Freeing the Army from the Counterinsurgency Straitjacket

By Gentile, Gian P. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Freeing the Army from the Counterinsurgency Straitjacket


Gentile, Gian P., Joint Force Quarterly


In October 2006, while in command of a cavalry squadron in northwest Baghdad, I received an email with an attached document from my division commander, then-Major General James D. Thurman. General Thurman sent the email to all of the division's brigade and battalion commanders asking for input on the important document attached, which was a draft of Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency. Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to read the draft manual closely and provide comments to the commanding general. Alas, though, like probably most of the other commanders, I was so busy carrying out a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign on the ground in west Baghdad that I never found time to get to it. While anecdotal, my experience suggests a microcosm of the U.S. Army. The Army has been so busy since FM 3-24 came out 4 years ago that it has been unable to have a Service-wide dialogue on the manual.

It is time to have that debate. The COIN "experts," some of whom were the writers of FM 3-24, often talk about how thoroughly the manual was debated and vetted. This may be true in the more narrow sense of a small cluster of senior officers, civilian academics, civilian pundits, and media personnel. But it was in no way debated and discussed and challenged, then taken apart and put back together, as was Army doctrine when the Army, no longer in combat, had the luxury to patiently and thoroughly deconstruct its doctrine between 1976 and 1982. During that period, over 110 articles were published in the Army's professional journal, Military Review, that provoked a wide-ranging debate. We need a similar type of professional and wide-ranging discussion about FM 3-24, since we have had it as an operational doctrine in our hands for going on 4 years.

Both the field and the institutional Army have gained much experience over these past 4 years in actually fighting two major COIN campaigns. Should we not consider that experience and integrate it into a revised doctrine for counterinsurgency? The German army in World War I went through major doctrinal introspection and then change after only 2 years of combat on the Western Front. It drew on a vast amount of combat experience (often from the lower ranks of the army), codified that experience into an operational doctrine, trained on it, and then put it into practice against the enemy. (1)

It is troubling that the Army today, after nearly 4 years of experience in conducting major COIN campaigns, cannot see fit to revise the doctrine it has now. It is also troubling that some of the leading COIN experts and Army officers seem unwilling to accept the need for serious debate and the possibility of a fundamental revision of current doctrine. It is as if they have become so convinced of the efficacy and rightness of current Army COIN doctrine that they cannot imagine alternatives and revisions based on recent hard experience. In essence, and sadly, the Army seems to have lost the ability to think creatively.

FM 3-24 is not perfect, and it is not the Bible on counterinsurgency; its principles and methods are not timeless in warfare, and more importantly, they have not been shown to work in past and current operational practice as promised. But after listening to COIN experts, one comes away with the impression that the principles of COIN as laid out in FM 3-24 are irrefutable and that they must stay in place, without challenge. The experts often hold as an incontrovertible rule that they believe these principles must be followed in any counterinsurgency: the people are the "prize," or the center of gravity, and they must be protected. (2)

Carl von Clausewitz said that a center of gravity is something to be discovered, and it could vary depending on the aims of the war being fought. (3) Yet the COIN experts essentially tell us that there is no need to discover a center of gravity or even an operational method because the rules of our current COIN doctrine have already done the discovering and planning for us. …

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