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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A week or so ago the New York Times published at article about the split at West Point between those who see value in counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrines and those who see no value in these doctrines, West Point Is Divided on a War Doctrine’s Fate, by Elisabeth Bumiller. At West Point the doctrinal dialectic is being played out between Col. Gian P. Gentile, COIN skeptic, and Col. Michael J. Meese, COIN defender. Now George Friedman of Strategic Forecasting has published The End of Counterinsurgency and the Scalable Force on the Stratfor website (this is one of Stratfor’s free offerings, so you can read this if you don’t have a subscription), giving his perspective on the COIN debate. Not surprisingly, with a portentous title like “The End of Counterinsurgency,” Friedman’s position is not very enthusiastic about COIN.

I discussed some of Gentile’s views in Maintaining the Distinction Between Strategy and Tactics, where I reviewed Jason Fritz’s take on Gentile’s slogan that, “COIN is a strategy of tactics” (or SoT) and I said that this view entailed the idea that, “COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.” But there is a missing distinction here. COIN certainly can be approached as a mere SoT, blind to larger concerns, or it can be formulated precisely to avoid a muddled collection of tactics that may well be at cross purposes to each other. History affords examples of both.

In regard to the NYT article, Thomas E. Ricks noted on the Foreign Policy magazine website that another obvious distinction should be made:

“…contrary to what the reporter seems to think, one can easily believe a) we should not have gone to war in Iraq, b) that COIN worked, and c) but that nothing was gained in that war.”

This isn’t the only distinction that should be observed. There is an obvious distinction to be made between the fact of COIN operations, which are often the result of historical accident piled upon historical accident — in other words, stumbling into COIN, not making an explicit strategic choice to pursue COIN over other alternatives — and a military doctrine that makes COIN operations central. The NYT article includes this:

“Colonel Meese’s opposing argument is that warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions — the view advanced in the bible of counterinsurgents, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was revised under General Petraeus in 2006. Hailed as a new way of warfare (although drawing on counterinsurgencies fought by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, among others), the manual promoted the protection of civilian populations, reconstruction and development aid.”

Clearly, to re-write a central document of military doctrine as though counterinsurgency were a new way of warfare that is to be the wave of the future is to make a strategic decision that this new way of warfare is of crucial importance now, will continue to be a crucial importance, and needs to be the focus of ongoing efforts. This is something very different from being caught in an insurgency being forced to fight it.

There are certainly good reasons for believing that COIN is the wave of the future, or, at very least, part of the wave of the future. I noted in The Security Paradox that “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) of necessity now play an increasing role in military thought and practice because of the reduced opportunities for peer-to-peer conflict.

George Friedman takes up the COIN debate in relation to peer-to-peer conflict in several points in his recent piece:

“…many within the military have long opposed counterinsurgency operations. Others see counterinsurgency as the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. The debate is between those who believe the purpose of a conventional military force is to defeat another conventional military force and those who believe conventional military conflicts increasingly will be replaced by conflicts more akin to recent counterinsurgency operations.

If MOOTW come to predominate over peer-to-peer conflict, then COIN certainly will be part of the unavoidable future of U.S. warfare. That means that if a military force is built for conventional military conflicts, it will be underutilized while non-conventional conflicts go unaddressed because there is no force available to fight them. It is often said that, “The enemy gets a vote.” This unavoidability of non-conventional conflict is a result of the enemy’s voice. Regardless of the kind of military establishment that the U.S. builds, it does not get to choose its enemies unless is launches a preemptive or preventative war. And, as we have seen, even a preemptive or a preventative war can be transformed into unconventional, asymmetric warfare.

George Friedman addresses the growing role of asymmetric warfare indirectly, by denying that COIN is a type of warfare:

“Understanding this debate requires the understanding that counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare; it is one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”

To assert that “counterinsurgency is not a type of warfare” is to cut the Gordian Knot; moreover, it is not very helpful. The unique position of the U.S. in the contemporary international system — like the unique position of Rome in classical antiquity — means that the U.S. is held to different standards than other nation-states and very different standards than non-state actors. The unavoidable Clausewitzean equation of war and politics means that wars become political and politics sometimes forces a nation-state into wars against its better judgment. These realities cannot be wished away.

Similarly, the complexity of war (including mission creep) cannot be wished away. Friedman envisions a light, mobile, flexible force of Marines who can suddenly descend upon hostiles in a violently effective surgical strike, only to disappear as the sun begins to peek over the horizon. There are many who would like see this as the central scenario of U.S. conflict involvement. I will avoid arguing the obviously cheap shot that, “commando raids are not a type of warfare; they are one strategy by which a disproportionately powerful conventional force approaches asymmetric warfare.”

After ten years plus involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, military thought in the U.S. is being affected by a psychological attrition that is not at all unlike what happened after ten years plus of involvement in Viet Nam. This fatigue also affects the security professionals who study the same problems and think about the same dilemmas day in and day out, year in and year out. Military and security professionals know that military casualties are at historic lows, but the deaths affect them personally even if they come at lower rates than in any other previous conflict (less than a tenth of the deaths in Viet Nam, to take the obvious comparison). This phenomenon has a precise analogy in the civilian sphere. The reporters know that civilian casualties are at historic lows, but competition for dramatic photographs and interviews drives every story of civilian casualties onto the front page and gives the impression that the deaths are disproportionately high when they are in fact disproportionately low.

In short, almost everyone has lost their objectivity, and the quality of thought and judgment is wavering or seriously compromised as a result. It is probably not possible for any democratic society to wage quasi-imperial wars, even with the best of intentions, without suffering cognitive dissonance at a level proportionate to the length of the conflict. And the erosion of thought and objectivity is a side-effect of this cognitive dissonance. Give the US another twenty years to engage in soul-searching, hand-wringing, and much-publicized recriminations, and the spirit of reckless adventurism will return, for better or worse. This, too, is the result of a decline in the clarity and objectivity of thought. We can only hope that, in the long term future, counter-cyclical forces will emerge that will temper both the highs of adventurism and the lows of defeatism.

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Note added 08 June 2012: On the same day that I posted the above, Thomas E. Ricks posted a longer and much more detailed piece on COIN, No matter what Gentile and others wish, counterinsurgency just isn’t going away, by Col. Robert Killebrew. I agree with almost all of this.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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What is called “losing” in chess may constitute winning in another game.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a discussion of Gödel’s incompleteness proofs

I have for quite some time been intending to wade into the COIN debate (that’s “counter-insurgency,” for those among you without an absolute command of inherently ambiguous acronyms), and while this post is not going to be that post which takes COIN as the leitmotif, I will here approach COIN indirectly by taking a bit of the debate on the margins of COIN. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s well known remark about Gödel — “My task is, not to talk about (e.g.), Gödel’s proof, but to pass it by.” — I can say that, in the present context, my task is not to talk about COIN, but to pass it by.

And I will pass by COIN by way of a detour through SoT. Now we have another acronym, so I must tell you that “SoT” means “strategy of tactics.” I found this on the Ink Spots blog, in a piece by Jason Fritz titled be-SoT-ted: COIN tactics and strategy through the lens of ends, ways, means. Fritz makes several interesting assertions that I would like to review. Fritz notes that Gian Gentile originated (or popularized) the notion of “COIN is the strategy of tactics,” implying that COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.

Fritz links to several interesting pieces by Gian Gentile, who has written an excellent essay on this idea. Here are a couple of excerpts from Gentile:

Nation-building using population-centric COIN as its centerpiece should be viewed as an operation. It should not be viewed as strategy, or even policy for that matter. But what is occurring now in Afghanistan, for example, at least for the American Army, is a “strategy of tactics.” If strategy calls for nation-building as an operational method to achieve policy objectives, and it is resourced correctly, then the population-centric approach might make sense. But because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.

…the most damaging consequence to the American Army from the new zeitgeist of COIN is that it has taken the Army’s focus off of strategy. Currently, US military strategy is really nothing more than a bunch of COIN principles, massaged into catchy commander’s talking points for the media, emphasizing winning the hearts and minds and shielding civilians. The result is a strategy of tactics and principles.

GIAN P. GENTILE, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2009

Of Gentile’s dismissal of COIN as a “strategy of tactics” Fritz has this to say:

My main beef with COIN as a strategy of tactics (I’m going to go ahead and call it SoT from now on) is that all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics. In the ends-ways-means calculus of strategy, a large chunk of the “ways” section is the aggregation of tactical actions based on operational concepts and/or TTPs… This is an elegant way of saying it, but all military strategies are in part SoT, in a non-pejorative sense. You can’t have strategic success without tactical successes. COIN, IW, UW, maneuver warfare are all common in this regard.


…for now I disagree that COIN is inherently a strategy of tactics any more than any category of tactics can be labeled a strategy. Those tactics may be part of a military strategy that logically connects ends, ways, and means. On the other hand, COIN tactics may be the commander’s ways in an illogical or inaccurate strategic equation and thus we may see COIN as a SoT.

While I am in complete agreement that you cannot have strategic success without tactical successes, it is important to point out that tactical objectives can be antithetical to strategic objectives, so much so that a “successful” tactical move may involve a local defeat in the interest of a global strategic victory (and here I mean “global” not as “worldwide” but simply as a contrast to “local”). If your skirmishers can flush out an ambush before that ambush can be sprung on the main body of your troops, the skirmishers may lose this engagement but in so losing they may have saved the day for the force on the whole. What is called “losing” in tactics may be called “winning” in another game, namely, the game of strategy.

Still, both Gentile and Fritz are on to something (though they seem to take distinct positions) in the analysis of a collection of tactical methods and principles that are thrown together as an ad hoc strategy without the benefit of what might be called strategic vision (for lack of a better term). Gentile is somewhat dismissive of a “strategy of tactics” cobbled together on the local level, while Fritz seems to suggest that all strategies are ultimately strategies of tactics, since, “all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics.”

The problem here (if there is a problem) can be neatly illuminated by interpolating a distinction into this discussion, so I am going to make a distinction between formal and informal strategy, or formal and material strategy (either set of terms will do). Although I am introducing my own terminology, the idea is not at all new.

Actually, I’m going to make two distinctions. Among strategies of tactics we can distinguish those that add up to more than the sum of their parts, and those that fail to add up to anything. A number of tactics thrown together in an operational context may only apparently have little or nothing to do with each other, but it emerges in time that they do in fact function coherently as a whole. This whole turns out to be a strategic whole. This is when tactics add up to more than the sum of their parts, and this is what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” and what Hegel called the “cunning of reason.” Sometimes, things get done quite without our knowing how they get done.

Fritz, in suggesting that all strategies may be strategies of tactics comes close to this idea that strategy is emergent from a coherent body of tactics. But this, as we know, is not the only possibility. A number of tactics thrown together for an operation may reveal their essential incoherence by ignominiously falling to pieces under the extraordinary stresses of combat. Tactics combined without any overarching idea of what is to be accomplished may be pursued at cross-purposes to each other and become self-defeating. This would be an instance of tactics turning out to be less than the sum of their parts (what I have elsewhere called negative organicism and submergent properties). This seems to be Gentile’s primary concern.

History provides adequate examples both of strategy emergent from tactics and strategy failing to emerge from tactics, so we can’t really say that Gentile is right or Fritz is right, because they are both right — just in different circumstances. So here’s where we come to formal strategy and material strategy.

A formal strategy is an explicitly formulated doctrine of strategic objectives distinct from the tactical objectives that may be employed to achieve the aims of the strategy. When a formal strategy is formulated, those who are formulating it know that they are formulating it, they know what they want to accomplish, and if any time lines are given for the strategy they will be able to say eventually whether that strategy was successful or a failure.

An informal or material strategy is that strategy that emerges in the absence of a formal strategy. A material strategy may be grasped intuitively or instinctively by military commanders on the ground or by politicians in their negotiations in smoke-filled rooms. It is probably the case that most US strategies are informal strategies, which is why US military forces must so often get by with strategies of tactics, because no one can explicitly formulate exactly what is going on. Even when such an explicit statement of a strategy is lacking, however, we should not sell informal strategy short, because in some cases everyone understands, from the Commander-in-Chief to the foot soldiers slogging through the mud, what it is all about. When men die for freedom and democracy without being able to define either freedom or democracy (or the tactics that are consistent with a free and democratic society) they are dying for an informal strategy.

Given this distinction, then, between formal and informal strategy, the distinction between strategy and tactics is maintained; in other words, it is not the case that all strategies are strategies of tactics, but rather that informal strategies are strategies of tactics when these tactics do turn out to be coherent and to accomplish something. When strategies of tactics fall apart and a fiasco ensues, then there was no strategy at all — not even an informal one.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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