Perspectives on Politics

Review Symposium

Review of The New U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

Douglas A. Ollivanta1

a1 Douglass A. Ollivant received his Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a member of the National Security Council and is currently serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army


Douglas A. Ollivant on The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. By the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Forward by David H. Petraeus, James F. Amos, and John A. Nagl. Introduction by Sarah Sewall. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 472p. $15.00.


The views expressed herein are solely those of the author. These views do not reflect those of the U.S. Army or any agency of the U.S. government.

As I begin to compose this essay, the University of Chicago edition of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) is ranked #182 on the best-seller list. This mass appeal for a book with numbered paragraphs, from an institution hardly known for its mesmerizing prose (even acknowledging the difference between a book purchased and a book read), is both welcome and mysterious. The fact that the mass public seems to be taking an interest in modern warfare, the American Army, and how the latter conducts the former may serve as a caution to those who posit the apathy of the aforementioned mass public. However, a better informed citizenry is only one of the political effects resulting from the publication of FM 3-24. It brings to the fore a political irony. While the manual itself is not particularly radical, and may in fact oversimplify complex political events to fit them into a counterinsurgency “box,” it is a radical challenge to conventional military culture and raises deep questions about the type of military—and especially the type of army—the Unites States wishes to maintain.

First and foremost, the appearance of the manual is important for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. FM 3-24 is the product of not only the preexisting literature on counterinsurgency (COIN)—most notably that of David Galula, T. E. Lawrence, and Mao Zedong1—but also of hard-learned lessons from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the authors of this committee-drafted text are experienced practitioners, and it shows. The codification of dearly purchased lessons “raises the bar” for performance, and in turn promotes further learning. The manual is then both caused and causal. In terms of increasing effectiveness in a purely pragmatic sense, it is extremely important to the young men and women who operate in a deeply ambiguous and dangerous environment in Southwest Asia. For those who believe the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan to be clear national and humanitarian interests—whatever one's opinions about the original justifications for their invasions—the appearance of a field manual that makes the eventuality more likely is welcome. In this sense the publication of this text can only be advantageous.

There exists a very real possibility of a downside resulting from this publication, however. There is something just a bit troubling about a manual devoted to counterinsurgency appearing in isolation from the broader theory of war. Arguably, counterinsurgency is but one of several types of what has variously been called “small wars,” “stability operations,” “peace operations,” “low-intensity conflicts,” or (most recently) “war amongst the people.”2 FM 3-24 does admit that “insurgency and COIN are included within a broad category of conflict known as irregular warfare” (p. 2). However, it then moves cheerfully along, without concern for what other phenomena might be included in this broad category, how they might differ from counterinsurgency, how they might be similar, how these might be distinguished, and—most importantly—what said distinctions might imply in terms of approach: the use of force and the utility of softer forms of power.

For the reader (let alone the practitioner), the absence of a larger framework of warfare tends to pull all instances of irregular war into the counterinsurgency model. In a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for nonkinetic (or limited-kinetic) warfare. However, it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. In regions of the world that lack mature, recognized political institutions, it is not self-evident that the government that happens to have a hold on power at the moment is one that it is in the national interest of the United States to support. To be flippant, we have been down this road before, and we know where it takes us—names like Anastasio Somoza, Fulgencio Batista, and the Shah of Iran should all come to mind. The true danger is that COIN doctrine will dominate all forms of “war amongst the peoples” and, in the process, fail to incorporate nuanced differences and lessons learned from other types of limited warfare.

In the absence of a larger context in which counterinsurgency is posed as one possible variety of “war amongst the people,” a context in which peace enforcement, peacekeeping, nation building, and other paradigms also compete as frameworks for action, it is quite possible that the default position of counterinsurgency—which is, when boiled down, to build up the existing central government at all costs—will achieve a hegemonic hold on the military imagination and push out alternative conceptions of the challenges likely to be encountered on future battlefields. This would be a very subtle snare, but it would do little good to replace one inadequate conception of warfare with another.

This rhetorical sleight of hand, which equates counterinsurgency with all small wars, flies in the face of facts on the ground. While it is still controversial to say so, the Iraq War itself may no longer be best described as an insurgency, as the bulk of the insurgents—the nationalist Sunnis—are now realigning themselves with the American forces in Iraq against the nihilistic-Islamist terrorist Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). With the Sunni nationalists at least temporarily allied and AQI deprived of its sanctuary among the Sunni population, just who are the insurgents in Iraq against whom a counterinsurgency might be conducted? This is not to say that Iraq does not remain an extremely difficult and lethal problem. However, a situation best characterized, in General David Petraeus's words, as a “competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources” is not exactly an insurgency.3

The future of conflict will almost certainly be defined by such “wicked problems,” or situations that are unique, intractable, and interminable.4 There will be aspects of these problems that are recognizable—crime, ethnic and religious conflict, group competition, and yes, even insurgency. But to try to maintain that all these problems should be dealt with in a counterinsurgency framework—as FM 3-24 implicitly maintains—may leave the end users, not to mention policymakers, somewhat at a loss when dealing with situations that are not best characterized in such limited terms. In these cases, using a counterinsurgency-based response may be at least inefficient, if not wholly inappropriate, counterproductive, or even catastrophic. FM 3-24 should then be seen as a first (and very necessary) step toward a reconceptualization of warfare, but one that must be immediately qualified and contextualized.5

In the largest sense, the publication of this text must be seen as a political act. The heart of the manual is captured in the nine “Paradoxes of Counterinsurgency Operations,” in paragraphs 1-148 through 1-157. These paradoxes, such as “Sometimes The More Force Is Used, The Less Effective It Is,” “Sometimes Doing Nothing Is The Best Reaction,” and “Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing,” turn conventional military wisdom on its head. The paradoxes effectively communicate that the standard manner of proceeding used by the general-purpose army must change in order to operate in a changed world. The logical corollary to this conclusion would be that those military leaders who are unable or unwilling to change may be of limited utility in the conduct of future wars. In short, the manual is an implicit call for the army to engage in an enthusiastic round of “creative destruction.”

It would be both an exaggeration and an oversimplification to view the field manual as the opening salvo in a fight for the internal culture of the army (and, by extension, the Department of Defense), but only slightly so. This story would portray the two most successful commanders in Iraq—General Petraeus and Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli—as leading an internal revolt (insurgency?) with their disciples, partisans, and fellow travelers against the traditional, kinetic, force-on-force army—the army that prepared to fight the Fulda Gap, so successfully fought in Desert Storm, and seized Baghdad in three weeks. In other words, this interpretation would reflect a battle against the “American Way of War,” shorthand for a binary conception in which war is fought as an alternative to diplomacy and politics, rather than (as Carl von Clausewitz teaches) as its extension.6

The war for the “soul” of the U.S. Army certainly has implications for the nation that it serves. To begin with, it must be acknowledged that there is a large segment of American society that is deeply ambiguous about an army that operates in a nontraditional manner, as can be seen in the following letter from a Mr. Jay Lewis to the editors of the Wall Street Journal:

Your article on the unsuccessful attempts by a U.S. Army officer to open a local bank in Iraq (“In Iraq, an Army Officer Battles to Open a Bank,” page one, March 29) implies that such an effort is a worthy and legitimate component of modern warfare. In fact, this is not true… .

History shows conclusively that armies are best used and most successful when they serve a singular purpose: the destruction of the enemy and his will to fight. Every resounding victory by U.S. military forces has been accomplished by subscribing to this dictum. Only after achieving complete dominance on the battlefield should an army assume any type of political role, as the U.S. military did in Germany and Japan after World War II. So while the tactics of successful warfare have changed over the years, the overall strategy has not.

Any army that ignores this basic truth is sure to be stalemated, just like our armed forces in Iraq are today.7

This (popularized) concept of the American Way of War, and its associated aversion to limited war, was perhaps most clearly enunciated by then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, assisted by then Lieutenant General Colin Powell.8 These Reagan-era officials maintained that military force should be limited to the attainment of U.S. vital interests; a clear political determination to win militarily; clearly defined political and military objectives, with broad public and congressional support as “reasonably” assured; and, as a last resort, military force could be used in an overwhelming fashion to decisively defeat the enemy.

This formula, later known as the Weinberger-Powell doctrine, was in essence the distillation of the professional military's view of the lessons drawn from the Vietnam War. It expresses a preference for fighting wars only where U.S. vital interests are at stake, and with overwhelming military capability. Long drawn-out conflicts with no clear and easily identifiable end state are anathema to this conception of how and when U.S. military force should be employed.

If the Weinberger-Powell doctrine was a summation of the dominant vision reflecting the American Way of War, then the behavior of the post-Vietnam army represented its implementation. As the army rebuilt itself in the late 1970s and early 1980s, virtually all combat training and professional military education centered on building proficiency in high-end combat, as army officers became self-defined “warrior-trainers,” and emphatically not nation builders. Of note, during this time period, there was no doctrine on counterinsurgency, peace operations, or stability operations. The leadership of the army had made a conscious decision that never again would it be drawn into a conflict the likes of Vietnam. By the early 1990s, this institutional vision was so ensconced throughout the U.S. military that the Pentagon was often viewed as the dominant obstacle to the use of forces in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti.

Perhaps the most notable example of how this preference for fighting conventional force-on-force battles was made manifest occurred during the late 1990s as the army began thinking about “transformation.” While tens of millions of dollars was spent on conducting war games postulating a new army composed of rapidly deployable small units that took full advantage of advanced weaponry, armor, and information technologies to defeat hypothetical future adversaries on the battlefield, the experiments always ended when the enemy military formation collapsed. From the viewpoint of many in the defense establishment, that was when the war ended, and the only thing remaining was to determine how fast the forces could redeploy to the United States. Perhaps this type of wishful, apolitical (read: anti-Clausewitzian) thinking about warfare was responsible for the inability of General Tommy Franks and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to develop a plan for the invasion of Iraq that contemplated more than defeating the Iraqi military, turning control of Iraq back to the Iraqi people, and coming home within months of the end of “major combat operations.”

Today, the U.S. Army officer corps remains divided regarding how best to train, organize, and equip the force, and under what types of conditions the force ought to be employed. The COIN doctrine articulated in FM 3-24 is a direct affront to the large constituency of military officers who prefer thinking of warfare along the lines of the Weinberger-Powell doctrine. To an extent, FM 3-24 is an affront to all the adherents of the army transformation community who believed that the emerging “Revolution in Military Affairs” would enable the army to become much smaller, more lethal, and more rapidly deployable. The COIN manual is, in a very real sense, a direct affront to the way much of the army sees itself.

The American Way of War then remains alive and well in the ranks (and particularly—though not exclusively—the senior ranks) of the army. The American preference for simple and forceful action is noted by our allies, and is certainly reflected in many of our writings and the instinctive reactions they inspire.9 A significant portion (whether majority or minority remains to be seen) of the military is deeply ambiguous about any task that does not involve “destruction of the enemy and his will to fight” and would much prefer to be blowing things up, rather than performing armed politics—or worse yet, armed civil relief.10 The actions required in Iraq and Afghanistan do not conform to our preconception of what war looks like, and so we wish to change the reality to match the theory, or cultural preference, and return to the American Way of War.

What if the opinion reflected in Mr. Lewis's earlier quotation, however, actually does reflect majority opinion in the United States? What if the American people really do not want their army to fight in a manner other than the American? What then? Who decides whether the American people get the army they want, or the army they need? The issue, of course, is that, to use a now-hackneyed quote, you go to war with “the army you have.” So should Petraeus, Chiarelli, and their followers be encouraged to conduct an institutional refounding? Such questions challenge the boundaries of political routine and echo the problematic careers of earlier military reformers, most notably (though outside the American context) the younger Charles de Gaulle.

The COIN manual may eventually prove to be not only a pragmatic guide for the conduct of foreign contingency operations but also a transgressive spur for domestic bureaucratic reform. If its theoretical framework is overly limiting, it is certainly more comprehensive than earlier visions. But reconceptualizing the U.S. Army and Defense Department approach to future contingencies—as the lead agency for the larger U.S. government—will be a continuing, contested, and ultimately political process.11

I will close by noting that military theorists and practitioners have long debated the uses of force and the extent to which military force can be used to effect political change. To some, war is absolute and when used, reflects a failure of diplomacy. This is largely the position taken by the Weinberger-Powell doctrine. To others, military force can be used in a limited fashion to help achieve ongoing political and diplomatic efforts, while recognizing that war by its very nature is an unpredictable contest among many actors and that military force must often be constrained in its application in order to achieve broader political goals. The nation and its army are now entering the fifth year of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the COIN manual reflects at least a “first draft” of the way this type of war must be waged. But how will this experience prod us as a nation to view the future use of force? Will we once again retreat to the more comfortable and more easily understood paradigm espoused by the army of the 1980s and 1990s, or will we accept the fact that “war amongst the people” is likely to be the dominant face of conflict in the twenty-first century? The answer to this final question will largely determine the army that the nation will have “on the shelf” when it next requires one.



1 See Galula 1964, Lawrence 1991, and Mao 1961.

2 See Smith 2007, esp. p. viii.

3 Gen. David Petraeus, “Report to Congress on the Situation in Iraq” April 8–9, 2008, p. 2.

4 On “wicked problems,” see Rittel and Webber 1973.

5 For example, I have found it much more helpful to think of the situation in Iraq as an instance of “transition from authoritarian rule,” rather than as an insurgency. See O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986.

6 Weigley 1977

7 Jay Lewis, “Armies Should Fight, Win, Then Adopt Political Role. Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2007, A13.

8 See Weinberger 1990.

9 See Aylwin-Foster 2005.

10 For a somewhat extreme example, see Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile's argument that, contra the arguments in FM 3-24, insurgencies should be dealt with through killing in order to maintain the morale and fighting spirit of soldiers (Gentile 2007).

11 For a first “cut” on what this might entail, see Chiarelli and Smith 2007.