US Army (re)learns harsh lessons in history

Isn’t the failure to remember history instilled in nearly every school kid? The title of this post comes from a thread on a listserv that began with a comment about the US Army (US Armed Forces in general perhaps) forgetting a text from the 1980’s on counter-insurgency (COIN).

We can stay within US military’s own authoritative establishment and go back to 1940 for the US Marine Corps Small Wars Manual which was recently made available electronically by (and at) the USMC’s Small Wars Center of Excellence. This manual was forgotten after WWII, apparently briefly remember in Vietnam, and forgotten again. I like the bit about mules in the manual, which until a few years ago was considered out of date (not anymore).

John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam is a valuable read, if not for his demonstrable facts that a) the British military is a learning organization and b) cultural specifics matter. His analysis of the “Malay Emergency” doesn’t however, if I recall, include that it was Sir Templer that apparently coined the now common phrase about “winning hearts and minds” for this campaign. If we want to talk about religious contexts and crusades, it is important to consider “winning hearts and minds” comes from the English Book of Common Prayer. But isn’t the religious context only important if anybody knows there is a religious context?

Of course General Westmoreland added his own twist to Sir Templer’s: “if you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” Perhaps that’s the version too many remember?

In the discussion of rehashing lessons learned, a new label has emerged to identity old concepts: Cultural Warfare. Whether the author is David Galula, Nagl, Mao Zedung, Thomas Hammes, Colonel Callwell, the US Marine Corps, or even Robert Kaplan, the need to understand the people and work with the people is the same. Just as rebels must swim like fish in the sea, COIN must work to deny the sea by turning the sea against the fish or drying up the sea. Key to this is understanding the culture involved, of friend and foe alike.

As General Anthony ZInni asked back in 1998, “What is it about their society that’s so remarkably different in their values, in the way they think, compared to my values and the way I think in my western, white-man mentality?” We don’t need theories about Fourth Generation Warfare with its state-centric (and tempo-centric and false) demarcations of the nature of conflict.

Doesn’t it seem that to understand why the models and theories described by the authors above, and countless more, work an awareness, if not understanding, of the casual factors is required? Too often contextualization of others, friend or foe, is within our own mental frames. This is normal, but when looking for strategy to prevent to stop conflict the denying the sea requires an understanding of that particular sea and how the fish operate.

As McFate’s 2005 title suggests, Anthropology and Counterinsurgency the Strange Story of their Curious Relationship, there is more than simply today at play. We talk about long memories in the Middle East, for example, but do we act like we care?

Smith’s 2004 Avoiding a Napoleonic Ulcer: Bridging the Gap of Cultural Intelligence (or Have We Focused on the Wrong Transformation) is a useful read:

“The parallels of Napoleon’s challenges in Spain with the challenges of contemporary coalition forces in Iraq are striking. While there is a danger in attempting to take historical parallels too far, some similarities are too close to ignore. Moreover, such similarities may reflect the failure to understand the local populace within campaign planning. That understanding forms the bedrock for any successful post-hostility occupation phase.”

The transformation focus is interesting considering the DoD’s announcement to increase incentives to learn a foreign language. This whole discussion on Cultural Warfare / Intelligence strikes at a) the need for the State Department (and the whole of Government) to better engage in public diplomacy through same or similar tools to engage friends and have them inhibit our foes, and b) the misleading theory of Fourth Generation Warfare (had to highlight this) and its setting of conflict in Western socio-economic and temporal frames.