Persuasion and Coercion in Counterinsurgency Warfare

By Birtle, Andrew J. | Military Review, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Persuasion and Coercion in Counterinsurgency Warfare


Birtle, Andrew J., Military Review


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

IT IS EVIDENT," remarked Secretary of War Elihu Root at the end of the Philippine War, "that the insurrection has been brought to an end both by making a war distressing and hopeless on the one hand and by making peace attractive." (1) Root's appraisal holds true for much of the U.S. Army's experience in waging irregular wars. Nevertheless, there remains much confusion over the roles that persuasion and coercion play in rebellions and other internal conflicts. Having recently concluded the second in a two-volume study on the U.S. Army's experience in waging counterinsurgency warfare, I'd like to explore the relationship between force and politics by examining three conflicts that the United States Army was involved in during the 19th and 20th centuries: the War of the Rebellion (the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865), the Philippine War (1899-1902), and the Vietnam War (1954-1975).

The War of the Rebellion

President Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of political factors when he set out to defeat the Southern rebellion against the U.S. government. During the early stages of the conflict, he charted a moderate course, both to pave the way for reconciliation and to mollify opinion in the Border States. He avoided attacking the South's "peculiar institution" (slavery), offered amnesty, commuted sentences, released civilian prisoners, and tried to restore normal civil life to occupied areas as soon as possible. Most of his commanders embraced these policies, and when they did not, he rebuked or removed them.

Lincoln's moderation failed to persuade Southerners to lay down their arms, however, and over time the president accepted sterner measures to control and, if necessary, to punish rebellious civilians. He suspended habeas corpus and imposed loyalty oaths, while his commanders relocated people, levied fines, and confiscated property.

Major General William T. Sherman epitomized this less tolerant approach. Believing that the government was "not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people," Sherman decided that it "must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war." (2) He therefore directed that "in districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested, no destruction of property should be permitted, but should guerrillas or bush whackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants ... otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless, according to the measure of hostility."' Devastation, not indiscriminate but directed at the disloyal, was meant to weaken the rebels' ability to fight as well as their will to do so.

The growing use of collective punitive measures did not mean that Lincoln had abandoned moderation. In 1863, for example, he unveiled a generous process through which rebellious states could rejoin the Union. He likewise signed General Orders 100, Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, which reminded Soldiers that "the ultimate object of all modern war is a renewed state of peace," and that "men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God." (4) The document admonished Soldiers to respect the personal and property rights of civilians as well as their social customs and religious beliefs. It likewise forbade wanton destruction, looting, cruelty, and torture. Nevertheless, benevolence was not a one-way street, and should the citizenry spurn the hand of reconciliation, General Orders 100 permitted commanders to take stern measures. Among the punishments it prescribed for civilians who aided the enemy were fines, expulsion, relocation, imprisonment, and death. The orders also authorized commanders to use calculated and proportional retaliation; to deny quarter for those who gave none; and to dispense summary punishments to guerrillas, spies, and traitors. …

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Persuasion and Coercion in Counterinsurgency Warfare
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