Beginning to Learn

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Of all the many disappointments of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps the saddest has been the American military’s seeming inability to learn, at least as institutions. Partly, this stems from the Bush Administration’s proud refusal to learn and adapt; as the old Russian saying goes, a fish rots from the head. Partly, it has been the inward focus that characterizes Second Generation armed services. That inward focus, and the "not invented here" attitude it legitimizes, seems to lie behind the American services’ rejection of the Four Generations framework (hilariously, the U.S. Army labeled it a "Marine Corps concept," while the Marines reject it because it is not).

Perhaps that is beginning to change. The Okhrana recently supplied me with a copy of a draft field manual, FM 3-24/FMFM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, which is being written jointly by the Army and the Marine Corps (which is no small achievement in itself). The draft is thoughtful, useful, and frank about the difficulties armed forces designed for conventional wars have when facing insurgencies.

The bulk of its contents is material drawn from the long history of counterinsurgency (more often than not a history of failure). Nothing wrong with that; history must always be the starting point in attempts to understand war, and most other things as well. The manual’s authors have done their homework, and if one may lament how much of the manual represents a recovery of lessons learned at a painful price in Vietnam and then thrown away, at least they are here being restored. More than one chapter ends by stressing the need to learn and adapt, with a hint that we have not done too well at that.

The authors understand the imperative of a Third Generation culture for any armed service that hopes to fight insurgents with success. The manual stresses decentralization and initiative, as it should. One particularly good passage comes early in Appendix A:

A-8. Work the problem collectively with subordinate leaders. Discuss ideas and explore possible solutions. Once all understand the situation, seek a consensus on how to address it. If this sounds un-military, get over it. Such discussions help subordinates understand the commander’s intent…. Corporals and privates will have to make quick decisions that may result in actions with strategic implications. Such circumstances require a shared situational understanding and a leadership climate that encourages subordinates to assess the situation, act on it, and accept responsibility for their actions. Employing mission command is essential in this environment.

General Hans von Seekt could not have put it better himself.

Counterinsurgency, while it does talk at times about an environment with multiple opponents, still falls into the common error of thinking that counterinsurgency and 4GW are the same, which they are not. That is no surprise.

But the draft does hold two surprises. The first is a remarkable discussion, in the first chapter, of the "Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency." This is a clear break with Second Generation thinking, which acknowledges only problems and solutions (the latter always kinetic). The paradoxes include "The More You Protect Your Force, The Less Secure You Are"; " The More Force Used, The Less Effective It Is"; "Sometimes Doing Nothing Is The Best Reaction"; "The Best Weapons For COIN Do Not Shoot"; and "Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing." The parallels here to the Austro-Hungarian FMFM 1-A, Fourth Generation War, are clear and suggest someone has read it, although it is not listed in the bibliography (NIH again?). By the Pleistocene standards of American doctrine development, this is breathtaking progress.

The second surprise is less happy. As is to be expected, the manual draws heavily on the ongoing American experience in Iraq. While occasionally suggesting that mistakes have been made ("Programs should be developed to prevent the formation of a class of impoverished and disgruntled former officers and soldiers who have lost their livelihood"), it often prescribes more of what we are now doing. Uh, excuse me guys, but most of what we are doing is not working. Perhaps we will not be able to confront that fact until the Iraq war is over, but a field manual that does not confront it cannot be more than a way station along the road we must eventually travel to its bitter end.

A remarkable historical vignette on page 4-1 of the draft does recognize, between the lines, what that end will be. Titled "Napoleon in Spain," it reads in part,

Napoleon’s campaign included a rapid conventional victory over Spanish armies but ignored the immediate requirement to provide a stable and secure environment for the people and the countryside.

The French should have expected ferocious resistance. The Spanish people were accustomed to hardship, suspicious of foreigners, and constantly involved in skirmishes with security forces. The French failed to analyze the history, culture, and motivations of the Spanish people, or to seriously consider their potential to support or hinder the achievement of French political objectives. Napoleon’s cultural miscalculation resulted in a protracted struggle…. The Spanish resistance drained the Empire’s resources and was the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s reign.

Sound familiar?

William Lind [send him mail] is an analyst based in Washington, DC.

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