The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars

The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars

The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars

The New Counterinsurgency Era: Transforming the U.S. Military for Modern Wars


Confronting insurgent violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U. S. military has recognized the need to "re-learn" counterinsurgency. But how has the Department of Defense with its mixed efforts responded to this new strategic environment? Has it learned anything from past failures?

In The New Counterinsurgency Era, David Ucko examines DoD's institutional obstacles and initially slow response to a changing strategic reality. Ucko also suggests how the military can better prepare for the unique challenges of modern warfare, where it is charged with everything from providing security to supporting reconstruction to establishing basic governance -- all while stabilizing conquered territory and engaging with local populations. After briefly surveying the history of American counterinsurgency operations, Ucko focuses on measures the military has taken since 2001 to relearn old lessons about counterinsurgency, to improve its ability to conduct stability operations, to change the institutional bias against counterinsurgency, and to account for successes gained from the learning process.

Given the effectiveness of insurgent tactics, the frequency of operations aimed at building local capacity, and the danger of ungoverned spaces acting as havens for hostile groups, the military must acquire new skills to confront irregular threats in future wars. Ucko clearly shows that the opportunity to come to grips with counterinsurgency is matched in magnitude only by the cost of failing to do so.


When an insurgency erupted in Iraq in the hot summer of 2003, the U.S. military was unprepared to counter it. Since then, the Department of Defense has painfully relearned a number of old lessons about the nature and conduct of successful counterinsurgency campaigns. in The New Counter- insurgency Era, David Ucko traces the process by which this relearning occurred, creating a worthy successor to Douglas Blaufarb's The Counter- insurgency Era and Richard Downie's Learning from Conflict.

The historical record suggests that a future scholar may have to write yet another book chronicling a similar relearning process. Although the U.S. military has spent more of its history fighting “small wars” than conventional ones, it has generally opted not to institutionalize the lessons it has paid for with blood and treasure. America's top military leaders from George Washington onward have demonstrated varying degrees of antipathy toward preparations for irregular warfare, generally viewing it as an uncivilized and irrelevant anomaly. Dabbling in counterinsurgency is commonly seen as a distraction from the more important business of preparing for major combat operations against comparable enemy forces. Counterinsurgency is something of an affront to the organizational culture of America's military; as one anonymous U.S. Army officer reportedly declared of efforts to adapt the U.S. Army for success in Vietnam, “I'll be damned if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its traditions to be destroyed just to win this lousy war.”

In that light, the strides made by the U.S. military to adapt to the demands of irregular warfare during the past several years have been impressive. However, the harder task is institutionalizing these adaptations so that the painful and costly process of relearning counterinsurgency does not have to be repeated. the innovations of operational- and tactical-level commanders in Vietnam were purposefully forgotten by a traumatized military that vowed “no more Vietnams” and refocused on major combat operations, relegating irregular warfare expertise and capabilities to a marginalized Special Operations community. Although the post-Vietnam rebuilding of the Army created the all-volunteer force that triumphed in Operation Desert . . .

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