The Myth of the Better War

Faulty history lures Americans into foolish 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 combat veteran and professor of history at West Point, begins his book 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, he writes, "that one's joy for life would never be the same." It is immediately apparent what motivated Gentile to write Wrong Turn.

Gentile's 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, he 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."

This myth of the better war waged by better men has been used to rally the American people to support foreign interventions and re-interventions into situations that seemed lost. An exaggerated faith in counterinsurgency (COIN) will encourage similar misadventures in the future, he warns.

The "better war" narrative began with the British campaign to crush a communist insurgency in Malaya (now Malaysia) from 1948 to 1960. 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, ultimate British victory was never much in doubt. The Malayan Communist fighters never numbered more than 7,500. 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 seized upon Templer's supposed rescue of victory from near-certain defeat to sell a better-war effort in Vietnam. The narrative of the war there shifted from battlefield victories to pacifying rural populations. Minor successes convinced U.S. Army Gen. Creighton Abrams that "everybody's kind of happy out there in Long An and Hua Nghia [provinces] because there isn't much going on." The general and his staff focused on good news to boost morale, but then started believing their own spin.

That, in turn, helped spin some historians. According to Lewis Sorley in his 1999 book, A Better War, American tactics "changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams taking command." The better war narrative suggested that victory was achievable, if only U.S. political leaders had had the intestinal fortitude to stick with Abrams' approach, modeled as it was on the British experience in Malaya.

But even if the conventional wisdom about the Malay conflict had been true, applying it to Vietnam was fundamentally flawed, because 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.

That 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 disgruntled population. Washington 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 money.

Gentile does acknowledge that there were some positive changes under Gens. Abrams in Vietnam, David Petraeus in Iraq, and Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. 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 writes, in what is arguably the most important passage in the entire work.

The obsession with COIN diverts 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 serve political purposes as well.

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 rally the American people to the cause of open-ended, armed nation building. That effort failed; the vast majority of Americans still consider the war to have been a colossal blunder. The public's appetite for the war in Iraq waned when they realized that the costs far outweighed the benefits, and their attitudes didn't improve after Petraeus' MacArthur-esque arrival in Baghdad. A June 2008 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans considered the war in Iraq to have been a mistake, up from 53 percent in December 2006.

This skepticism was warranted. Even if the addition of tens of thousands more U.S. troops in early 2007 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. That was not the lesson drawn by American elites, however, who believed that it had been so effective that it should be emulated in Afghanistan. Now the public has turned decisively against that war, too.

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 convince civilians that better war-fighting tactics don't transform dubious interventions into worthy conflicts.

In the closing pages, Gentile notes that "a story of failure and redemption" appeals to Americans, 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 links 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."