A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual

FM 3-24 provides a basis for DoD’s people to describe a society. This is sketched out under “Describe the Effects of the Operational Environment” (3-16 through 3-65+) using standard social science definitions. This is valuable, as we cannot describe that for which we lack the words, and clear language promotes clear thinking.  Ths post discusses the problematic nature of the Army using language and concepts from the social sciences, following yesterday’s postdiscussing the limited operational utility of social science theories.

General Semantics teaches us that language is a process of abstraction, and can sometimes give just the illusion of knowledge. The map is not the territory. The name is not the thing itself. The deeper we go in this section of FM 3-24, the deeper gets the waters. To take a small example: as Americans we can talk about clans, races, and other groups … but understanding their hold on people’s minds and feelings is far more difficult. As we climb the ladder to more abstract concepts, their meaning becomes more difficult to grasp.

3-44. A value is an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end state of existence is preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end state of existence.

Values are the bedrock on which many people build their lives. Americans are taught in most colleges that facts and values are different things, a concept with roots in western philosophy going back to Hume. Believing that values are not facts puts one in a different cultural universe from that of many other peoples, who believe that their values are not personally chosen but instead rooted in reality … derived from God. The Army can teach the words, but the music is more difficult to learn.

An implied message of western social sciences can be that “we” are superior to “them”. After all, Max Weber taught “us” that values are just beliefs, while “they” do not know this — foolishly regarding their values as permanent and enduring facts about the universe. Armed with these insights, it must be difficult not to patronize the locals (especially in the ancient societies of the Middle East, which had a high civilization when the people of Britain painted themselves blue and worshiped trees). Even worse, these insights might encourage officers to believe they actually understand these foreign societies (much of the language in FM 3-24 encourages this). Worst of all would be belief that the Anthropology 101 concepts allow us to successfully manipulate foreign societies (see yesterday’s post for more about this last point. Much of the professional training in these fields is to overcome these tendencies.

As an example, consider one simple and clear typology from FM 3-24 (from the work of Max Weber):

3-63. Authority is legitimate power associated with social positions. It is justified by the beliefs of the obedient. There are three primary types of authority:

  • Rational-legal authority, which is grounded in law and contract, codified in impersonal rules, and most commonly found in developed, Western societies.
  • Charismatic authority, which is exercised by leaders who develop allegiance among their followers because of their unique, individual charismatic appeal, whether ideological, religious, political, or social.
  • Traditional authority, which is usually invested in a hereditary line or particular office by a higher power.

3-64. Traditional authority relies on the precedent of history. It is a common type of authority in non-Western societies. In particular, tribal and religious forms of organization rely heavily on traditional authority. Traditional authority figures often wield enough power, especially in rural areas, to single-handedly drive an insurgency. Understanding the types of authority at work in the formal and informal political systems of the AO helps counterinsurgents identify agents of influence who can help or hinder achieving objectives.

Weber’s has become the dominant view on authority among social scientists. It is analytically useful for sociologists, but that does not mean it is true. Or operationally useful for officers. If an Army Captain pegs a local leader as having “charismatic authority”, does he or she have knowledge — or the illusion of knowledge. And that assumes that his or her analysis is correct.

These are not value-neutral concepts, like equations in physics. These things apply to our beliefs just as much to the locals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if thought through take one into very dark regions of the mind and soul.

Consider FM 3-24’s sterile description of the three kinds of authority (above), and the depths beneath it as described by Allan Boom (under “Values” in Closing of the American Mind):

Of the three, charismatic legitimacy is the most important. No matter what conservatives may think, traditions had a beginning that was not traditional. They had a founder who was not a conservative or a traditionalist.

… The tradition is the continuing half-life of the charmed moment when a happy few could live on the heights of inspiration with the creator. Tradition adjusts that inspiration to the ordinary, universal motives of man, such as greed and vanity; it routinizes the charisma. … So charisma is the condition of both the charismatic and the traditional legitimacies. it is also the splendid form of legitimacy.

The rational is not informed by charisma, and the civil servants — bureaucrats — are therefore unable to make real decisions or take responsibility. They cannot, as we would say, determine the broad outlines of policy or, put more classically, establish ends. Mere competence can only serve already established goals and decide according to the established rules. it must be at least supplemented by charismatic leadership in order to be pointed in the right, or any, direction. So again charisma comes out on top.

Value creation, the activity that writes the table of laws by which a people is constituted and lives, is, as Nietzsche tells, the nut in the shell of existence.

… They {Weber’s 3 types} expressed his vision of the crisis of the 20th century. … The tradition-based regimes had exhausted their impulse and were simply becoming the administration for the “last man,” the intolerable negative pole. Imperative, then, was a stab at some form of charismatic leadership in order to revitalize the politics of the West.

… The problem with charismatic politics is that it is almost impossible to define … Charisma is a formula for extremism and immoderation. … And, finally, genuine charisma is so difficult to judge.

… Just over the horizon, when Weber wrote, lay Hitler. He was a leader, Fuhrer, who was certainly neither traditional nor rational-bureaucratic. He was the mad, horrible parody of the charismatic leader hoped for by Weber.

The intellectual framework of FM 3-24 is to a large extent that of social sciences. Trained people, like David Kilcullen and members of the Army’s Human Terrain Teams (HTT’s), can apply these concepts to yield insights and guide operations. But they are not the audience of FM 3-24. These concepts are intended to provide a simple framework for officers operating in strange lands. Instead they are sharp, complex instruments which might prove useless (too simplistic), too complex (ignored, as another layer on top of already too-complex operations), or so sharp that they bite us.

This is something which military leaders need to consider as they increasingly adopt social science theories, as in the 20th century they uncritically adopted “modern management” theories (e.g., Taylorism) — which, while useful in many ways, led to “innovations” such as the individual replacement system that substantially reduced the combat effectivness of US forces and were reversed only after several generations of effort.

An afternote, somewhat irrelevant to the above text

The narrative of the Long War specifies the standard reply, which has been repeated endlessly in many contexts since early months of the war: stories of officers who had tea with local sheiks (armed with the latest doctrines), bonded, came to a mutually satisfactory agreement, and all was well. Yet the war enters its sixth year, and all our senior politicos and military leaders assure that it will continue for years to come (at some high level of US involvement and cost) — with great benefits to America at some point in the future. This is difficult to refute, although it provides few grounds for confidence about the future. Only time will tell.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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4 thoughts on “A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual”

  1. Sometimes poets and authors say what I want to say better than any prose. George Bernard Shaw, I think the play is Man and Superman: “Forgive him, Caesar, for he is a barbarian, and thinks the customs and practices of his tribe are the laws of nature.”

  2. Could one learn from the world of business? The problem of culture and conflicts is a constant in the business world. Not only when a parent company sends out people of their own nationality to run businesses in other countries. But also when two companies of the same nationality merge can culture conflicts severely undermining any merger benefits.
    Fabius Maximus: that is a disturbing thought, as the failurie rate of mergers is aprox 3/4 (from the view of the shareholders of the acquiring firm).

  3. Roberto Buffagni

    If any of the Iraqui insurgents has got acquainted with the story of the American conquest of the Indian tribes, I doubt that he will trust very much American Viceroys.
    Fabius Maximus: That is a powerful insight! Also raises the question of the accuracy of such reports in the US media. These reports typically follow the narrative of “after person-to-person contact, the locals love us.” Perhaps so. I have more confidence in these reports if sometimes, once every few years, they said “After getting to know us, the locals in XXX village hate us.”

  4. Could one learn from the world of business? The problem of culture and conflicts is a constant in the business world. Not only when a parent company sends out people of their own nationality to run businesses in other countries. But also when two companies of the same nationality merge can culture conflicts severely undermining any merger benefits.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a good analogy. Such conflicts are one of the reasons most (perhaps 80%) of mergers fail (overpaying for the acquisition is the major reason).

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