Book Review: Counterinsurgency. Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War

  Version française disponible ici.

I/ The author

Douglas Porch is an American military historian, professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1971 from Corpus Christi College (University of Cambridge), he taught at the Naval War College in Newport, the US Army War College in Carlisle, and the NATO Defense College in Rome. His fields of specialization include French military and colonial history (Porch was a visiting scholar at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the early 1970s, and much of his work on France has since been translated), the military history of World War II, and the history of revolutionary and counterinsurgency wars.

Counterinsurgency, published in 2013, is devoted to the establishment of a critical genealogy of counterinsurgency warfare (“COunter-INsurgency warfare”, COIN). Through a detailed analysis of the great moments of counterinsurgency from the 19th century to the early 2000s, Porch underlines the profoundly inadequate character of the “methods” put forward by COIN theorists, while highlighting their colonial, racist and profoundly violent heritage, whose impact persists even in the most contemporary applications.

II/ From the “war within the population” to the “war against the population”: a critical history of counterinsurgency tactics

The main thesis developed in this book is that counterinsurgency operations do not constitute a specific nor singular category of armed conflict, as the proponents of theories of counterinsurgency warfare (those whom Porch calls “COIN-dinistas”) would have us believe. In reality, these theories constitute a heterogeneous set of “petty war tactics” (p.xi), which, since the middle of the nineteenth century, have been raised as a form of miracle method that, if well executed, would necessarily lead to the conquest, pacification and national consolidation of disputed territories. The history of counterinsurgency methods as presented by its proponents is more mythology than historical account, being based on partial and biased sources. All of them are directed towards a single goal, that is to tell a universally transposable story revolving around a small group of heroes who succeeded despite the weight of reluctant political authorities and conventional armies (or failed because of betrayal by the latter) in disregarding an unfavorable strategic context. By applying a number of tactics aimed at “winning the hearts and minds” of a culturally alien population, the army was able to flush out insurgents and eliminate any revolutionary tendencies. Porch’s goal is to demystify this romanticized narrative by establishing a critical history of counterinsurgency theories and their application from the colonial “small wars” (Chapter 1) to the “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus and his team in 2007 (Chapter 10) in three Western countries that could be described as imperialist: France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

More specifically, Porch identifies through this history of counterinsurgency five major problems posed by COIN, which should lead to the recognition of the inadequacy of the theories and methods put forward by the “COIN-dinistas” and their rejection outside of academic and especially military spheres.

The first and foremost of these problems is that COIN proponents propose a fundamentally flawed understanding of warfare, where tactics prevail over strategy (a view philosophically inherited from the teachings of Antoine de Jomini, according to the author) when Porch defends Clausewitz’s position that strategy must necessarily determine tactics, not the other way around. The “COIN-dinistas” justify this inversion by asserting that counter-insurgency warfare constitutes a singular category of armed conflict, not corresponding to the rules of conventional warfare. On the contrary, the historian affirms and demonstrates throughout his book that “war is war” (p.317): counterinsurgency war is a war like any other, where tactics are and will always be subordinated to the strategic and political context.

But what then are the reasons for the persistence of COIN-dinistas to stubbornly support an approach that is clearly strategically inadequate? For Porch, it is essentially because this approach allows its supporters within the military to “escape civilian-democratic control” (p.xi). This is the second problem with COIN: the application of counterinsurgency theories systematically leads to a politicization of the military and a “civil-military fusion” (pp. 122, 341) that is profoundly damaging.

The third problem identified by Porch concerns the systematic violence in the application of counterinsurgency methods towards civilian populations: presenting itself in theory as a “war within the population”, counterinsurgency always becomes in practice a “war against the population” (p. 225). According to the historian, this violence is in large part the mark of imperial roots in counterinsurgency methods: “when contemporary COIN practitioners describe their craft as “war within the population”, they are inheriting a mode of operation that in effect targets “the people” through assassination, rape, deprivation, internment, and intimidation in order to deprive resistants of their support base and, indeed, of any reason to continue living” (pp. 20-21).

The fourth problem Porch identifies is also related to COIN’s colonial roots: it concerns the so-called “cultural understanding” at the heart of counterinsurgency theories. For Porch, this understanding is in fact nothing more than a form of deceptive orientalism, as the anthropological and linguistic techniques promoted by past and present COIN-dinistas are riddled with racial and cultural stereotypes that actually impede any real understanding of the local strategic and political context.

The fifth and final problem with COIN is the claim by some COIN-dinistas (most notably Richard Duncan Downie) that soldiers trained in counterinsurgency have a greater capacity to learn and adapt than soldiers in a conventional army, and are therefore more likely to win in a complex asymmetric conflict. However, Porch demonstrates, with examples, that this claim is false: a conventional army learns and adapts just as well (if not better) than a counterinsurgent force, even in asymmetric conflicts. For instance, in the context of the Vietnam War – often held up as an example by Downie and his supporters – the historian demonstrates that “far from not learning as the war progressed, American forces and the U.S. government were constantly experimenting, adjusting, and reorganizing in an attempt to discover formulas for success” (p. 210).

These five major problems ultimately constitute, according to Porch, as many reasons to reject the theories and advocacies of contemporary COIN-dinistas outside of the military and academy.

III/ A publication rooted in the debates surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Concerning the motivations that led to the writing of Counterinsurgency, Douglas Porch mentions in his preface the discussions held with his students at the Naval Postgraduate School as well as the death of one of his former students, Major John Loftis, in Afghanistan. It is important to note, however, that the historian also began writing his book in 2010 with the more or less declared goal of becoming part of a theoretical and strategic debate about the relevance of counterinsurgency theories to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Warren Chin notes, there was still a consensus within the American political and military establishment at the time that counterinsurgency theories (and more specifically the FM 3-24 manual published in 2006 by David Petraeus and his team, which led to the “surge” of 2007) played a key role in the American victory in Iraq, and that these theories could have led relatively quickly to victory in Afghanistan without political sabotage1Chin, Warren (2015). “Colonial Wars, Post-Colonial States: A Debate on the War on Terror”. ReOrient. Vol. 1(1):93-107. p.94. In this sense, Porch’s book is an articulate response to a number of authors (the contemporary COIN-dinistas he keeps referring to) whose theses were dominant at the time. Among the latter, we can obviously mention David Petraeus himself, but also and above all in the academic and military spheres authors such as Thomas Mockaitis, Andrew Krepinevich, Richard Duncan Downie, John Nagl, John Arquilla and David Kilcullen. The book’s inclusion in this debate thus sheds new light on the virulence of Porch’s criticism, insofar as, as the American political scientist and specialist in counter-insurgency warfare Jacqueline Hazelton points out, reputations and entire careers were at stake at the time of the book’s publication, as much as the immediate strategic interests of the United States (the war in Afghanistan was still going on at the time) and the lives of all the soldiers mobilized2Hazelton, Jacqueline L (2014). “Review : Douglas Porch. Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War.” in H-Diplo/ISSF Review Essay, n.22, 2014. p.3.

As for the book’s criticizable elements, Jacqueline Hazelton notes that the tone and highly critical arguments of the book suggest that it is “unlikely to change the beliefs [of counterinsurgency theorists]”, in fact, appealing primarily to readers not already engaged in the counterinsurgency debate3Ibid.. Unmerciful, Karl Walling considers that “the book is written in an angry, highly polemical, and deeply biased tone”4Walling, Karl (2014) “Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 67: No. 3, Article 13. p.150, and that despite a successful attempt at an intellectual genealogy of counterinsurgency, the book loses itself in a “critique of special operations in general, which seems unnecessary to Porch’s argument and at times distracts from it”5Ibid.. Finally, two criticisms that may seem paradoxical at first glance must be noted. The first, by Christy Quinn, finds Porch’s historical analysis problematic in that “it arguably gives too much weight to the importance of counterinsurgency in determining the direction of complex political and colonial conflicts”6Quinn, Christy (2017). “Review : Douglas Porch. Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War”, Strife Journal, Issue 7 (May/June 2017). p.68. Indeed, one can legitimately wonder after reading the book whether the desire to position oneself clearly in the context of the debate on the relevance of COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan may not have weighed at some moments on the analysis conducted by the historian. The second, expressed in a highly critical review by David Ucko, points to Porch’s “insistence on attributing the success or failure of past counterinsurgencies to the ‘strategic environment,’ as if it were an independent, unchangeable variable”7Ucko, David H (2014). “Critics gone wild: Counterinsurgency as the root of all evil”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 25:1, 161-179, p.168. It is indeed notable in reading the book that Porch does not cease to assert the supremacy of strategy over tactics, without explicitly defining the two terms or clearly identifying the means of action that could or should have been mobilized in each of the historical cases studied.


Elias Brugidou

Elias Brugidou

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