The Myth of the Better War

The faulty history that lures Americans into foolish foreign interventions


Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, by Colonel Gian Gentile, The New Press, 208 pages, $24.95.

Army Col. Gian Gentile, a professor of history at West Point and a combat veteran, begins his book Wrong Turn on a personal note: by acknowledging the sacrifices and hardships that his unit, the Eighth Squadron, Tenth Cavalry, encountered while conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq in 2006. Five members of the unit were killed in action. Many more were seriously wounded. They witnessed unconscionable brutality perpetrated against Iraqis by other Iraqis in the course of a horrific civil war. These scenes are so seared into their memory, Gentile writes, "that one's joy for life would never be the same." It is immediately apparent what motivated Gentile to write this book.

His object is equally clear: "to drive a stake through the heart of the notion that counterinsurgency has worked in the past and will therefore work in the future." Specifically, Gentile challenges the widely accepted idea that America's counterinsurgency wars—in Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan—"were made better simply by enlightened generals and improved tactics." On the contrary, Gentile demonstrates the considerable continuity in military operations between William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams in Vietnam, George Casey and David Petraeus in Iraq, and David McKiernan and Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. But the myth of the better war waged by better men has been used to rally the American people to support foreign interventions that seemed lost. And Gentile fears that the faith in counterinsurgency (COIN) will encourage similar misadventures in the future.

Gentile goes back to the foundation of the "better war" narrative: the British campaign to crush a communist insurgency in Malaya (now Malaysia) from 1948 to 1960. The conventional wisdom holds that the British effort under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Harold Briggs was teetering on collapse in late 1951. In early 1952, the story continues, Gen. Gerald Templer arrived on the scene, and the situation immediately improved. Contemporary observers concluded that the apparent turnaround was driven by Templer's strategy of protecting the Malayan population and thus draining support away from the insurgents.

That narrative is largely incorrect. "The primary historical record," Gentile writes, "shows that there was no discontinuity" between Briggs and Templer. Both were committed to implementing the Briggs Plan: a massive and often brutal resettlement program that relocated hundreds of thousands of people suspected of sympathizing with the insurgents (chiefly members of the ethnic Chinese minority in Malaya).

In retrospect, the British victory was never much in doubt. The Malayan Communist fighters never numbered more than 7,500. The ethnic Malays were generally supportive of the British counterinsurgency campaign because they opposed a communist takeover of their country. "It was a war," Gentile observes, "that would have been very difficult for the British to lose."

Nevertheless, a slew of scholars and pundits seized upon Templer's supposed rescue of victory from near certain defeat to sell a better war effort in Vietnam. Even if the conventional wisdom about the Malay conflict had been correct, their arguments would have been faulty, since the two conflicts bore almost no resemblance. Vietnam was vastly larger and more complicated than what the British encountered in Malaya. And the British did not win over the local population so much as they resettled them. When the South Vietnamese government attempted similar forcible relocations, the effort backfired, undermining the government's already waning political legitimacy.

The point about legitimacy cannot be overstated. Insurgencies arise because of weak, and usually corrupt, governments. When the United States, or any other foreign power, intervenes on behalf of that government, it can only help to the extent that that foreign partner is in a position to eventually command respect—and recover its authority—from a substantial portion of the population. U.S. strategy could not force the South Vietnamese government to implement crucial reforms in order to win over the Vietnamese people. Contrary to the claims of the "better war" school, the communists had a deep core of support, not least because of the pervasive corruption within all levels of the South Vietnamese government.

The United States' nation-building failures, in short, cannot be reduced to military personnel employing the wrong tactics or weak-kneed American politicians unwilling to pursue victory at all costs. They reflect the deep political dysfunction in places that are nation-states in name only. Not all countries will be as deeply divided as Iraq; not all will be as poor as Afghanistan. But most nation-building missions fail, and the few successes take extraordinary expenditures of time, blood and treasure.

Gentile does admit that there were some changes under Abrams, Petraeus, and McChrystal, respectively, but he contends that they were more of degree than of kind. "Tactical and organizational improvements do not save wars fought under failed strategy," he explains, in what is arguably the most important passage in the entire work.  The obsession with COIN diverts people attention away from motives (why we fight) to means (how we fight). It turns the entire enterprise of warfare on its head, elevating properly conducted military operations as ends in themselves. But wars are supposed to serve a political purpose.

As such, and contrary to General Douglas MacArthur's famous statement in 1949 that in war "there is no substitute for victory," Gentile points out that "sometimes, in a war that involves limited policy aims, there may well be alternatives to victory. Moreover, as was the case with MacArthur, it is not ultimately a general's call to decide that in war there is no substitute for victory. That decision rests with political leaders."

The surge narrative was employed to rescue the war in Iraq by rallying the American people to the cause of open-ended, armed nation-building. That effort failed. The vast majority of Americans consider the war to have been a colossal blunder. Even if the addition of tens of thousands more U.S. troops in early 2007 (i.e., the surge) coincided with a decline in violence among Iraqis, that does not mean it caused the decline. Gentile points to evidence suggesting the trends were improving well before the first surge troops arrived in Iraq.

More to the point, the American people's appetite for the war in Iraq waned when they perceived that the costs, in blood and treasure, far outweighed the benefits. The decline in Iraqi violence, whether driven by the surge or (more likely) by a combination of factors, didn't change people's minds. The war was not worth fighting at the time of the surge, and it wasn't worth fighting after the surge either. In general, the American people, quite wisely, are not willing to stay for as long as it takes, nor to spend as much as it takes, to convert failed states into healthy ones.

Perhaps most importantly, neither are many members of the military. For those men and women on "the sharp end," Gentile explains, the reality of COIN warfare is becoming clearer by the day. In the end, they will have to sell the idea that better war-fighting tactics don't immediately convert previously dubious interventions into conflicts worth fighting.

In the closing pages, Gentile notes that "a story of failure and redemption" appeals to Americans, and especially to the troops who want desperately to believe that their sacrifices were worthwhile. Likewise, members of the military are attracted to COIN because it casts U.S. actions with "the ostensible moral objective of protecting innocent civilians and making their lives better."

"I lost five men from my cavalry squadron in west Baghdad in 2006—I understand this moral need," Gentile concludes, "But I also understand the need for truth, and in the end, to me, the truth…is more important for the American military and the American people than the maintenance of the myth."