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The only certainty in war is that people kill and people die. Everything else is just hype. It is hype designed to convince soldiers to kill and die. It is hype meant to convince officers to send soldiers off to perform such obviously foolish tasks. Last but not least, it is hype designed to convince the general population that their side is winning. Despite this, and the fact that most people understand this dynamic on some level, men and women keep going off to fight and die; and society keeps giving them their blessing.
US Army Colonel Gian Gentile repeats the facts above often in his recently published book Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. Gentile, who served as a unit commander in the war in Iraq and teaches at West Point, breaks down the 2007 Army publication Field Manual 3-24 (FM 3-24) Counterinsurgency from the perspective of a professional soldier. In other words, he is not opposed to war, but to the pretense that the doctrine put forth in FM 3-24 is something different than the same old killing and dying. The doctrine put forth in this manual—and put into practice in Iraq and then Afghanistan—“did not match at all the complexity…of what (he) confronted in western Baghdad in 2006.”
Gentile takes apart the counterinsurgency doctrine, or COIN as it is known in military parlance, piece by piece. He examines the previous experiences of imperial war the doctrine is based on; the British experience in Malaya and the US experience in Vietnam, and explains why these do not apply to the situation the US created/found itself in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only are the differences too great for these different operations to be compared, argues Gentile, but by doing so the US military is deceiving itself and the people that sent them into those countries.
The overriding point made in Wrong Turn is that there is nothing new, different or even effective about the COIN doctrine described in FM 3-24. In fact, states the author, the COIN narrative is just that: a narrative and nothing more. Unfortunately for the US public, however, it is a narrative that has been bought hook, line and sinker by the Pentagon, certain powerful politicians who like war, and the mainstream media. The underlying aspect of the narrative that is probably most harmful to the public is that this doctrine refuses to understand that the best way to end these wars is to simply end them. COIN doctrine takes the exact opposite tactic, believing that it can succeed in recreating the country under occupation into something the US can control. Gentile explains why this latter belief is just not true. In fact, he writes, the only way it could be true would be by expanding any such counterinsurgency operation with tens of thousands more troops and even more attacks on civilians then already occur. That is what the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were really about, and that is what the US was doing in Vietnam up until 1968, when popular sentiment turned against the war.
Colonel Gentile convincingly puts to rest the myth that counterinsurgency warmaking is soft power. The bottom line of any counterinsurgency operation, writes the colonel, is killing. He explains this statement further by telling the reader that there is no enlightened way to fight an insurgency. The bottom line to any such operation is to kill as many insurgents as you can and to neutralize their civilian support. This is what the US attempted in Vietnam, in Iraq and is continuing to do in Afghanistan.
Wrong Turn is not an antiwar book. Gentile is not a soldier turned against war. He does not question the practice of war to achieve US strategic goals. However, he does consider the current policy of the US military wrongheaded and deceitful. He decries the media obsession with “savior” generals like McChrystal and Petraeus, writing that there is no such thing and that no matter what the media and these generals tell the public, warmaking never really changed when these men took over operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the situation on the ground did change it was due to other factors having very little to do with who was leading the occupation forces. Indeed, according to Gentile, it had very little to do with the US forces at all. It is because Gentile’s text is not an expressly antiwar book that it might be most effective in convincing the public that the US policy overseas is wrong. It’s certainly worth recommending it.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.