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The Myth of a Kinder, Gentler War
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We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

—George Bernard Shaw

Shortly after he assumed command of all U.S. and nato troops in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal provided his soldiers with operational guidance for fighting insurgent Taliban forces. McChrystal’s words directly reflect the Pentagon’s new model of U.S. warfare and inform the philosophy behind the current U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan: “The ongoing insurgency must be met with a counterinsurgency campaign adapted to the unique conditions in each area that: protects the Afghan people, allowing them to choose a future they can be proud of; provides a secure environment allowing good government and economic development to undercut the causes and advocates of insurgency.”

According to McChrystal, the “Afghan people are at the center of our mission...in reality they are the mission.” These sentiments are reflective of what has become the new way of American war—population-centric counter-insurgency (coin). The focus on coin doctrine was enshrined by Gen. David Petraeus and the 2006 publication of the Army and Marine counter-insurgency manual, FM 3–24, which calls for a military approach that seeks to convince the population that counter-insurgents, acting on behalf of a sovereign government, can be trusted and are worthy of popular support.

With its seemingly progressive and humanistic approach, FM 3–24, and counterinsurgency in general, offer a seductive ideal for the future of American war-fighting. But the veneration of coin conceals a brutal reality. The history of counter-insurgency in the twentieth century is not a story of warm and fuzzy war, of benevolent soldiers providing essential government services to grateful natives, of armed social work, or of the gentleman soldier’s antidote to the Shermanesque notion of Total War. Instead, counter-insurgency is a repeated tale of coercion and violence directed largely against unarmed civilians. And this defines both those coin efforts that have been successful—and those that have failed.

Yet counter-insurgency is often described today in misleading terms. According to Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, coin “embraces distinctly liberal, humanistic values like protecting civilians, cultural sensitivity, and rigid adherence to ethical standards and the law.” Others such as Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, have argued that the focus on counter-insurgency, in Afghanistan today, is in keeping with a grand U.S. military tradition: “McChrystal’s advice to embrace the population and be sparing in the use of firepower has been employed by successful counterinsurgents from the American Army in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century.” Even those on the left are not immune to the seductions of this new mode of American warfare. Rachel Kleinfeld, director of the progressive–oriented Truman National Security Project, has lauded counter-insurgency for its focus on the “importance of legitimacy and privileging civilian life in order to gain hearts and minds,” a goal we are told that “progressives have been promoting for years.”

Do as the Romans Do

Though protecting the population, or cleaving them away from insurgents, has long defined coin operations, the more coercive elements that have accompanied these efforts receive far less mention. For example, FM 3–24 approvingly cites the experiences of the British military in Malaya and Kenya, as well as the French in Algeria, as potential models for how to wage a population-centric counter-insurgency. But each of these conflicts—as well as U.S. coin operations in the Philippines and Vietnam—were defined by significant levels of coercion and violence against civilians. Even in Iraq, which has been heralded as coin’s shining contemporary success story, the “triumph” of counter-insurgency tactics that accompanied the 2007 surge of U.S. troops was matched with horrific levels of violence and population resettlement—and a higher number of civilian deaths due to American military actions.

In fact, none of the major counter-insurgent wars fought by the United States and other Western countries look much like the humanistic approach described by coin advocates. Still, current...