The “Hearts and Minds” Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare


Debates over how governments can defeat insurgencies ebb and ºow with international events, becoming particularly contentious when the United States encounters problems in its efforts to support a counterinsurgent government. Often the United States confronts these problems as a zero-sum game in which the government and the insurgents compete for popular support and cooperation. The U.S. prescription for success has had two main elements: to support liberalizing, democratizing reforms to reduce popular grievances; and to pursue a military strategy that carefully targets insurgents while avoiding harming civilians. An analysis of contemporaneous documents and interviews with participants in three cases held up as models of the governance approach—Malaya, Dhofar, and El Salvador—shows that counterinsurgency success is the result of a violent process of state building in which elites contest for power, popular interests matter little, and the government benefits from uses of force against civilians.