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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Zinni vs. Gentile: the counterinsurgency smackdown?

And your correspondent was there to cover it, in Portland, Oregon, which I believe to be neutral ground for COIN doctrine. I expected the main bout to be Gen. Tony “Philadelphia Kid” Zinni, taking on West Point’s favorite son, Col. Gian “COINhata” Gentile. Instead, the two Italian-American officers generally and genially agreed. Moreover, the star ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
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587005_090407_RICKSbb2.jpg

And your correspondent was there to cover it, in Portland, Oregon, which I believe to be neutral ground for COIN doctrine.

I expected the main bout to be Gen. Tony “Philadelphia Kid” Zinni, taking on West Point’s favorite son, Col. Gian “COINhata” Gentile. Instead, the two Italian-American officers generally and genially agreed. Moreover, the star of the night was Col. Gentile, who delivered a conservative Clausewitizian talk to the crowd of awed youth, tired-looking professors, and pony-tailed older gents.

Gentile called for modesty in our goals, saying that we should “take cold showers” before we think we can change societies “through the barrel of a gun.”

Gentile, who in person seemed much calmer than some of his written commentary, argued against created a bifurcated force in which some units specialize in high-intensity warfare and others in small war stuff like counterinsurgency operations. Instead he called for a “general purpose force” that can adapt to different situations. He noted that such forces carried out successful counterinsurgency campaigns, citing the British in Malaya in the 1950s and the Americans in the Philippines half a century earlier. He also argued, less credibly to my mind, that the 4th Infantry Division, in which he was a brigade XO back in 2003-2004, did just fine back then. Readers of my book Fiasco will know that several experts, such as retired Col. Stuart Herrington, the Marine Corps, and an Army IG report disagreed with that assertion and think its approach enflamed Iraqi opposition to the U.S. presence.

Gentile bared his teeth a couple of times. He ripped the Petraeus/Mattis counterinsurgency manual, calling it “very narrowly conceived in theory and history” and “essentially a re-hash” of the American, British, and French responses to the Maoistic insurgencies of the 1950s and 1960s. He also took a pop at the work of the late John Boyd, noting that he never produced a book but more just a giant proto-PowerPoint briefing. 

Two major problems I have with his talk:

  • He is saying that COIN and other lesser-intensity conflict is essentially a lesser-included case. This was very much the view of the Army’s leaders in the 1990s. But several top officers in Iraq in 2007, when the U.S. military conducted a successful counterinsurgency campaign, told me that they disagree with that view, and that they think COIN is both harder and different.
  • More importantly, everybody agrees that we need “an army that can learn and adapt very quickly,” as Gentile put it. The question is, how to do that?

Zinni was in the amen corner. “I think we’ve gone overboard” on counterinsurgency, he said. “We’re trying to make every Marine and soldiers a Middle Eastern expert.”

Zinni also made an interesting prediction: “Before this year is out, the Taliban will come to the table.” But he didn’t predict the outcome of such talks.

Memory of the night: One of those Jerry Garcia-lookalikes approaching General Zinni and saying, “Sir, would you sign my copy of your book?” 

Also, for the record: Gentile revealed that on his last trip to France, in addition to visiting Omaha Beach, he stopped by the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. 

ftsanchez/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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