A matter of semantics has to be cleared up before preceeding further. It is unwise to concede to Mao Tse-tung that the revolutionary's opponent is a "counterrevolutionary", for this word has come to be synonymous with "reactionary", which has not always been, nor will it always be, the case. Therefore, one side will be called the "insurgent" and his action the "insurgency", on the opposite side, we will find the "counterinsurgent" and the "counterinsurgency". Since insurgency and counterinsurgency are two different aspects of the same conflict, an expression is needed to cover the whole: "revolutionary war" will serve that purpose.
David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, xii
Colonel Gian Gentile has produced a thoughtful - and I would add given the political siutation in the US - heroic interpretation of the current state of not only the US Army, but the whole US way of war, or what it has become. Today the all encompassing concept is COIN or population-centric counterinsurgency, which for Gentile is the problem.
Let me start with an outline of Gentile's main points and his conclusion with my own comments at the end. Gentile's article has 10 main points:
1. "Population-centric Counterinsurgency" or COIN has become an all encompassing concept for the Army which precludes choice as to other methods and approaches.
2. The American "way of war" (counter to Russell Weigley) has historically been of "improvisation and practicality", not an "ideological attachment to seeking out the next Austerlitz". The American way of war is thus pragmatic . . . not ideological . . .
3. COIN is not a military strategy, but at best an operational doctrine and at worst a "strategy of tactics", or simply an "intellectual straightjacket", which blinds the practitioner to not only other options, but its inherent limitations.
4. This total focus on a single method leads to self-deception: "appearing to apply David Galula's principles (Galula provides the "historical how-to text") while at the same time ignorance of military strategy.
5. What lead us to this crisis point was first of all a false (and for the Army self-serving) reinterpretation of the Vietnam War. Abrams the good (using COIN) following Westmoreland the bad (the conventional approach), but the politicians and public losing "their will" when the Army could have won in the end.
6. The second cause, and the more recent, has been the victory narrative associated with the 2007 Surge in Iraq, which Gentile describes as "hubris run amuck". Here he repeats his well-known argument that the Surge was simply one of numerous causes for the decline of violence in Iraq. The Surge did contribute to the change, but was not the main cause of it. He then implies a broader argument that the Surge in fact was a tactical measure that compromised strategic success.
7. The US military is unable to think in a historical context. The term the Army uses - "counterinsurgency" - is "so loaded with historical context, assumptions, myths, and absurdities that it has become almost meaningless". This can also hide a whole range of political purposes which are rather left unsaid, since COIN can be "used to define and judge any small war, imperial war, or insurgency".
8. Since 2006 there has been a lack of debate as to the way forward for the Army. Compared to 1976-82, when 110 articles appeared in Military Review, following the publication of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, there have been only a series of articles "touting the triumph of the Surge, a narrative that has steamrolled the American Army into accepting this new way of war".
9. COIN is assummed by its supporters (who fancy themselves as the "Young Turks" of the Army) as being "more difficult than conventional warfare", "more demanding", even more "political", although COIN is executed at a much slower pace with much more reaction time for commanders. In COIN since one has E-5s interacting with local villiage elders, it is assummed that this approach is in fact more "political", but policy has always existed at the lowest tactical level, [as the Communists well understood with their emphasis on constant education for not only cadre, but potential supporters - lack of historical context once again]. This focus on the political in the tactical also promotes this total focus on tactics, making for a "strategy of tactics" with no consideration of the link between tactics and strategy as a means to a political purpose, let alone of considering strategic effect. Gentile approvingly quotes Clausewitz at this point.
10. With the total emphasis on COIN, the Army has lost track of its conventional skills, which is another of Gentile's old arguments. He sees this as an unacceptable risk which could lead to serious consequences should the Army be called upon to military action at the other end of the conflict spectrum.
In conclusion he says that the Army would be better off studying the history of the British Empire of the latter half of the 19th Century where, "if nothing else" they understood the essence of strategy, that being the link between resources and means and ends. The British then, unlike the COIN supporters of today, did not see military operations as ends in themselves. What COIN boils down to is a form of "total war", the remaking of societies through military means, a ceaseless series of "crusades" sold as "nation-building" but which actually require the remaking of political indentites by outside force. How this supports the nationl interest or is let alone achieveable, or what the long-term costs would be is lost in the maze of tactical considerations, COIN having in effect "buried strategy".
What to add?
I think Gentile's assessment very accurate from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective. I would howerver add a few points which make the COIN position even more dubious.
First, not only does the current Army way of war lack the historical context of counterinsurgency, it lacks the theoretical context, having in effect cut and pasted what they liked from David Galula to fit their purposes. A careful reading of Galula's classic Counterinsurgency Warfare, would indicate how precarious the US position in the actual "wars on terror" is. Referring to the Galula quote above, which exactly is the revolutionary side? Who is attempting to impose their view on the local population, the Taliban, or the US/NATO? Galula also assumes that the Counterinsurgency begins from a position of institutional strength, possessing all the elements of a state in being. Even a colonial power would have had a functioning state system, there is no place in his theory for the outside actor (posing as the "counterinsurgent") starting a new state from scratch and imposing it on the locals (even officials of the former state) who then are labelled as "insurgents". The point here is that certain strengths that Galula assumes belong to the counterinsurgency do not exist in the two (or three) conflicts where COIN is being applied today, ditto for the assumed weaknesses associated with the insurgency.
Also in line with Galula's view, the political context sets the stage for revolutionary war. Prior to 1938 (see page 22) there were no successful insurgencies against colonial regimes, rather it was the crisis that Western and Japanese imperialism underwent as a result of World War II that ushered in the era of successful insurgency. Without the actions of Japan, Galula argues, the Chinese Communists never would have succeeded against the Kuomintang. For this reason, a Western state, even the lone super power, invading and establishing a client state given the current political context would be an exercise in futility for Galula, something which simply is not going to happen, that is his theory, the basis of COIN today, would not allow for it.
Second, this crisis of American strategic thought goes back a ways. I've put the beginning point as 1991. I have also argued that the similar notion of 4GW was Ludendorff's concept of Total War stood on its head. That is that war from this perspective "absorbs politics" and becomes theoretically something autonomous.
Third, Rupert Smith in his book, The Utility of Force argues that the US way of war is frequently "less an art than a search for the technical solution and a process" (page 88). This being an industrial process, industrial warfare having been the US way of war since the Civil War with a few exceptions. I think this emphasis for a technological solution part of US strategic culture, but that would apply more to the practical view that Gentile argues than the ideological view he associates with COIN. Also is not this search for a technical solution also influenced by the understanding that war is a test of opposing wills, that is traditional strategic theory?
My last point concerns the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Why? Rev. Neibuhr has been in the news of late with President Obama being described as "Niebuhrian" in his approach to morality, especially his comments on "evil" and even becoming "a war president". With all this name dropping going around (how many Americans even know who Niebuhr was or what his views were?) there must be something going on . . .
If one actually reads one of Niebuhr's classics, The Irony of American History, then one comes across a very intresting connection with Gian Gentile's view, showing us who is a "Niebuhrian" and who is not . . .
Long before the New Deal radically changed the climate of American political life the sovereign power of government had been used to enforce taxation laws which embodied social policy as well as revenue necessities; great concentrations of power in industry were broken up by law; necessary monopolies in utilities were brought under political regulation; social welfare, security and health and other values which proved to be outside the operations of the free market were secured by political policy. More recently, housing, medicine and social security have become matters of public and political policy. All this has been accomplished on a purely pragmatic basis, without the ideological baggage which European labor carried. The development of American democracy toward a welfare state has proceeded so rapidly partly because the ideological struggle was not unnecessarily sharpened.
Niebuhr found our emphasis of pragmatism over ideology as a great strength, perhaps our greatest strength and something which ensured the continued health of the American body politic which he saw as a Republic. This pragmatism was reflected in how we did things and how the country developed over time, how would Niebuhr see the changes that have shook this country since 1951? or more specifically in the points mentioned in the quote since the 1980s? That is a re-emphasis on ideology which in reality masks narrow political interest and an abandonment of one of our key American virtues.
This abandonment of our better pragmatic nature for the promise of superficial ideology has also inspired the current popularity of a new "way of war" which masks uncomfortable political realities. The current confusion in our strategic thinking reflects the larger confusion of our politics.