Commitment and Counterinsurgency

5 October 2012


In the film Apocalypse Now the protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard, is sent up the Mekong to Cambodia to kill Colonel Kurtz, who has gone rogue and is leading a group of native combatants who follow him unquestioningly. There is a scene on the boat going upriver when Willard is reading Col. Kurtz’s dossier, including a report that Kurtz is supposed to have written to the Pentagon after an early tour in Vietnam. The report is called “Commitment and Counterinsurgency” and it includes the following:

“As long as our officers and troups (sic) perform tours of duty limited to one year, they will remain dilletantes in war and tourists in Vietnam. As long as cold beer, hot food, rock and roll and all the other amenities remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will gain only impotence. The wholesale and indiscriminate use of firepower will only increase the effectiveness of the enemy and strengthen their resolve to prove the superiority of an agrarian culture against the world’s greatest technocracy… The central tragedy of our effort in this conflict has been the confusion of a sophisticated technology with human commitment. Our bombs may in time destroy the geography, but they will never win the war… We need fewer men, and better; if they were committed, this war could be won with a fourth of our present force…”

Everyone knows that Apocalypse now was loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I think it would probably be better to say that Apocalypse Now was inspired by Heart of Darkness — or we could use more contemporary terminology and say that Apocalypse Now is a re-imagining of Heart of Darkness.

Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, and counterinsurgency have all become eerily relevant again as the US seeks to disengage from Central Asia after a ground war that has stretched over more than a decade with no resolution consistent with original aims seeming to be in sight. I’ve written about counterinsurgency, or COIN, several times recently as a result of these all-too-familiar events.

Despite the firm intentions of both US military and civilian leadership that the US not be involved in another unwinnable counterinsurgency operation in a distant part of the world, this is exactly what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that history repeated itself in this way, despite the conscious efforts of military and civilian leaders to avoid such a repetition, says much more about the international system and the imperatives of contemporary political organization than it says about the US.

I would argue that any global hegemon at the present moment in history — whether that global hegemon happened to be the US, Russia, China, Brazil, or the British Empire — would find itself more or less forced by circumstances to engage in counterinsurgency operations in widely disparate parts of the globe. Such interventions are systemic rather than opportunistic and episodic.

In the past week US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan have come under scrutiny again after the death toll of US soldiers passed 2,000 as widely-reported “insider attacks,” also called “green on blue” attacks, continue to take the lives of US soldiers.

We quantify wars in terms of deaths, injuries, damage, and dollars. It is a dissatisfying measure to all involved — to the families of dead soldiers a single digit in a statistic scarcely captures the loss, to the families of dead civilians, and those whose lives have been disrupted beyond salvaging, similar considerations hold, while for the war planner the commitment in blood and treasure to the fight does not accurately represent the ultimate effort that was made under adverse circumstances.

Nevertheless, there must be some measure, and certainly blood and treasure constitute the fundamental calculus of commitment in war, apart from that intangible commitment that the fictional Col. Kurtz attempted to communicate to his superiors. It may well be that this intangible commitment of — what? — is precisely that unmeasurable element of the equation that results in victory or defeat, but until we have a theory to account for it, and a language in which we can formulate it, we cannot say anything coherent about it.

It is admittedly difficult even to speak coherently of quantifiable measures like blood and treasure because estimates of death in war are always contested, and because they are contested the numbers employed are almost always the result of a political decision. Some will argue for higher numbers and other will argue for lower numbers. In a war like the Second World War, when entire cities were destroyed and millions were buried under the rubble, estimates on casualties may be off by millions, and at very least off by hundreds of thousands.

In long-term counterinsurgencies like the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan, or the US in Afghanistan, estimating civilian deaths is difficult not so much for the absolute numbers involved but because in such conflict it will be inherently controversial who is and who is not a civilian, as it will be controversial as to who is blame for atrocities carried out far beyond the reach of investigating authorities, and for which each side blames the other.

Casualty counts, then, are inherently controversial, but estimates are made; each estimate represents a particular methodology, and each methodology embodies certain assumptions. Despite all the hazards involved, I am going to give some numbers comparing three different wars — World War Two, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. In all cases I have picked the high estimates, even when these estimates have been contested. Dates, and rates derived from dates, are also numbers that can be contested. So what follows is very rough, but still indicative of a trend.

The Second World War — not in any sense a counterinsurgency — lasted about six (6) years and resulted in about 25 million military deaths and 52 million civilian deaths. This occurred in a total global population of 2,300 million, so that the war consumed about 3.3 percent of world population. This isn’t much compared to a demographic event like the Black Death when it first swept across Europe in 1348-1349, but it is still a very high number for deaths from war. The military casualties of more than four (4) million per year work out to about 475 per hour for each hour of the war, while civilian casualties of more than eight (8) million per year work out to about 988 per hour for every hour of the war.

The involvement of the US in the Vietnam War, a classic counterinsurgency, lasted about ten (10) years from 1965 to 1975, with 58,220 US military deaths and as many as 2,500,000 civilian deaths spread across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This works out to 5,822 military deaths per year, or 0.055 US military deaths for every hour of the war, and 250,000 civilian deaths per year or 2.3766 civilian deaths every hour for the duration of the US involvement in Vietnam (I am here choosing not to include the ten years of French involvement from 1955-1965, although the civilian casualty numbers include at least part of this period — as I wrote above, I took high numbers, and the numbers themselves are inherently controversial).

The involvement of the US in Afghanistan, another counterinsurgency, has lasted almost eleven (11) years from 2001 to 2012 with 2,000 US military casualties. I found it rather difficult to come by estimates of civilian casualties, which varied widely, but, again, taking the high numbers, I found about 34,008 civilian casualties, or about 3,092 per year, which works out to 0.029 per hour for every hour of the war. US military deaths averaged 182 per year or 0.0017 per hour for every hour of the war.

It is interesting to note that during the Vietnam War global population increased by almost a billion persons from 3,345 million to 4,086 million, and during the Afghan War global population again grew by almost a billion, from roughly 6 billion to 7 billion. With these much higher total global population figures, and the far lower casualty totals, whether military or civilian or both, the war deaths from these protracted conflicts don’t even register as a demographic rounding error.

These “big picture” statistics of course hide a lot of details, but they are still the big picture and they tell us something. They tell us that both military and civilian casualties of war are at historic lows, which is something I wrote about in the early history of this blog in The Lethality Peak. Another way to look at the lethality peak is to understand it as societies investing far less in armed conflict than was the case even in the recent past, i.e., there is a lower level of commitment in terms of blood; a lot more statistical analysis would be required to reveal the relative expenditure of treasure.

Yet another way to interpret these numbers is that the great infringements upon human life and human society in our time do not come about from wars and from outright deaths caused by war, but from what I have called non-atrocites, that is to say, depredations upon human populations and human communities that are maintained below the threshold of atrocity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Commitment and Counterinsurgency”

  1. Nick; great thoughts. I have long wondered if the only truly effective means of intervention in crisis-cyclic regions would be either memetic (the spread of changing ideas) or humanitarian; direct involvement seems inevitably bound to entangle endlessly.

    Your point that loss of blood on the intervening side is decreasing is well taken. But the loss on the other should remain unacceptable to us; and that seems to be growing.

    Precarious times.

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