Counterinsurgency: The Graduate Level of War or Pure Hokum?

The authors of the American Army’s Counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24, tell their readers that counterinsurgency is the “graduate level of war.”[1]  Implicit in this bombast is that conventional war—wars such as World War II, the American Civil War, and the Russo-Japanese War—is the undergraduate level of war and therefore easier to conduct.   American Army Colonel Robert Cassidy summed up the mindset of many counterinsurgency (COIN) experts when he stated, quite bluntly, that counterinsurgency warfare is “more difficult than operations against enemies who fight according to the conventional paradigm.”[2]

With Cassidy’s and FM 3-24’s logic, the World War I Battle of the Somme in 1916 was easy, as compared to COIN, despite the deaths of 7,000 British infantrymen who went over the top in the first hour of the attack, and the fact that as many as 20,000 British men had lost their lives by the end of the day.  In other words, Somme was the undergraduate level of war.  But Iraq in 2007, according to the logic of COIN experts, with General David Petraeus and the Surge, that was more difficult because it was counterinsurgency, or the graduate level of war.

This notion of counterinsurgency warfare requiring a special martial skill set because of its so-called difficulty that conventional armies by nature do not have is nothing new in modern history.  Starting in the 19th century, the French and British armies began to treat small wars (an earlier moniker for counterinsurgency) as a special form of war requiring officers with unconventional skills who can transform the hidebound conventional armies that were resistant to change.

Counterinsurgency experts, especially since the Vietnam War, have written histories of various cases of counterinsurgency warfare with the idea that a special form of war requires special skills as a foundational premise.  For example, in The Army and Vietnam, Andrew Krepinevich argues that the American Army lost the war because it could not break out of its conventional war mindset that focused on the abundant use of firepower instead of the correct and special methods of COIN designed to win hearts and minds.[3]

Unfortunately, counterinsurgency is not the graduate level of war, it is simply war.  Moreover, the notion that counterinsurgency wars require the soldiers who fight them to possess special skills is not supported by historical evidence.  And contrary to what writers like Krepinevich and Cassidy say, counterinsurgency wars have not been won or lost by the tactical methods of the armies that have fought them.  Instead, as historian Douglas Porch argues, they were won or lost “because the strategic context in which the wars were fought defied a tactical remedy.”[4]

Yet Porch’s fundamentally correct point has been missed by the bevy of writers on the recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We are hearing the same lament with these wars as we heard after Vietnam, that if the American Army only got its tactics of counterinsurgency right, the wars could be put on a path to success.  Writer of popular history, Victor Davis Hanson, is emblematic of this line of thinking when he labels General Petraeus (given his Surge of troops in Iraq) as the “maverick savior of Iraq” who turned the war around in 2007, taught his army the classic tactics of counterinsurgency, and put the war on the path to success.[5]  Considering the levels of destruction wrought on Iraq, the huge investment of American blood and treasure, and the fact that Iraq currently burns in sectarian civil war, however, it is hard to take Hanson seriously.

Savior generals were one possible tactical remedy for solving intractable strategic problems, but another way that popped up early in the conduct of both wars was the idea of using anthropologists to provide a better cultural understanding of the societies and cultures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  What came to be known as the Human Terrain Team (HTT) was really just another outgrowth of the notion that counterinsurgency requires specially trained soldiers with special skills, and militarized civilian action intellectuals to fight them.

With the HTTs, cultural and social knowledge could be weaponized in counterinsurgency warfare since commanders on the ground could use the knowledge that, in theory, was provided by the HTTs to understand their areas better, to ultimately defeat the insurgent fighters.  In practice, however, the effectiveness of the HTTs was dubious at best.  Often times, an HTT would be made up of anthropologists with graduate degrees, but not necessarily with an emphasis on Middle Eastern culture let alone detailed knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan.  It was not uncommon to have HTT specialists deployed in Iraq who received their training on Latin American cultures, or in one extreme case, an HTT action intellectual held a PhD in theology.[6]

But even if the HTT program was able to match specialists to the areas in Iraq and Afghanistan in which they were expected to operate, it still would not have made any kind of significant difference in the outcome of these wars.  Why? Because the idea that COIN is the graduate level of war requiring graduate “professors of war” like David Petraeus to win them was pure hokum from the beginning.  Instead, what mattered most were the strategic, political, and social contexts in which these wars were fought.

Scholar Victoria Fontan, who recently completed an extensive period of research in the city of Fallujah on Al Qaeda in Iraq, sums this insight up best.  After talking to Al Qaeda leaders who were involved with fighting the American occupation and who witnessed the Surge and the purported radical changes in tactics that Petraeus supposedly brought about, she said that “COIN was like a bad antibiotic on an infection… it only made [the civil war] stronger, more resilient.”[7]

Yet the hokum of enlightened counterinsurgency generals who turn failed wars around by making their armies fight them better simply won’t go away.  The hokum helps to prolong the fantasy that American wars in foreign lands can always be made to work as long as the “professors of war” at the graduate level are put in charge.  Sadly this is a recipe for perpetual conflict.

Gian Gentile serves as a colonel in the U.S. Army. In 2006, he commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad and he holds a PhD in History from Stanford University.  He is the author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] US Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2006): 1-1.

[2] Robert M. Cassidy, “Winning the War of the Flea: Lessons from Guerilla Warfare,” Military Review 83.5 (September-October 2003): 41.

[3] Andrew F. Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986): 4-16.

[4] Douglas Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 162.

[5] Victor Davis Hanson, “Winning in Afghanistan: We Have Everything but a Confident Commander in Chief,” November 6, 2009.

[6] I am referring to AnnaMaria Cardinalli, whose biography is available online at her personal webpage (

[7] Email from Victoria Fontan to Gian Gentile, July 29, 2013.

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  • Marc Tyrrell

    Nice article, Gian.  Increasingly, I’ve been thinking that a better analogy would be of subtly different, but highly related, disciplines rather than undergraduate vs. graduate “levels”.

  • gian gentile

    Thanks Marc and good to hear from you. Agree. It is not to argue that forms of war are not different, and i do think one can easily find where certain counterinsurgency wars were “more difficult” than conventional wars. Of course one would also need to flesh out and define “difficulty.” I think it fair to say that a rifle platoon leader in the 101st in Iraq in 2006 had a much more difficult run that his counterpart in 1991. But to argue a priori that coin is more difficult, well that is just absurd. But such thinking still carried weight as political scientist Kori Schake two years ago in a NY Times oped argued that Mattis and Petraeus had it more difficult in Afghanistan in 2010 than Ike did in June of 44 since as she argued Ike’s mission was simple and easy to understand; “invade the continent of Europe.” When i read that silly statement i just threw up my hands in befuddlement.

  • Carl Osgood

    You may not remember, but you and I met briefly at the Heritage Foundation in 2005. I have been following your writings with great interest ever since. Your point here about the strategic context is very well taken.  Clausewitz’s oft-quoted dictum is part of that strategic context as well. Even brilliant tactics can’t make up for strategic idiocy expressed by our politicians. As for your point about the myth of the surge, just look at how Senator John McCain has been using it to argue for a US military intervention in Syria.

  • john brown

    Cited your interesting piece with pleasure in the Public Diplomacy Review

  • Luke M. Herrington

    Gian, I saw more discussion of your article taking place at the Small Wars Journal blog.  They’ve thrown up a short post extracting part of your article and directing readers to e-IR to read the whole thing:

  • I agree that counterinsurgency is not a graduate level of war, but it is a different type of war like hydroengineering and electrical engineering are both engineering.  The both have a common base but differences in execution.  I also agree that counterinsurgency does not require a special martial skill to be done well (that is a key infinitive phrase), but it does take a special type of individual with a personality profile fit for difficulties of the job.  It (“the to be done well” again)also requires a service that provides the training and career rewards to support the specialty.  Being good at small unit tactics and giving handouts in the village is not enough: there are a lot of small things to be done that do require training and inordinate persistence.  The real hokum is that counterinsurgency is easy and that we know how to do it.  Well, the larger record doesn’t show that.  There have been dozens and dozens of counterinsurgency wars over the last 100 years and we (western nations; primarily U. S., Britain, and France) have won damned few.  I suppose the fatalist would say, well, then, see?  We shouldn’t be doing it.  The hopeful would say there are ways to do it better than we have done, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Bob Mihara

    Reading through some of the comments here and on SWJ, it seems we are confronting the same problem of sloppy definitions and misaggregation.  COIN is a sub-set of violent conflict defined by the legal/legitimacy status of the combatants and not by any particular operational approach or set of tactics per se.  The degree of complexity and material challenge for a given COIN conflict is also dependent upon the nature and character of the policy objectives.  If one’s ambitions are limited, then the COIN campaign is “easier” in the sense that greater malleability in means and operational approaches are possible which allow the counterinsurgent to adjust to changing circumstances on the ground and exploit some of the advantages inherently held by the defense mentioned by Carl von Clausewitz.
    For example, the French campaign in Algeria would have arguably been easier if they had taken an unambiguously colonial aim for their struggle with the FLN.  Instead, they tried to have it both ways by attempting to roll back the clock on indigenous rage while trying to placate pied noir reactionaries.  The balance was untenable and the material cost was without limit.  Of course, in that formulation of policy-strategy, the war seems harder than other sub-sets of war.  That conclusion, however, obliterates the coherence that theory is supposed to have in describing complex phenomena.   
    Much argument would be avoided by simply being clear about what is that we are talking about.  Given the variable nature of COIN as a category, it is hard to understand how one could argue that it as a whole could be on the “graduate level” as a given.  Perhaps, it is the power of the narrative?

  • David Donovan

    Re: Hihara’s comment.
    Well, yes, but the complexity of counterinsurgency is not only why there is argument about what it is and how to do it, but why it is so difficult to carry out successfully.  Counterinsurgency is only “small war” in the sense of its combat being mostly at the small unit level.  It has to be much broader in its scope than conventional war, which is perhaps why some use the “graduate level” phrase.  I think the phrase is inapt because it implies a need for higher intelligence or an elevated level of training.  It takes different training and person with a different type of m ind set, but it is no more “graduate” than advancing an infantry company (battalion, brigade, you name it) against a dug-in enemy force having to coordinate arty, air, and logistics.

  • Bob Mihara

    RE: Donovan’s Comment
    Thanks for engaging me on this.  I think that your assertion that “it” is more difficult to carry out successfully brings the discussion back to one of my points.  COIN has been difficult for us not because of complexity but because of political and strategic factors that have been specific to our efforts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  COIN is not inherently more difficult.  Part of the problem that I think is in the discourse is this blurring of the lines between what is fundamentally policy and what is fundamentally war.  In debating COIN issues, it seems that many have changed the Clausewitzian concept of all things being political into all things are war. 
    The theoretical boundary between politics and war might seem a purely academic point, but I think it has great importance to the way we see military institutions and what we expect them to do.  More specifically, I think the blurred line between policy and war creates dangerous presumptions about the utility of violence (or threat thereof) in the minds of military and civilian leaders.  Should nation-building or state-building be a core competency of our military?  I think the implicit understanding in arguing that COIN is more difficult than other sub-sets of war is that, yes, war is an all-encompassing condition rather than politics.  Therefore, the military must institutionalize such political competencies as being core.  If we want our generals to be fully empowered proconsuls, we should be more up front about it and accept the consequences.

  • David Donovan

    Re: Re: Mihara’s comment
    Well, I think we’re in agreement, but I’m not sure.  Counterinsurgency is inherently both politics and war.  Certainly, it’s politics in the helping nation because the decision to engage in the counterinsurgency operation is a political one.  It seems to me that where the military sometimes gets torqued is the need to deal in politics in the host nation.  It is comfortable enough in dealing with the host country’s military, perhaps, but not in worrying whether the babies are fed or the mail is delivered.  That, to me, is where the complexity comes in because in counterinsurgency that line between war and politics becomes very faint.  The IED in the road is war.  The farmer who said nothing about it to the soldier because his government has done little to nothing for him but get in his way is politics, then the soldier is killed by the IED and it’s war.  Really?  War–politics–war.  It’s all a blur, one mass of dysfunction we address with counterinsurgency programs. 
    One part of the complexity to this kind of war that is different from conventional war is that there is a huge element to the conflict that we cannot control: the buy-in and the competence of the host government and its minions in the field.  It is a political assessment as to whether or not a partnership between the helper and the helped will work.  Usually, it doesn’t.  History tells us that, but politicians respond more to the desires of the moment than to history.  The put the military to the work of helping turn Ghengis Khan into Woodrow Wilson while helping hold off the enemy until the host nation’s villagers all learn to like Woodrow.  The problem is they’re gonna have to like Woodrow more than they fear the enemy, which won’t be easy.  War–politics–war.  All a blur, one mass of dysfunction we address with counterinsurgency.     

  • Bob Mihara

    David: I think we are in agreement about the comparative difficulty of tactical competencies in different sub-sets of war, but I think we are approaching some of the other issues from different points of departure. I would argue that all forms of war are inherently political with consequences and considerations in the realm of policy. I disagree that professional militaries are necessary bent out of shape by taking on governance and policing tasks. The challenge in several modern wars of counterinsurgency has been a void in coherent/feasible strategy and not institutional inertia or complexity. Militaries, such as the US military, tend to make over investments in what are deemed to be decisive operational lanes and under-resource efforts deemed to be necessary but less decisive. I believe this to have been true in Vietnam and in the wars of the past decade. That said, I’m skeptical that a rebalancing of the resources available would have changed the outcome of those wars meaningfully.
    Managing concurrent lines of effort in governance and warfare seems relatively straightforward. The critical challenge is in marshalling the resources it takes to make a viable strategy that achieves the given policy goals. In Iraq and Afghanistan, resourcing surged to meet exigencies in the theater of operations and arguably not pursuant to a relevant and feasible strategy. I believe the blur you describe in COIN is often the product of doing too much with too little or doing the impossible with too much. The result, not surprisingly, looks messy.
    COIN wars can be rendered as manageable as any other form of conflict so long as the policymakers and planners come together in reconciling policy and strategy, bringing ambitions into the realm of the possible. This includes bringing into the fold the indigenous society and its institutions. In the Philippines, the US claimed all the rights of governance and made clear to the indigenous elites what the terms would be in an American-ruled Philippines. In that war, the US was willing and able to enter into a partnership with those elites to establish a viable state structure and keep the peace. A key aspect of that partnership was an extended period of institution-building (aka, colonial rule) that provided elites with the instruments of governance to maintain control. As I suggested before in referencing proconsuls, an issue is whether or not the requisite control necessary for successful COIN is possible (or desirable) in the post-colonial world. So, I agree that have had little influence over “the buy-in and the competence of the host government,” but emphasize your point that this is the product of policy decisions and not a given of COIN.

  • David Donovan

    Re:Mihara’s response
    You said, “I believe the blur you describe in COIN is often the product of doing too much with too little or doing the impossible with too much.”  I fully agree.  In a small conference I attended about a year ago, one wag repeated the old line from the Pogo comic strip (I think you have to be over 40 to remember that) that says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is too often the case.

  • Bob Mihara

    Re: Donovan’s Response
    I have to admit the Pogo comic reference is unfamiliar, but it brought a favorite quote of mine attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  I hope discussions like this one will help all of us discover such blind spots.

  • Stephen McGlinchey

    A rebuttal to this piece has been posted in a separate article on e-IR:

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