- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Retired Col. Jack J. McCuen, who has been there and done that, and is author of the classic text The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War, critiques Col. Gian Gentile’s recent challenge in Parameters to the COIN crowd.
I find this pretty powerful. For example, Gentile disputes the COIN account of what happened in Malaya, and McCuen responds by recounting that Sir Robert Thompson talked to him about all that.
I am quoting this with Col. McCuen’s permission, of course.
Gentile’s article has the deep flaws of so many such articles written by the “Traditionalists.” It criticizes counterinsurgency strategy/doctrine/population centric strategy without presenting any alternative strategy/doctrine. He justifies his thesis by arguing that General Abrams did not alter the strategy in Vietnam to a “one-war strategy” oriented on the population as opposed to the “search and destroy”/ “body count” attrition strategy of General Westmoreland.
I know that that is simply not true because from the summer of 1968 to the summer of 1969 — while I was “Advisor to the Director of Instruction” at the Vietnamese National Defense College in Saigon with the mission of teaching counterinsurgency to the South Vietnamese senior leadership — I traveled throughout the country from the Delta to the Highlands observing the evolution of the war and its lessons. There was a marked change from a conventional, “search and destroy”/”attrition”/ “body count” strategy to one oriented on security, stability and organization of the population. It was working and was being welcomed by most of the population.
Unquestionably, this was being aided by the fact that during the 1968 TET Offensive the Viet Cong organization implanted within the population surfaced and was largely destroyed. North Vietnam’s subsequent attempts to replace these mostly South Vietnamese cadres with Northerners failed. The Abrams/Colby “one war strategy” was certainly aided by the Viet Cong’s demise, but the population could never have been secured without the strategy. By 1972 about 90% of the South Vietnamese population had been returned to our control.
By coincidence, another retired officer, who occupied a key position in Vietnam, and I discussed precisely this issue last night over the phone and we absolutely agreed on this point. Sorley is right. However, the real issue is not who was responsible for the change in strategy, but that there was a change in strategy to one focused on the population and its lessons — which was my mission.
Gentile is also wrong about Malaya and the evolution of strategy. Again the issue is more who was responsible for the change — Briggs or Templer? Actually, Sir Robert Thompson, who was Governor General of Malaya during this period and was perhaps just as responsible for the change in strategy as these two generals, wrote the “Forward” to my book. As a result, after returning from Vietnam (1969-72) when I was using those Vietnam and Malaya lessons in managing the “Internal Defense and Development” Course at the Army War College, I got the opportunity to entertain Sir Robert in my Quarters for 3-4 hours with 3 or 4 other officers. We had a fascinating discussion and he confirmed this change in Malaya strategy, its details and its success. Interestingly, following this visit to the Army War College, the following day he visited the President in Washington and, at the President’s request, went to Vietnam to recommend what we should do. Subsequently, he wrote the book Gentile mentions in his article.
I could carry on a similar discussion for the Wars in Algeria, Greece and elsewhere.
In addition, Gentile fails to recognize the key point in any counterinsurgency strategy. The purpose of such a strategy is not “to win hearts and minds.” The purpose is not “nation building.” The purpose is to win the war against the strategy imposed upon us by our enemies who wage this type of war against us because experience has shown them that it is the only one by which they can defeat us — what Mao described as a “protracted revolutionary war.” They wage this war within the population by using the population as a shield and weapon. Thus, the population becomes the “terrain.” “Population terrain” becomes just as critical to insurgent warfare as physical terrain is to conventional warfare. We must learn to clear, secure, stabilize and organize population terrain in insurgent or hybrid war as we must clear. secure, stabilize and organize physical terrain in conventional war.
How does Gian Gentile recommend that we do this and win these insurgent or hybrid wars, such as we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan – – and are likely to be fighting in the future?
If Col. Gentile cares to respond, I will post his comment. This in no way is meant to denigrate his work. I think he plays an important and necessary role in the continuing debate.