Beneficial War: The Conceit of US Counterinsurgency

By Gentile, Glan P. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Beneficial War: The Conceit of US Counterinsurgency


Gentile, Glan P., Harvard International Review


In 1925, crusader for American airpower Brigadier General William Mitchell argued that using an independent US air force to attack an enemy nation's industrial and economic works would benefit not only the United States but also the enemy nation. The benefits of airpower, according to Mitchell, would arise from avoiding costly land battles along the lines of World War I, shortening wars by attacking the heart of the enemy nation instead of its military forces, and ultimately saving blood and treasure on both sides. It was an idea grounded upon the ideals of American Progressivism, a school of thought that places full faith in expert opinion, efficiency, and humanitarian motives for making wars less costly. Mitchell and other US airmen derived their progressivism-inspired notions of airpower from the US tradition of reform and reinvention. According to this view, increased reliance on airpower could give rise to a new and more humane type of warfare.

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World War II, however, and the firebombing of German and Japanese cities which culminated in the United States' dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, served to refute their claims. War during this second Great War proved just as destructive, chaotic, brutal, and friction-ridden as ever. Airpower could not change the basic nature of war, but blind faith in its efficacy prevented US airmen from perceiving this reality. It was a seductive and inherently US concept that experts adorned with expert processes and programs to transform war into a more purposeful foreign policy instrument. As historian Mark Clodfelter argues, airpower became a sort of religion to US airmen. US airpower had its prophets, its bibles of strategic bombing doctrine, and its true believers, both military and civilian. Even when facts did not necessarily align with reality, their faith in the doctrines of this airpower religion shrouded their perception of reality.

One sees very troubling similarities between the faith in US airpower to make war new, and the newest wave of progressivism-based US warfare: counterinsurgency (COIN). Implicit in both paradigms is the idea that war can be made less destructive and more efficient. However, both operate in the realm of religion and faith while failing to fitly acknowledge the reality of the friction, brutality, and inherent destructiveness of war. If crusader for airpower, William Mitchell, saw airpower as beneficial to humanity because it could shorten wars and reduce associated costs, current prophets of COIN are also trying to cast a similar light on counterinsurgency-based warfare. The modern argument for beneficial war by COIN experts like retired Army Colonel and Center for a New American Security President John A. Nagl is that US power at the barrel of a gun doing counterinsurgency can go into the troubled areas in the world and, to use Nagl's exact words, "change entire societies"--or in .Mitchell's language, benefit other societies and civilizations.

The conceit of counterinsurgency, and that of US airpower in the past, is augmented by the fact that it does not actually work in practice as touted by its proponents. Historical evidence suggests that the purported goal of using counterinsurgency to win the hearts and minds of local populations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thereby quash insurgencies, is yet to be realized. Moreover, if history is to judge, such a favorable transformation will not occur in the near future.

In popular narratives, counterinsurgency is delineated as a strategy that prevails upon local populations by providing security along with economic assistance, bridges, schools, roads, other elements of infrastructure--and, ultimately, good governance. The theory of US counterinsurgency says that if a counterinsurgent force is able to accomplish these goals simultaneously, it will win the allegiance of the local population. Subsequently, according to theory, the population will ally itself with the government and the counterinsurgent force, forcing insurgents to fight in the open where they can be killed or captured with greater ease. …

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