts. What is missing is a complete body of analysis on a subject. [America’s Modern Wars, 295]

The ambivalent conduct and outcomes of the recent counterinsurgencies generated hotly contested debates that remain unresolved. This is at least partly due to a lack of a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of insurgency and counterinsurgency. This state of affairs appears to be a matter of choice.

Share this:
Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

Articles: 302

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *