The Picture Awaits: The Birth of Modern Counterinsurgency

At the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, counterinsurgency theory was about as popular in American military circles as tank warfare is today. An early study by the chief war planner for the 101st Airborne Division during its first deployment to Iraq reported “a collective cognitive dissonance on the part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people’s war, even when they were fighting it.” There was a reason for this. Eager to forget the most painful experience in its history, the army had all but banished counterinsurgency from the lexicon of American military affairs after Vietnam. As a result, the army relied on a flawed strategy in Iraq for a period that lasted, according to author Thomas Ricks, at least “twenty months or more.”

As U.S. Army Colonel Gian Gentile has summarized this line of argument, there was a “bad war” in Iraq fought by officers who ignored the theory and practice of counterinsurgency, followed by a “good war” fought by its champions. In Vietnam, however, even the “bad” war was fought by commanders deeply versed in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of counterinsurgency (COIN)—much more, in any case, than their counterparts were on September 11, 2001. The United States may have gone, in James Fallows’s memorable phrase, “Blind into Baghdad.” It did not march blindly into Vietnam. On the contrary, counterinsurgency theory enjoyed a special vogue in the 1960s: it was certainly more fashionable and better understood by an educated public than it is today. Especially among military officers, COIN was more roundly known during this era than at any time up until the release of Field Manual 3-24 in December 2006.

A May 1964 article in Harper’s magazine, “Books on Guerrilla Warfare—Fifteen Years Overdue,” mocks what it presumes to be a shallow and fleeting interest in COIN among the power elite. “Already we are suffering an over-production of doctrine,” Eric Larrabee laments, even though doctrine is “relatively useless without the fine-grain detail.” He places David Galula’s now canonical Counterinsurgency Warfare in the category of “High Policy,” and counterinsurgency experts Charles T. R. Bohannan and Napoleon D. Valeriano in the “For the Professional” group. Larrabee reserved the “Recommended” designation for the highly specialized 1956 volume Guerrilla Communism in Malaya, by Lucian Pye, a prolific Sinologist and advisor to President Kennedy. He mentions in passing Viet Minh General Võ Nguyên Giap’s People’s War, People’s Army, along with an anthology of Marine Corps Gazette articles, The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him.

There were very good reasons for this popular interest. The great success of Mao Zedong in China and the proliferation of Communist guerrilla warfare were deemed to be second only to the Soviet nuclear arsenal as threats to America’s national security. Counterinsurgency theory emerged in response to Mao’s doctrines of revolutionary warfare, and it was studied in the postwar period with an urgency that still has no corollary today. That the accumulation of all this knowledge generated so few results in Vietnam—certainly fewer than it has generated lately—is one of the great puzzles of American military history.

At the dawn of French colonialism in Algeria, population-centric counterinsurgency is anticipated in a minor work by Alexis de Tocqueville. His 1842 Report on Algeria states, “We faced not a real army, but the population itself.” In 1895, General Francois-Jacques-Andres Duchemin, commander in chief of the French forces occupying Indochina, wrote of the piracy problem afflicting Tonkin, “The pirate is a plant which grows only on certain grounds. The most efficient method is to render the ground unsuitable to him. . . . There are no pirates in completely organized countries.” Even as Indochina and North Africa began to slip from their grasp, the French continued to generate theory that centered on controlling the population. French geographer Jean Gottmann wrote in 1944 that colonial warfare “aims not at the destruction of the enemy but at the organization of the conquered peoples and territory under a particular control.”

What we call population-centric counterinsurgency theory today was developed more or less simultaneously by several different men in several different countries; all were concerned directly with Mao’s doctrine of revolutionary warfare. They quoted Mao, urged military men and even civilians to study Mao, and argued that Communism could be defeated if his theories were properly understood and countered.

Mao’s influence spread to the West relatively quickly. His major publications begin in 1926, and by 1938, according to French diplomat and military officer Jacques Guillermaz, he was teaching at “a sort of staff college” for Communist revolutionaries. In 1941, a Marine captain, Samuel Griffith II, translated Mao’s writings for the Marine Corps Gazette. One particular insight of Mao was cited again and again:

Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it.

In 1962, Griffith, by then a retired brigadier general, published a collection of Mao’s essays, On Guerrilla Warfare. A year later came his translation of Mao’s great influence, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. A copy of this was among the books in Galula’s possession on his deathbed; the acclaimed counterinsurgency theorist stated clearly in his own writings that it was his observations of Mao in China that spurred his ideas about how best to confront guerillas created in Mao’s image. (Galula’s widow, Ruth Morgan, recalls the volume was inscribed to her husband by the author himself.)

As the case of Griffith epitomizes, the American dissemination of Mao’s views on revolutionary war was both direct, from China-watching, and indirect, from participants in the campaigns against Communist insurgencies in the Philippines and Vietnam. The latter strand was forged in battle against the Communist Huk guerrillas, by then–Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Edward Lansdale, between 1950 and 1953. Lansdale was a charismatic and controversial figure whose ideas leached out to the general public through his sympathetic portrayal as “Colonel Hillandale” in the 1958 bestseller The Ugly American.

Lansdale, who helped to establish the government of South Vietnam, was perhaps the earliest American-born advocate of population-centric counterinsurgency. He anticipated the theories that would later be articulated more elegantly and with greater rigor by his French counterpart Galula. In a representative talk at the Air Force Academy on May 25, 1962, Lansdale outlined the nature of the Communist guerrilla threat. His very first point: “The enemy’s objective is to win control of the people living on the battlefield. When he wins them, he wins all else.” In his 1972 memoir, Lansdale says that in January 1953—two years before Galula arrived in Algeria—he argued with his superiors about the need to guarantee fair elections in the Philippines: “They failed to grasp the political nature of ‘people’s warfare,’ such as the Huks had attempted to wage. I found myself quoting Mao Tse-tung to them, from one of his lectures to military officers in a Yenan cave classroom early in World War II.”

In the realm of popular culture, the importance of studying insurgency and counterinsurgency may have reached the greatest number of Americans through The Ugly American, which sold over five million copies. In their epilogue, co-authors William Lederer and Eugene Burdick—respectively a navy captain and a lieutenant commander—note that the essentials of Mao’s doctrine were available in English as early as 1934, and lament that “the battles which led to Dien Bien Phu were classic examples of the Mao pattern. And yet our military missions advised, and the French went down to defeat, without having studied Mao’s writings.”

The Ugly American was still on the bestseller lists during the 1960 presidential campaign and its most influential fan was John F. Kennedy. Kennedy and five other opinion leaders even bought an advertisement in the New York Times saying that they had sent copies of The Ugly American to every senator. Kennedy’s advocacy of counterinsurgency had been formed by visits to Indochina during the Viet Minh struggle against the French. In the fall of 1951, then-Congressman Kennedy went with his brother Robert to Saigon, where he sought out experienced journalists in lieu of ostentatiously misleading French briefings.

Kennedy was fashionably anti-colonialist, and while still a senator, spoke out in favor of Algerian independence. His July 2, 1957, speech, the longest of his career, had a rather typical title: “Imperialism—The Enemy of Freedom.” Kennedy argued that the Algerians deserved freedom on its merits, but he also noted that it would be hard to deny them in the long run. He quoted General Orde Wingate on the ability of insurgents to fight asymmetric conflicts if the population was “favorable to penetration.”

When Kennedy became president, he immediately began pushing the American military to concentrate on counterinsurgency. Rufus Phillips, an ex-CIA operative turned USAID Mission Assistant Director, tells the story of how in January 1961, Kennedy was transfixed by a report from General Lansdale about a December 1960 visit to South Vietnam: “Kennedy became very excited, asked Rostow for books on guerrilla warfare, and telephoned Lansdale directly, asking him to publish the companion memo.”

On January 18, 1961, Kennedy set up the new Special Group, Counterinsurgency (SGCI), headed by General Maxwell Taylor and devised as a way to jump-start the military’s turn to counterinsurgency. According to Kennedy adviser Roger Hilsman, the president was reading the special issue of the Marine Corps Gazette on guerrilla warfare days before his State of the Union address on January 11, 1962. Six days later, Kennedy sent a letter to the editors recommending the volume to “every Marine.” Even Kennedy’s attorney general, his brother Robert, read Mao and Ho Chi Minh and “held counterinsurgency training exercises with Special Forces troops at his home on Hickory Hill,” according to social scientist K. A. Cuordileone.

In the spring of 1962, counterinsurgency was the subject of two high-profile conferences. One, in March, sponsored by the Continental Army Command (now the U.S. Army Forces Command), produced a pamphlet meant to introduce troops to the novel field. Defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich notes that the pamphlet saw counterinsurgency as an “abnormal” activity. From the 16th to the 20th of April, 1962, a RAND symposium with a much different spirit gathered a now-legendary group of counterinsurgents. The participants included Bohannan, Galula, Frank Kitson, Lansdale, Rufus Phillips, and Lansdale’s former colleague in the Philippines, Colonel Napoleon Valeriano.

In the words of Kitson:

Although we came from such widely divergent backgrounds, it was as if we had all been brought up together from youth . . . Probably all of us had worked out theories of counterinsurgency procedures at one time or another, which we thought were unique and original. But when we came to air them, all our ideas were essentially the same.

Also at around this time, Galula wrote his brilliant tactical guide, Pacification in Algeria, as a report for RAND. Charles Bohannan wrote an in-house critique of Pacification, noting “the positive value of the paper lies in the clear exposition in theory, illustrated by practice, of the necessity for winning popular support” by the counterinsurgent. Pacification, unfortunately, was classified as “Confidential” by RAND. It was not declassified until 2005. Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare was a little luckier. It was mentioned in the Harper’s review and cited as “The ‘how-to’ book in the field—and the best of them all” by the French Indochina expert Bernard Fall.

Given this feverish period of creativity in the early 1960s, and the fairly widespread awareness of counterinsurgency theory that suffused American political, military and even popular culture, why did these wise men not apply its tenets in the war that was soon to engulf them? At the simplest level, the explanation is fairly straightforward: they chose not to. The Army, for its part, chose to fight the conventional war it wanted to fight—with big-unit operations, massive applications of firepower, and an emphasis on reducing American casualties and multiplying enemy ones. As for the Army’s civilian masters, the narrowly quantitative and mechanistic orientation of Robert McNamara and his Whiz Kids ran exactly counter to the appreciation of the human element of warfare that counterinsurgency requires. These were, finally, not men with particularly vivid imaginations.

By the early 1960s, the Army had come out with a booklet on “Special Warfare” that attempted to make sense of the new doctrines. One article is a “condensation of Mao’s classic primer on guerrilla warfare,” another summarizes Che Guevara and is reprinted from ARMY Magazine. There are evocative photographs of Chinese and Viet Minh guerrillas. All of the great Mao quotations found in the literature of the fifties and sixties are on full display.

The booklet acknowledges the importance of securing the population, treating them well, and maintaining the rule of law. But nowhere is there the sense that this is the whole point of the enterprise. U.S. military publications tended to pay lip service to Mao and quote the famous “fish” epigram, but strategy as well as tactics focused on killing guerrillas, not protecting the population. In May 1964, the Army published its Counterinsurgency Planning Guide. The Guide urged, “Move the military forces out of the garrisons, cities, and towns. Get them off the roads and trails and into the realm of the guerrilla.” It advised, “Concentrate on the guerrilla as a target, not on the terrain.” What it did not say was, “concentrate on the population, not the guerrilla.”

Even in executing an enemy-focused strategy, Americans were slow to adopt appropriate tactics. In The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him, a book composed of articles from a special issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, one American major writes that “the capstone of antiguerrilla training should be a major combined arms exercise,” while a French major describes how his army tracked a group of 200 Algerian guerrillas for five weeks using helicopters.

The next level of American military thinking about guerrilla warfare focused on separating the people from the insurgents, but literally. Aiming to isolate Vietnamese peasants from the Viet Cong and to deliver social and economic benefits to them at the village level, the Strategic Hamlet Program began in February 1962. British general Robert Thompson, who had been involved with a more successful British plan in Malaya in the late 1940s, catalogues the haste of the program, which led to between 600 and 800 hamlets being “completed” monthly in 1963: “The available provincial forces were overextended, the Viet Cong had been presented with a number of soft and vulnerable targets and the government had been unable to achieve any really secure base areas.” Eventually 8.5 million South Vietnamese were assembled in Strategic Hamlets, of which about a million were resettled, mainly around existing villages, but some in areas far from water or cropland.

Many creative experiments were tried in Vietnam—too many to support former Army officer and counterinsurgency expert John Nagl’s contention that the Army in Vietnam “did not allow learning to occur.” Even the much-maligned William Westmoreland, Andrew J. Birtle points out, “had started one of the first small-unit counterguerrilla training courses in the Army.” He was also aware of Mao’s “three phases” of insurgency, and in 1965 Westmoreland diagnosed Vietnam as being in the third of these, when the guerrilla has the capacity for large-scale maneuvers against government forces. Thus, he reasoned, the U.S. could now rely on conventional tactics against the Viet Cong. The problem, as Krepinevich points out, was that neither Westmoreland nor the Joint Chiefs understood that “denying the insurgents victory in phase 3 was not the same as victory; rather, it would signal a return to phase 2.” And in phase 2, conventional tactics are useless.

Between 1965 and 1971, the Marines, under Lt. General Victor Krulak’s leadership, did use best-practice tactics of the sort Galula had employed in Algeria, achieving considerable success, but on too small a scale to budge the overall direction of the war. Just 5,000 or so Marines participated in 70 Combined Action Platoons, units living in hamlets and conducting night patrols with local militia. Still, from having read Mao, Krulak understood the nature of the war he was fighting. “It has no front lines. The battlefield is in the minds of 16 or 17 million people,” he said. In particular, the influence of Britain’s Thompson may have seeped into American military strategy via Krulak’s meetings with him between 1962 and 1964: “Several meetings with Sir Robert Thompson . . . established a set of basic counterinsurgency principles in my mind. Thompson said, ‘The peoples’ trust is primary. . . . Protection is the most important thing you can bring them.’”

Westmoreland also grasped the “ink blot theory” of gradual pacification that Krulak touted. But he argued, as Krulak later recounted, that

we just didn’t have time to do it that way. I suggested to him that we didn’t have time to do it any other way . . . But Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara expressed the same view as Westmoreland to me in the winter of 1965. . . . I had told him in a letter dated 11 November 1965, “In the highly populous areas the battle ground is in the peoples’ minds. We have to separate the enemy from the people, and clean up the area a bit at a time.”

Reversing course, in October 1966, McNamara confronted Westmoreland, stating that “the large-unit operations war, which we know best how to fight and where we have had our successes, is largely irrelevant to pacification as long as we do not lose it.” McNamara finally “got it.” But it was too late.

If the Army chose to ignore the nature of the war it was fighting, it was also true, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, that there was enough blame to go around. Much of it—certainly as much as belongs to the army—can be pinned squarely on the backs of Kennedy’s contemporaries: McNamara, William Bundy, and the highly educated practitioners of systems analysis who worked for them. These were men of reason. Capturing hearts and minds was, in their confident telling, far less important than capturing Viet Cong. “McNamara and his principal assistants were oblivious to the human and psychological dimensions of war,” U.S. Army Colonel H. R. McMaster wrote recently in these pages. “Their faith in American technological superiority, combined with their assumption that the enemy would conduct himself like any rational actor, blinded them to the characters of their North Vietnamese and Vietnamese Communist foes.” It also blinded them to the importance of the population caught in the middle.

In May 1962 President Diem of the Republic of South Vietnam was discussing the Strategic Hamlet Program with Rufus Phillips. Diem said to Phillips, who had served under Diem’s close friend General Lansdale, “The strategic hamlet is a state of mind.” States of mind and perceptions aren’t everything in counterinsurgency. But they come closer to being everything than in other types of warfare. This was an insight available to some, but not enough people in the corridors of power in the Vietnam era. In 1962, Edward L. Katzenbach—at the time a deputy assistant secretary of defense—wrote,

Although Mao never states it quite this way . . . his fundamental belief is that only those who will admit defeat can be defeated. . . . Or, conversely, when the populace admits defeat, the forces in the field might just as well surrender or withdraw.

Results, in other words, are in the eye of the beholder. Katzenbach, however, was an outlier. The mind-set of the Bundys did not account for subtleties of perception.

In past wars, perception has always been important, sometimes leading troops to abandon the field on the verge of victory. But perception matters in a different way in counterinsurgency, a way that is similar to a paradigm shift in science or philosophy. Consider the offhand remark of Derrick Hernandez, a bright young American captain in Khost, Afghanistan, who said to me in 2008, “If you tell me to defend this district center I’m not going to sit inside it.” Hernandez understood that “inside” and “outside” here make sense only as perceptions. Controlling the district center isn’t the point—the district center was only built so the district could be pacified. If Hernandez didn’t pacify the area he commanded, it would be as if he and his troops didn’t exist.

By way of analogy, population-centric COIN—a way of making war that regards the center of gravity as the people, not the enemy or the territory—is similar to a way of making art that regards the spectator’s viewpoint as essential. This should not be surprising, as, ironically, the revolution in social sciences that produced McNamara’s Whiz Kids and a revolution in modern art were twin products of the same mid-century culture. Thus, Marcel Duchamp wrote in 1957—even as Galula fought in Algeria and JFK studied Vietnam:

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

Or as Marshall McLuhan wrote more directly in 1961, “A work of art has no existence or function apart from its effects on human observers.” Similarly, an act of counterinsurgency or insurgency has no existence or function apart from its effects on the population. You become a successful insurgent by being perceived as one. You become a successful counterinsurgent by being perceived as one.

As Mao put it in 1937: “There are those who say ‘I am a farmer’ or ‘I am a student’ . . . This is incorrect. There is no profound difference between the farmer and the soldier. . . . When you take your arms in hand, you become soldiers.” Galula understood this, explaining that the counterinsurgent’s forces “must be deployed where the population actually lives and not on positions deemed to possess a military value.” In light of Mao’s fish analogy and of what struck many American observers as the near suicidal persistence of the Viet Cong, consider this tidbit from McLuhan’s War and Peace in the Global Village:

One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the environment they live in . . . What fish are able to see bears a close analogy to that degree of awareness which all people have in relation to any new environment created by a new technology—just about zero.

In the military context, then, neither terrain nor even the enemy ought to determine counterinsurgency strategy. It is effective only insofar as the perceptions of the population—the water that gives life to the insurgent—have been altered.

In fairness, the American military in Vietnam may have actually performed better in this regard than it did in its after-action evaluations. In his 1981 book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Harry G. Summers claims without much evidence that the American Army focused relentlessly and to its detriment on counterinsurgency in Vietnam. Such thinking, which was cemented in orthodoxy for decades, led to baleful consequences for military theory. In the Vietnam War, as in Iraq, Americans committed grave errors, but there was adaptability, too. It’s hard to think of another nation more inclined to understand that reality isn’t something given to us, but something we create. This idea, foundational in counterinsurgency, runs deep in the grain of American thought.

One young American diplomat who has served in Afghanistan, Zachary Harkenrider, believes that the early counterinsurgents were “bringing to fulfillment” a phrase from an American thinker: “The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise.” The writer was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the essay “Self Reliance,” the year 1841.

Ann Marlowe has reported frequently from Afghanistan and is the author of How to Stop Time and The Book of Trouble. She is currently working on a book about David Galula and the origins of counterinsurgency theory.

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