Summary: In this third chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld describes the operational differences between winning and losing methods of counterinsurgency. Victory comes to those who take difficult paths. Most nations take the easier path, and lose.
As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) of our mad foreign wars winds down — and the second phase expands — we can still learn from this analysis by one of the West’s greatest living military historians. We can still turn off this path. The passage of time closes options; we might soon pass the last exit to avoid serious war.
“On Counterinsurgency” by Martin van Creveld
From Combating Terrorism, edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005). Posted with the authors’ generous permission.
For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.
This paper has into 4 parts, posted separately.
- How We Got to Where We Are is a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
- Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies in dealing with counterinsurgency.
- On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
Part three: On Power and Compromises
According to the well-known proverb, success has many fathers whereas failure is an orphan. However true this may be in respect to every other aspect of life, in the case of counter-insurgency clearly it does not apply.
As noted, entire libraries have been written on counter-insurgency campaigns that failed. Often the authors were the very people who had participated in, or were responsible for, the failures in question. For example, the term “low intensity war” itself was invented by the British General Frank Kitson; having taken part in a whole series of them, he was finally made commandant of the Staff College so he could teach others how it should be done. Very great efforts have been made to analyze the reasons and suggest ways to avoid a repetition. Judging by the way the Americans are conducting themselves in Iraq, to no avail.
By comparison, very little has been written about counterinsurgency campaigns that succeeded. One reason for this is because, since 1941, the number of such successes has been so limited that nine out of ten people cannot even remember them.
Another is because the methods used may be so unsavory as to make it difficult for soi-disant civilized persons to write about them or, which is probably even worse, attract research money for them. Here again I may call on my own experience as a military scholar. Years ago I spent months trying to interest people in and around the Pentagon in the way Asad pere had operated, first in Hama and then in putting an end to the Lebanese civil war and bringing that country under his control. Had such a study been available today, it might actually have done some good; however, nobody cared.
Thus, whoever will look to the modern literature on the subject will do so almost entirely in vain. Nevertheless, for those who, instead of feeble excuses, want real answers an excellent short analysis of how it should be, and has been, done is readily available. In chapters viii and xvii of The Prince the 16th century writer, Niccolo Machiavelli, explains the way a ruler should use cruelty when necessary. To prevent misunderstanding, let it be said that there are such circumstances; and that no one who does not recognize this should ever aspire to rule any country except Disneyland.
This much having been conceded, what Machiavelli, using examples from the ancient world as well as his own time, has to say boils down to 4 points.
(1) Strike suddenly
Should you feel you have no choice left but to resort to cruelty, then the blow should be sudden. The more like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky it comes, the greater the effect; therefore, continue to talk softly while secretly completing your preparations.
(2) Strike hard
Having made up your mind to strike, you cannot strike hard enough. Better to kill too many people than too few. Strike so hard as to make sure you do not have to strike again; or else, the very fact that you have to do so will weaken the impact of your original blow. Besides, you must consider the effect a repetition will have on your troops. However well trained and hard bitten they may be, if they are made to commit one atrocity after another (and very likely resort to alcohol or drugs in order to muster the necessary will), it will only be a matter of time before they become demoralized.
Facing an organization most of whose operations are covert, it is an illusion to think that you can ever “get” all or even most of them at once — something not even Saddam Hussein, using gas against the Kurds, succeeded in doing. Even if you do, chances are that, like the mythological hydra, the organization in question will re- constitute itself.
Witness the French interception and arrest of the entire FLN leadership back in 1956; just 6 years later, the same people were sitting across their captors at Evian and negotiating the independence of their country. To prevent this from happening, while aiming to kill as many insurgents and their leaders as possible your true target should be the spirit of the population from whom they draw their support and without whom they cannot exist. To put Mao on his head: you must refuse to admit a distinction between “active” fish and the “passive” sea in which they swim.
In other words, the true objective of your strike is less to kill people than to display your ruthlessness and your willingness to go to any lengths to achieve your objective-a war on hearts and minds, only in reverse. Clausewitz once wrote that war is a moral and physical contest by means of the latter. The same is even more true of the massacre that accompanies a war; if you do it right, it may even prevent a war. Careful consideration should therefore be given to the means.
Forget about infantry, it is too slow. Riding in APCs, it cannot see anything. [EDITOR: not true, look at the pic of the M113 Gavin in Iraq. Infantry can see in all directions from open hatches behind gunshields] Riding in soft vehicles, it is too vulnerable (currently the War in Iraq is causing a whole literature to develop about this subject). Its weapons are small and will only kill people one by one. Besides, if the enemy has similar weapons and fights back, then the process is going to be very expensive. Early in April 2004, 5 days’ fighting cost the U.S marine brigade at Fallujah 10% of its troops in casualties (killed and wounded). Yet when the operation ended the Brigade had only re-taken 10% of the city; had the marines continued in this way, it might have become a second Stalingrad.
Airpower and missiles are much better, but still problematic because they are deployed from a distance so that the victims, being unable to see who is massacring them, will not be properly impressed by your determination. Modern airpower also has two other disadvantages.
First, it is too fast. Fighter-bombers appear out of nowhere. They discharge their weapons and disappear; just as a colony of ants that is stirred with a stick will quickly recover, so their disappearance permits the opponent to recover their breath.
Second, most of the precision-guided weapons it uses carry relatively small warheads and can only do limited damage to selected targets. For example, following 3 months’ continuous bombardment by a thousand NATO aircraft 95% of Belgrade were still standing. To inflict real damage, old-fashioned, heavy, dumb iron bombs are much superior. The problem is that only one country, i.e. the U.S, still retains the kind of bomber force that can carry them in any numbers; and even in its case that force is down to 1/6 of what it used to be.
Everything considered, and recalling Asad at Hama, the weapon of choice should probably be artillery. Heavy guns are sufficiently accurate to be aimed at individual targets, especially, as is desirable, if they can be made to fire point blank. At the same time they are sufficiently powerful to do just the kind of spectacular damage you want; to see the results, search the Internet for pictures of Hama. Unlike aircraft, they can fire non-stop for hours, even days. Still their greatest advantage is that they can be deployed in such a way that, before being blown to hell, the victims can look straight into the muzzles of the guns that are trained at them. When Napoleon famously spoke of a whiff of grapeshot, he knew what was he was talking about.
(3) Be unashamed; act openly
Do what you have to do openly. At any cost, prevent the media from messing with your operations while they are going on. Once you are done, though, you should not try to hide them or explain them away; indeed you should do exactly the opposite. There should be no apologies, no kwetching about collateral damage caused by mistake, innocent lives regrettably lost, “excesses” that will be investigated and brought to trial, and similar signs of weakness.
Instead, make sure that as many people as possible can see, hear, smell, and touch the results; if they can also taste them, e.g. by inhaling the smoke from a burning city, then so much the better. Invite journalists to admire the headless corpses rolling in the streets, film them, and write about them. Do, however, make sure they do not talk to any of the survivors so as not to arouse sympathy.
(4) Appoint someone else to do the dirty work
Do not command the strike yourself but have somebody else do it for you — if at all possible, without ever giving him written orders. This method has the advantage that, if your designated commander succeeds, you can take the credit. Presenting yourself to the world, you will offer no regrets and shed no tears. Instead you will explain why it absolutely had to be done and make sure everybody understands that you are ready to do it again at a moment’s notice.
But what if, for one reason or another, your deputy fails and resistance, instead of being broken, increases? In that case, you can always disown him and try another course such as negotiation.
Whether Asad read Machiavelli is doubtful. Be that as it may, by his operations in Hama he gave clear proof that he knew what he was doing. Of course his actions deserve to be called horrible, barbaric, cruel, and inhuman. Yet not only did he die peacefully in his bed, but he probably saved Syria from a civil war in which far more people might have died; over 20 years later the results continued to speak for themselves.
Events at Hama have not been forgotten and continue to be denounced when and where opportune. Still, as far as Asad’s international standing goes they did him little damage. If he was perceived as a brutal dictator, at any rate the greatest crime he committed was in the past; there was no need for an endless series of small crimes, as with those who take a more gradual approach. He emerged as an effective ruler with effective forces at his command with whom it was possible to do business. Provided you have what it takes to do what is necessary, the Asad method promises better, and certainly faster, results than any other.
If, on the other hand, one reason or another prevents you from emulating him, then the other approach is the British one in Northern Ireland. However, doing so is very hard and the method may not be practical for the troops of certain nations who simply do not possess the necessary mind-set.
For example, the Americans combine aggressiveness with impatience. Putting blind faith in technology and using far more firepower than is needed, they regularly end up by alienating whomever they face-as happened in Vietnam, Somalia, and now in Iraq.
Or take the Israelis. As anyone who has been to Israel knows, they are the least disciplined people on earth. As long as they fought Blitzkrieg campaigns against external enemies this factor worked in their favor, given that individual soldiers often displayed high courage, initiative, and resourcefulness. However, faced with a struggle where self-restraint is everything they are apt to make a mess of it. A long legacy of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, also causes Israelis to combine self-pity with the shedding of crocodile tears. As Ms. Meir supposedly said, “we are angry with the Palestinians for forcing us to shoot them”. Whoever feels like this will hardly win a counter-insurgency campaign.
The first indispensable condition for adopting the British method is to have truly excellent troops and even better officers to command them and keep them in line. Next come professionalism, strict discipline, and endless patience.
Yet none of these will be of any avail if there is not also present a certain mixture of phlegmatism and pride. Only pride will prevent one from hitting innocent people who are far weaker than you, thus making new enemies faster than you can kill the old ones and creating a situation where, sooner or later, you are no longer able to look at yourself in the mirror.
Only phlegmatism can make a unit take casualties and keep going, if necessary for years. Until the other side, realizing he will never be able to provoke you or to cause you to disintegrate, will finally be ready to sit down with you and talk about peace.
On the surface of things the two approaches, the Asad one and the British one in Northern Ireland, are so different as to constitute direct opposites. This is true, but it is also true that, at a deeper level, they have something very important in common.
As the demoralization and progressive disintegration of so many counter-insurgent forces-from the French in Algeria through the Americans in Iraq-shows, the greatest problem they face is time. In an asymmetric struggle the insurgent, so long as he does not lose, wins; his very presence acts as the best possible proof that the counter-insurgent does not have thing well in hand. The situation of the counter- insurgent is just the opposite. As long as he does not win, he loses; as sure as night follows day, the result will be demoralization. Which, of course, is the prelude to defeat.
Each in its own way, both the Asad approach and the one the British, after much trial and error, adopted in Northern Ireland represents a way of dealing with this problem. The former forestalls demoralization by reducing the campaign to a sharp, powerful blow after which most of the troops will hopefully be able to wash their hands and go back to their barracks. The latter inculcates them with such strict self-control as to prevent them from losing their pride, thus enabling them to sustain their morale for a long time, perhaps forever.
Both approaches, the second perhaps even more than the first, require enormous courage and strength if they are to be consistently applied. Such being the case, it is no wonder that the vast majority of counter-insurgents tried to apply now one policy, one another, until they fell between two stools.
Take, as a perfect case in point, the Americans in Vietnam. Right from the beginning President John Kennedy announced his determination to bear any burden in the cause of liberty. However, the approach that he, and after him Lyndon Johnson, took belied their words. With domestic considerations in mind, neither President was prepared to go to the point where the domestic economy would be affected. Johnson’s slogan, indeed, was “guns and butter”; engaging in Vietnam, he was trying to win the war on poverty as well. Partly for this reason, partly because they feared Chinese intervention as had happened in Korea, both he and Kennedy adopted an approach that was reactive and incremental. Being reactive and incremental, to all the world it signified hesitancy, weakness, and a lack of will; and how could it be otherwise, given that most Americans had never even heard of Vietnam?
At times, the American desire to treat war as an instrument of politics looked as if they were begging their opponents to negotiate. Meeting a stony silence on Hanoi’s part, now they tried to bomb North Vietnam into surrender, now they called a unilateral halt to bombing. Now they fought all out, now they declared a holiday and agreed to a truce. Now they took over from the South Vietnamese, now they “Vietnamized” the war.
While this was going on they were constantly defending their record, trying to conceal the extent of the devastation they were inflicting-which, of course, came out nevertheless-and inventing excuses to explain why their troops were killing as many civilians as they did.
Against such a background it is scant wonder that the entire world, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese leadership presumably not excluded, soon understood that the U.S had no idea as to what it wanted to accomplish. Not having an idea, it allowed its course of action to be determined by the means at its disposal, putting the cart before the horse. As to the rest of the story and all the glorious deeds the Americans committed before pulling out, lo they are written on the Vietnam Memorial in the Mall in Washington D.C.
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Other post about the work of Martin van Creveld
Themes of MvC’s work:
- A history book to help us better understand our rapidly changing world – The Culture of War by Martin Van Creveld
- The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq, by Martin van Creveld — one of the major books about 4GW
- Women as soldiers – an update, 25 August 2009
- A discussion about advanced education of military personnel, 10 January 2010
- Martin van Creveld explains the essence of Airpower Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, 29 January 2010
- The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
- The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State, 8 November 2005
- What’s Going On in Greece? What does it mean?, 26 December 2008
- US Army – the antidote to US civil disorder, 3 January 2009
- Does this economic crisis make the State stronger – or is it another step in the decline of the state?, 16 January 2009
- The Decline of the State in Europe and the US, a big but invisible theme of current news, 9 May 2010
For a list of his publications and links to his other online works see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld