The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24

Summary:  building COIN strategies upon our ability to successfully change foreign societies (from information operations up to governmental reform) is like basing our monetary policy on our ability to change straw into gold.


The United States has suffered several devastating 4GW attacks since WWII, perhaps the two worst being…

(1)  Ignoring the recommendation of the Moynihan Report (”The Negro Family: The Case For National Action“, US Department of Labor, March 1965).  Instead of providing government support to black Americans in a way that supported their families, Federal support was exquisitely designed to undermine their family and community structures.  The result is a large almost dysfunctional underclass, with areas like Harlem in worse shape than they were in 1964.  (see Obama’s comment, below)

(2)  After 50 years of lies, the credibility of the US government in the eyes of its people has been shattered, so that its statements are widely considered lies.  “Never believe anything the government says until the second denial.”  Economic statistics are considered manipulated by many on Wall Street.  Many African-Americans believe that the US government distributed crack and started the AIDS epidemic.

That is, these would have been devastating 4GW attacks on America, of the fashionable “cultural warfare” and info-ops variants — except that we were the agents.  These are major failures in our government’s social engineering.  We have to do better; our apparent inability to do so is a major factor in the decline of the state.  But that is not the point of this post.

If basic social engineering is often beyond our capabilities at home — where our knowledge and tools are considerable — what about our ability to do this in foreign lands, the keystone to modern COIN theory?  For example, before doing info-ops or seeking to alter a society, what must one know about that society?

Excerpt from FM 3-24 (the new COIN manual)

3-36. Once the social structure has been thoroughly mapped out, staffs should identify and analyze the culture of the society as a whole and of each major group within the society. Social structure comprises the relationships among groups, institutions, and individuals within a society; in contrast, culture (ideas, norms, rituals, codes of behavior) provides meaning to individuals within the society. F or example, families are a core institutional building block of social structure found everywhere. However, marital monogamy, expectations of a certain number of children, and willingness to live with in-laws are highly variable in different societies.  They are matters of culture.

Social structure can be thought of as a skeleton, with culture being the muscle on the bones. The two are mutually dependent and reinforcing. A change in one results in a change in the other.

How many Army officers could sketch out such a description of their hometowns?   At least this is possible for a team of experts to produce.  But how many people with such deep knowledge of foreign regions does DoD have?  Very few, if our lack of expertise about Iraq before the invasion is typical.  Will DoD have the necessary area experts on staff to plan the next war (e.g., Indonesia)?

Once they have this knowledge, what will our COIN warriors do in these foreign lands?

5-1. Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations require synchronized application of military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions. Successful counterinsurgents support or develop local institutions with legitimacy and the ability to provide basic services, economic opportunity, public order, and security.  The political issues at stake are often rooted in culture, ideology, societal tensions, and injustice.  As such, they defy nonviolent solutions.

Military forces can compel obedience and secure areas; however, they cannot by themselves achieve the political settlement needed to resolve the situation.  Successful COIN efforts include civilian agencies, U.S. military forces, and multinational forces. These efforts purposefully attack the basis for the insurgency rather than just its fighters and comprehensively address the host nation’s core problems.  Host-nation (HN) leaders must be purposefully engaged in this effort and ultimately must take lead responsibility for it.

Can we send some of these teams to America’s inner cities?  They need help, even after a 25-year long economic expansion (Detroit is already the urban equivalent of a failed state).  Their assistance will be desperately needed after the next recession, esp. if it is severe and long.

FM 3-24 has pages of this stuff.  FM 3-24 effectively uses social science terminology and analytical frameworks to describe COIN dynamics.  But it advocates using social science theories to manipulate foreign societies.  This will likely fail on several levels.

  1. It will not work, as the social sciences are as yet immature.  Its practitioners cannot wield their theories as can chemists and physicists.  Twentieth century history is largely a series of failed attempts at social engineering.
  2. If US social scientists were able to do so at home, that does not mean that they can do so in foreign lands.
  3. If this was possible to do in foreign lands, the US military might not have the necessary organization or talent to do so.  This probably requires Thomas Barnett’s “System Administrators“, a 21st century organization of colonial civil servants.

This does not mean that all or even most of the advice in FM 3-24 is bad.  Just that FM 3-24’s analytical foundation is probably inadequate for its purpose, which should make us suspicious of its efficacy.  Rather than a work of science, it might be more like a cookbook — or like a 19th century apothecary’s handbook.  Events in Iraq will tell us much about these things, if carefully and coldly considered.

Conclusion and notes

FM 3-24 is a theoretical solution to 4GW of the second kind (hardware, ideas, people).   Like most such, its content is exciting but our ability to implement it seems questionable.  COIN might be like a star drive or quantum-point energy source — something valuable but beyond our current knowledge.

For more on the Moynihan report see “Moynihan, Welfare Reform, and the Myth of “Benign Neglect”“, Larry DeWitt, October 2005.

Barack Obama commented on the impact of government aid programs on black Americans in his speech “A More Perfect Union” (18 March 2008):

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference pages on the right side menu bar.  Of special relevance to this post:

  1. America – how can we reform it?
  2. Military and strategic theory

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some of the posts about the theory of FM 3-24:

  1. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  2. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
  3. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008

Some of the posts about COIN:

  1. COIN making life better for an American city (is this good news?), 5 June 2008
  2. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  3. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008

5 thoughts on “The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24

  1. zenpundit

    If basic social engineering is often beyond our capabilities at home — where our knowledge and tools are considerable — what about our ability to do this in foreign lands, the keystone to modern COIN theory? For example, before doing info-ops or seeking to alter a society, what must one know about that society?

    Sage point. There is a flip side to this dynamic though and the Moynihan report illustrates it. At times, a society gridlocks around societal taboos, honor systems, perceptions of face etc. that turns fairly mundane policy problems into intractable political ones ( in Moynihan’s case, race), Gordian Knots that outsiders immediately see through or can cut through if they get into a position where their action spares the local actors a loss of prestige or status. That last bit should be uppermost when we have to act regarding a sensitive issue, the results must be ones that also leave the locals feeling relieved rather than humiliated.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Interesting idea. Any examples?


  2. zenpundit

    Far too many.

    The Japanese of the Meji-Taisho-Showa era had a particular difficulty breaking high level deadlocks over policy because by custom, the Emperor did not intervene directly and explicitly in factional disputes. Having no socially ( much less politically) acceptable way to back down, factions were left with flat denial of reality or violence ( assassinations, uprisings or suicide) that would demonstrate the sincerity of their motives. The inability to make strategic decisions of the China quagmire, for example, led the Japanese military to contemplate attacking either the USSR or the United States and Britain. Once the Pacific War turned sour, as with China, the military had no acceptable way to address defeat and surrender, so WWII continued until the atomic bombings forced Hirohito to break tradition.

    Around the same time, Stalin’s personalized paranoid totalitarianism made it impossible fr Soviet leaders to prepare for the Nazi invasion, despite a wealth of evidence and warnings that an attack was coming.

    Then there is George Ball’s account of being the lone dissenter in LBJ’s inner circle regarding the failure of LBJ’s policies in Vietnam and the unwillingness of the Pentagon and the White House to address strategic and policy failure or even accept factual reports.

    This appears to be a common problem – Tuchman’s March of Folly has other historical examples.


  3. mal

    Counterinsurgency Doctrine and the Global Jihad“, Jim Sauer, American Thinker, 18 October 2009
    FM Note: This comment was the full text of Sauer’s article, which I have deleted — adding in the citation (which was not in the comment). Please do not post articles, esp long and well-written ones like Sauer’s. The Am Thinker deserves to get the traffic from their work. If copyrighted material, doing so is illegal. It’s always appropriate to post a brief comment explaining why people should read an article, and provide the details (title, author, site, date) and a link.


  4. anna nicholas

    The thing COIN doesnt address is nationalism or even village-ism . However polite , empathic, just and generous a bunch of invadors are , and however loathsome one’s own gov , some will resist just because it is an invasion . Either with bread knives in the dead of night , or by hindrance ( unsigned cheques, mispelt documents, etc ) . The wannabe invadors would do better to buy up assets, become major employers , infiltrate gov , bribe testimonials from the heroes ….


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