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  • Counterinsurgency's Ambivalent Enterprise
  • Eric Vázquez (bio)

Reflecting on his career as a Foreign Service officer in 1981 El Salvador, Todd Greentree surmises, "I believe I came to understand what Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom about hitching the horses of evil to the chariot of good."1 Drafted in the sixth year of the US intervention in Afghanistan and the fourth of the occupation of Iraq, Greentree's frame of reference in the Crossroads of Intervention crystallizes the moral perplexity of counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare. His T.E. Lawrence reference evokes an incongruent image: war on revolution should muster baleful techniques on a path navigated by a virtuous lead.2 This figure betrays Greentree's discomfort with how US COIN operatives supported torture, disappearances, massacre, and genocide that now typify the wars of insurgency and counterinsurgency in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, Greentree intends that Crossroads should do more than offer a cautionary tale. Instead, the excerpt above indicates how he marries the lessons of Lawrence's insurgent-Arabia of the 1910s with those of insurrectionary Central America in the 1980s and '90s in order to distill wisdom useful for fighting in the borderless War on Terror in the twenty-first century.3

Greentree was not alone in drawing such lessons from COIN's history. In 2004, the Pentagon weighed a "Salvador Option" that promoted training paramilitary forces against the Iraqi insurgency. This handle betrays a potential duplication of results between these two contexts, where in El Salvador US-trained death-squads enacted extrajudicial extermination and disappearances against suspected guerrillas and their civilian supporters. Ever attentive to the potential implications of these comparable efforts, Greentree remarks, "The advent of democracy at the point of bayonets [in Central America] did curtail armed ideological competition and supplanted the legitimacy of seeking political change through violence."4 Seeming to excuse the magnitude of violence deployed in Central America, he suggests triumph in counterinsurgency warfare involves balancing violence with politics, coercion with choice. It is my contention that Greentree's qualified sense of success indexes a pervasive structural ambivalence shaping counterinsurgency's intellectual precepts, its missions, and its relationship to its status as a technology of US imperialism. [End Page 120]

But what distinguishes counterinsurgency from other forms of warfare such that it harnesses malevolence for the purposes of virtue, or as Greentree suggests elsewhere, to make "Central America… my first heart of darkness"?5 For as much as Greentree's abstraction powerfully evokes the collusion between good intentions and reprobate methods, it also obscures COIN's stated objectives: namely, to extricate armed insurgents from the broader civilian populace. Isolated from its base of support, COIN intellectuals argue, the insurgent adversary may be neutralized consequently securing an endangered national regime. In the 1980s and '90s, counterinsurgency's ambition to extinguish rebellion combined with its noteworthy strategic flexibility proved an attractive strategy for Ronald Reagan's administration. Through counterinsurgency—now rebranded as "low-intensity conflict"—the administration sought to bolster allied regimes in Central America.6 Leftist guerrillas and social movements, the administration and its new right supporters warned, threatened US hegemony in the region with the potential to transform the Gulf of Mexico into a "Marxist-Leninist lake."7 As with previous counterinsurgency operations, combating this perceived menace required measures beyond military force.

Much of the scholarly debate about counterinsurgency concerns itself with both the historical novelty and the portents of the doctrine's emergence. Greg Grandin spotlights the doctrine's perpetuation of American imperialist ideology and of an unbroken US empire. Commenting on the pervasiveness of COIN, Grandin claims, "Latin America became a laboratory for counterinsurgency, as military officials and covert operators applied insights learned in the region to Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East."8 By contrast, the most significant contemporary scholarship calls attention to how counterinsurgency uniquely manipulates the lives and lifeworlds of the populations amidst which the US military operates. Exploring nations that are simultaneously the sites of imperialist intervention and ecological disaster, Christian Parenti argues, "COIN targets—pace Foucault—the 'capillary' level of social relations. It ruptures and tears (but rarely remakes) the intimate social relations among people, their ability to cooperate, and the lived...


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