Best Defense

COIN (III): Do not go Gentile into that good night

I’d asked Col. Gian Gentile if he cared to respond to Col. McCuen’s critique, and boy did he. Here it is: I appreciate Colonel (retired) McCuen’s thoughtful and forceful reply to my recent Parameters article.  I also respect and appreciate his longstanding, hard service to the nation as a combat commander in Vietnam and his ...


I’d asked Col. Gian Gentile if he cared to respond to Col. McCuen’s critique, and boy did he. Here it is:

I appreciate Colonel (retired) McCuen’s thoughtful and forceful reply to my recent Parameters article.  I also respect and appreciate his longstanding, hard service to the nation as a combat commander in Vietnam and his ongoing engagement with issues as a defense intellectual, and his current involvement as a senior-level advisor in our current conflicts. 

Where to begin with his critique? 

Let’s start with the Sorley thesis about the Vietnam War. McCuen says that Sorley was “right;” I disagree and believe Sorley’s thesis is wrong. More importantly Sorley’s methodology in the use of sources is open to criticism. Go to his book, “A Better War,” and view the chapter toward the end of the book that he labels as “Victory” which essentially argues that the Abrams “pacification” approach had won the war for the US and the South Vietnamese.  Then go to the end of the book and view the citations of evidence to this chapter and see how many of them are Vietnamese sources: none. In a chapter that argues the United States had won the war under Abrams-think about that for a minute, “won” the war and its sweep as a breathtaking assertion–there are a paltry 8 endnote citations, and none of them from the side of the Vietnamese enemy. Interestingly this is the very same problem that plagues so many Iraq Surge triumph stories-the idea that the Surge was the primary cause for “victory” in Iraq yet with little sources or evidence from the side of the Iraqi people and more importantly the enemy. A close reading of the operational record of the history of the Vietnam War along with the majority of secondary literature confirms that there was much more continuity than discontinuity between Abrams and Westmoreland. As far as McCuen’s statement that by 1972 “90” percent of the South Vietnamese population had been pacified or returned to “our control” is simply not true. Current scholarship by historians such as Eric Bergerud, Richard Hunt, and Kyle Boylan, Andrew Birtle, and Dale Andrade either flatly reject this assertion or question it deeply. In my view we should always keep in mind when thinking about the Vietnam War the profound conclusion by one of the leading scholars on the history of the Vietnam War for the last 30 years, George Herring. His conclusion still holds that “the war could [not] have been ‘won’ in any meaningful sense at a moral or material cost most American’s deemed acceptable.” 

(Read on)

As to Malaya, current historical scholarship argues rather convincingly based on primary sources that the back of the Malayan insurgency was actually broken under Briggs and not Templer. Of course Sir Robert Thompson would confirm such a change in Malaya under Templer since that was the essential argument in his book that he used as a primer for his advisory role to the American Army in the 1960s. Thompson’s book should be treated as a primary text in memoir form and not as the oracle of how to do counterinsurgency. Unfortunately McCuen like so many others still treat people and texts like Thompson and Galula out of context, and therefore they are ahistorical in their understanding of Malaya and Vietnam. 

Colonel McCuen’s paragraph on strategy actually supports the criticism that I make toward the American Army in my Parameters piece, that we have no strategy but simply a jumble of COIN tactical and operational methods. For McCuen there is ONLY ONE WAY to deal with problems of instability in the world, and that is population-centric counterinsurgency–or as he calls it “hybrid war.” This is the same old wine albeit in new skins. Do you see what I mean by a strategy of tactics? With McCuen’s logic anytime a problem of insurgency or instability presents itself to us in the world our only choice–and mind you, choice and alternatives are key components of strategy–is to do Thompson or Galula in the troubled spots of the world requiring large numbers of American combat troop presence to secure populations. In this way our path ahead is predetermined; there is no strategic choice, only the better application of tactics and methods as given to us by the experts of counterinsurgency (hybrid) war.

Based on the logic of Colonel McCuen’s argument if the President told the American Army to deal with the pirates that emerge out of Mogadishu we would send in combat brigades of hybrid warriors to manipulate the “human terrain” there to our advantage. Since these “hybrid wars,” according to Colonel McCuen, can only be won by winning over the population-or “human terrain-” then operational logic demands such an approach. 

Colonel McCuen asks of me how I recommend “…that we do this and win these hybrid and insurgent wars, such as we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and likely to be fighting in the future?”

My answer to the Colonel: do strategy better. But at this point the two of us are talking past each other. From my view he is in the realm of operations and tactics, I am trying to view these problems from the angle of strategy. Sometimes strategy demands restraint instead of military adventures and the realization that as much as we want to define populations as “terrain” and subject to our manipulation and management they are not that way at all and without an almost unlimited commitment in blood and treasure they are not to be “changed” for the better at the barrel of an American gun. There are alternatives to McCuen’s hybrid wars of nation building and strategy demands that we consider them. If we did through cold logic our way ahead in Afghanistan might be very different. 

Tom again: I am in intellectual trouble now because I find myself agreeing with both men’s comments in this blog. What am I missing?


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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