Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq

Article excerpt

Military, Scientific, and Technological Lawrence D. Freedman

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice From Vietnam to Iraq by David Fitzgerald. Stanford University Press, 2013, 304 pp. $45.00.

Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency by Gian Gentile. New Press, 2013, 208 pp. $24.95.

Hearts and Minds: A People's History of Counterinsurgency edited by Hannah Gurman. New Press, 2013, 304 pp. $18.95.

Although U.S. forces are now out of Iraq and are quickly withdrawing from Afghanistan, debate still rages over counterinsurgency (coin) and the concept of "winning hearts and minds." Fitzgerald's book is less concerned with the lessons of history than with the history of the lessons, especially those of the Vietnam War. Fitzgerald describes how stories of conflict get told and retold, even while the fighting is still under way, to support shifts in policy and strategy. The U.S. military has always been at best ambivalent about coin, with a strong preference for recasting every contest in terms that suit more traditional forms of fighting. During the Vietnam War, this preference exasperated coin enthusiasts, who believed that the war could be won if only the United States were less dependent on search-anddestroy tactics. But as Fitzgerald notes, it is not clear that any strategy could have succeeded given the underlying politics of the Vietnamese civil war. After the war, most U.S. military strategists took the view that the problem lay with coin theory rather than their own uncertain application of it, and so they returned to their comfort zone of preparing for large-scale wars. This meant that they were totally unprepared for the Iraq war in 2003.

Fitzgerald's point is illustrated by Gentile's polemic against the "hearts and minds" approach to coin. Gentile, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, shares his own bitter combat experiences in Iraq and vigorously indicts coin and its proponents. He argues that narratives of Vietnam that he considers misleading harmed U. …

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