It was spring 2009 in Washington—a strange, if not surreal, moment in politics and war. The Iraq “Surge” had been declared a consummate success by a giddy mainstream media and by Republicans and Democrats alike. So exultant was the mood that it seemed that at any moment a chariot carrying Gen. David Petraeus would ride over the gilded Memorial Bridge in triumph.
The war had been won. Or had it?
This writer had approached a reasonably well-known magazine writer in April of 2009 to discuss an emerging yet still subterranean critique of COIN, the counterinsurgency pop-doctrine advanced by Petraeus and the Washington defense establishment. It seemed that they were readying to apply this formula to Afghanistan. But there were smart people opposing it, people like Vietnam veteran and Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich and Iraq veteran and West Point history Professor Col. Gian Gentile.
Gentile was a scrappy contrarian presence on the then-sizzling military blogosphere and a bugle of reason in a virtual hothouse of sycophancy. He risked daily rebuke from a phalanx of military academics and pundits who cast objectivity aside to support Petraeus’s narrative of success: that local populations could be protected and “won over” in support of the Iraqi government to win the war.
“Never heard of him,” the writer said of Gentile, incredulous that an active-duty soldier would question what was clearly the most practical, humane military doctrine ever to come down the Potomac River.
It took a few years for that reporter and the rest of the mainstream media to catch up, but Gentile hung in there, and today is one of the last men standing in a field of ideological ruin. Like the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s, gone are the COINdinistas once hailed as the brightest stars in the military’s intellectual universe. Their blogs, then crackling with 1,500-word disquisitions on the finer points of the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual, are now on life support. Petraeus, felled by an extra-marital affair, is teaching college students as a civilian now, his circle of courtiers disbanded. The war in Afghanistan is generally referred to as “a loss.” Iraq, it seems, is in the throes of a constant meltdown, and civilian death-toll numbers last month were the worst since 2007.
Gentile, soon to retire from the Army and poised to take a job at a major Washington think tank, can rub it all in. But that’s not what historians do, he tells TAC. Instead they write books. Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counter-Insurgency, released this summer, is Gentile’s chance to remake that moment when the city went crazy over savior generals and magic formulas part of the American war canon. It was a mythology that moved elections, infused think tanks with money and purpose, and made careers. But it did not win the war.
Gentile explains how all the wrong lessons from foreign counter-insurgencies in Malaya and Vietnam were exhumed and naively repackaged by Army “warrior-intellectuals” like Petraeus and COIN’s chief spokesman, Lt. Col. John Nagl, to wage a “better war” in Iraq. Using his own experiences as a squadron commander in Iraq in 2005, Gentile notes how this repurposing ultimately put the military on false footing—for Afghanistan and for U.S. military planning to come.
“The counterinsurgency narrative still resonates within the highest levels of the American military,” Gentile says, adding, “elites and opinion makers have come to believe in the promise of counterinsurgency as though it was a religion, complete with its own Bible, high priests, Messiah and rebirth.”
Gentile warns that COIN’s “rebirth” is the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) model that old COINdinistas are determined to use as a rationale for U.S. intervention in Syria. With his book, he hopes to “drive a stake” through the heart of this vampire “belief that counterinsurgency works.” He sat for a recent interview with TAC to tell us more:
TAC: During the heady days of COIN, you stood as a lone active-duty voice against it. What provoked you when you could have just put your head down and enjoyed the ride?
GENTILE: I left Baghdad and then arrived at West Point in summer 2007 to resume my teaching duties in the History Department. It was at about that time when the Surge was full in play. And it was in those months that the Surge triumph story really came into being. I remember listening to a news talk show and Fred Kagan was on and I heard him say [Gen. George] Casey’s strategy was a failure and General Petraeus has turned failure into success. I asked myself what had really changed on the ground, operationally, that led folks to claim that Petraeus had turned the war around.
At West Point I had the academic freedom to really look into this and question about operational change and the narrative that was being developed that said Petraeus had turned the war around. A key part of the narrative was the new counterinsurgency manual, FM 3-24, and the idea that it offered up a radically different operational method—but it was some of the same things we were already doing in Baghdad in 2006.
TAC: The media’s role in promoting the COIN myth does not get a pass in your book. In fact, you aren’t shy about calling some of the more gratuitous fare “hagiography.” After a generation of skeptical Vietnam reporting, how did this happen?
GENTILE: My sense it was just the perfect story. I also believe, and I speculate on this—I haven’t done interviews or research to prove this—but I think for many prominent journalists who were writing on Iraq, like Tom Ricks and Linda Robinson and others, they went through college and graduate school in the ’70s and early ’80’s and they came up reading about the Vietnam War, and based on what they have written in books and articles it seems that they wanted to find their John Paul Vann. The image that came from him in Vietnam was that there was a solution and we could have won. My hunch is that a lot of these journalists were looking for their John Paul Vann, and they found it in David Petraeus.
Then you have the basic element to a great story that people want to read: the war is lost, the Army’s failing, we’re on the cusp of defeat, but then a savior general rides in and it’s a tough fight, but then they turn things around. Can you get a better story than that? After all, just two years ago Victor Davis Hanson christened Petraeus the “maverick savior of Iraq.”
TAC: You talk about the “arc” of counterinsurgency—from Malaya to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. How will history treat the COINdinistas?
GENTILE: In my view, history 20 or 30 years from now will be very harsh and hard on these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think history will be critical of the whole counterinsurgency movement, critical in that it will see the tactics of these wars were not nearly as important as many people have made them out to be. Historically, what matters in these wars are key decisions in strategy. That, and political decisions—political decisions made by Paul Bremer in 2003 for example, where he disbanded the Iraqi army—these were the things that the war turned on, not what some platoon was doing in ’07 or ’08.
TAC: You hammer home the point that COIN became a “general-centric” doctrine, the idea being that with the right savior general in charge, the entire war could be turned around. This seems to tie in with modern America’s hero worship and cult of personality all the way around.
GENTILE: I think you hit on something that’s very appealing to modern Americans. The mindset is that there’s a technological or procedural fix for almost any problem out there, even problems of war. In a sense, that is exactly what the Surge triumph narrative offered up—a nifty explanation of cause and effect: the cause, a savior general and a transformed army, and the effect, success in Iraq. Nifty? Yes. But accurate and truthful? No.
TAC: Recently an old regular at the now-sluggish COIN blogs wrote a review of your book, saying all you do is repeat your old arguments against COIN and you don’t spend enough time debating what the strategy should be so that “we don’t find ourselves in this predicament again.” How do you respond? What do you hope will come from writing this book?
GENTILE: It is a fair criticism that Crispin Burke makes… however, I might offer the answer that sometimes there aren’t military solutions to these problems in the world. My answer in Afghanistan was to do strategy better [i.e., as explained in the book: destroying bin Laden's followers with a much smaller force concentrated against the few al-Qaeda left after the Taliban had been removed in 2002.] But my critics seem to be saying that I can’t have a strategy in the negative—or in other words, a strategy that says military force just won’t work in a given situation. Instead, in the end, I think many of my critics just won’t accept there are limits to what military power can accomplish.
I hope this book offers a different way to view the last 10 years of Iraq and Afghanistan and helps to answer questions about a very, very powerful narrative that I think is fundamentally flawed. Hopefully then we can be careful and cautious the next time when we think about putting our military forces in places like Syria or Yemen or anywhere else.
TAC: Thank you for your time.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.