Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24

Summary:  A follow-up to this post about the use of social science language and concepts in FM 3-24.  They provide useful terminology, but at the cost of either weakening the beliefs of our troops or giving them a “grey net of abstraction to cover the world in order to simplify and explain it in a way that is pleasing to us.”  The former would be disastrous in 4GW, the latter probably useless exercise.  Or worse than useless, creating the illusion of understanding foreign cultures which eliminates the bafflement that leads to study, thought, and partial understanding.  While it is easy to dismiss these fears, the social sciences themselves note the powerful effect of language on thought and behavior.

One of the interesting aspects of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, is its use of technical sociological terminology ripped from the intellectual framework of its creators (e.g. Max Weber) — a framework both dark and alien to American culture.  In it “We hold these truths to be self-evident” reflects the naive thinking of a lost age, and can be believed only by “a few big babies in university chairs or in editorial offices”  (from  Weber’s “Science as a Vocation“).  In it our core beliefs  — liberty, freedom of religion, equality of races and genders, democracy and free enterprise — are just choices, like those of any other culture.  As such we have no basis on which to advocate any of practices to other cultures (other than Mao’s adage that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”).

To illustrate this, here are some excerpts from Allan Bloom’s great work Closing of the American Mind in which he describes the origins of these concepts.

On the dark roots of this framework

It is amazing to me that the irrational source of all conscious life in Freud, and the relativity of all values in Weber, did not pose a problem for them and their optimism about science.  … {Weber’s} science was formulated as a doubtful dare against the chaos of things, and values certainly lay beyond its limits.  That is what the very precarious, not to say imaginary, distinction between facts and values meant.

Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy.  Weber found it impossible to prefer rational politics to the politics of irrational commitment; he believed that reason and science themselves were value commitments like any other, incapable of asserting their own goodness, thus having lost what had always been most distinctive in them.  Politics required dangerous and uncontrollable semi-religious value positing, and Weber was witnessing a struggle of the gods for possession of man and society, the results of which were unpredictable.

Calculating reason would end up in dried-up, heartless and soulless administration of things without community-forming and sustaining values; feeling would lead to selfish indulgence in superficial pleasures; political commitment would likely foster fanaticism … Everything was up in the air, and there was no theodicy to sustain him. … Scientific analysis itself concludes that reason is powerless, while dissolving the protective horizon within which men can value.

More about charismatic leadership, beyond good and evil (follow-up the discussion here)

Note “good” and “evil” do not appear as moral concepts in FM 3-24.  “Good” only an operational word (e.g., good work); evil appears only once — in France’s justification for torture.  Weber’s theories of value relativism and the three forms of leadership combine to encourage experiments with extreme and fanatical thinking.

Weber sought to make a place in politics for things that political legalism excludes and that claim to have a title to attention although they are not founded on reason or consent — the only titles to rule in liberal democracy.  … Weber was just one of many serious persons affect by Nietzsche and popularized him with  believing in the extremism that Nietzsche himself asserted is the result of positioning oneself beyond good and evil.  The open-ended future contains many surprises, and all these followers of Nietzsche prepared the way by helping to jettison good and evil along with reason, without assurance of what the alternatives might be.

… The entire language, as I have tried to show, implies that the religious is the source of everything political, social and personal; and it still conveys something like that.  But it has done nothing to reestablish religion — which puts us in a pretty pickle.  We reject by the fact of our categories the rationalism that is the basis of our way of life, without having anything to substitute for it. 

On Values

Everyone likes cultural relativism but wants to exempt what concerns him.

… We have to have reasons for what we do.  It is the sign of our humanity and our possibility of community.  I have never met a person who says, “I believe what I believe; these are just my values.”  There are always arguments.

Are these warnings exaggerated?  After all, these are just words?

A common objection, denying the power of the theoretical structure behind these technical terms — while using these words because they allow precise and analytical description of social systems.  Social scientists have long considered language to influence thought, going back to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Let’s hope that the Army’s experimentation with the social sciences provides only benign evidence for this connection.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

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

For more information about the things discussed in this post:

  1. For more about the difficulty of successfully using the social science insights in FM 3-24:  The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24 and A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual.
  2. For an archive of links to articles about the role of social scientists in the Long War, see Antropologists go to war AND Revolt of the Anthropologists. I recommend starting with te González February 2008 article. This debate provides a fascinating view into the murky nature of 4GW!
  3. For an archive of links to articles by and about the best known of the West’s warrior-anthropologists, see The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter 3, David Kilcullen.


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7 thoughts on “Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24”

  1. “its use of technical sociological terminology ripped from the intellectual framework of its creators (e.g. Max Weber) — a framework both dark and alien to American culture.”

    I don’t know that American culture is necessarily non-relativist. American intellectuals historically had a bit of reverence for the Platonist notion that reality was unique and somewhat reliable—– and American intellectuals had some reverence for the Aristotelian notion that mundane knowledge was knowledge about that unique, reliable reality. However, Plato and Aristotle were not perfect thinkers, nor were they necessarily the best non-relativist thinkers. Protagoras and his sophist buddies weren’t alien to Western culture!

    So Weber gets all relativist — it’s nothing the West hasn’t seen before. The only creepy thing is that many of the folks who happen to be using relativist philosophy are also Cultural Marxists — and yes, that *is* grounds for serious concern.
    Fabius Maximus: Yes, the “it’s not new” objection, perhaps one of the most common on the web. Of course value relativism appears before Weber. The specific points I made, illustrated with brief excerpts from a longer work, were as follows: (1) The sociological terms in FM 3-24 were “ripped” from their context, which is not the culturally neutral one of the physical sciences. (2) That context is in many ways a dark one, and hostile to the Enlightenment philosphy foundational to the American experiment.

  2. Alas. If only we were the Princes of the Universe; fighting to survive in a war with the Darkest Powers. Born to be Kings, because God wills it.


    What need for philosophy in such a simple life?

  3. FM , Is your opinion that, now , ” we ” should fight on in Afgh ? Or leave ? If you beleive we should leave , can you walk across the room and track down some internet wisdom , why we should stay ?
    FM reply: As I have said for years, IMO we should no be fighting in Afghanistan. Funding the government, training (e.g., sending Special Forces), limited covert action (i.e., special ops). No substantial combat ops — which have a proven record of failure. COIN theory is an absurd overreaching, even if we attempted it (which we have not).

    ” track down some internet wisdom , why we should stay”

    The mainstream media are filled with such article. Many are analyzed on this webste; see section 2 of Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles.

  4. The problem I see , that doesnt seem to be discussed at armchair expert level , but may be burning holes in Obama’s brain ,is what happens when we go .
    My concern would be humanitarian . I dont think my gov dare put aside the humanitarian aspect , because of the voters backlash if terrible things happened.(I cannot see the anti terrorism argument holds water .)
    Vietnam ..Although there is not the size , nor the aftermath of bombed towns , there is the equivalent to defoliants in , litter of explosives and depleted uranium . ( Publicising any current clearing up efforts might be a smart move. )
    All we read is regarding Taliban and AlQueda , but surely there are Communists /Maoists out there ; there are Mujahadeen refugees in my country , so I presume there still are in Afgh , not neccessarily same as Taliban , and with burning hatred of our Russian allies .

  5. Can the ANA can be made loyal and effective ? Doesnt look promising . If it were , might have to repress disident groups in a way that would not be compatable with democracy .
    Can only be speculation what would have happened in S Vietnam , if the SV forces had surrendered without a fight , and the people welcomed their attackers with garlands of flowers . Would there have been more , or less ,casualties and refugees ? The US , according to Wikipedia ,took in 1.4 million SV refugees . But then there are the lessons of Pol Pot ,or the Japanese in WW2,who didnt respect surrender .
    If the ANA fights , probably loses , there may be a lot of refugees . Already over a million refugees in Pakistan , Iran etc – whose side would they be on ? Where would they go ? Are there any plans to deal with them ? Do we want more Taliban seeking asylum in my country ?
    In a way , it might be better not to train and arm the ANA , because this may prolong a civil war , if we leave . If we leave , it might be better for Afghan people if we admit defeat and go now . Otherwise , it seems to me we have to stay , commit everything needed to win – vast numbers troops and officials , trillions money , squillions redevelopement , treat it as a proper occupation.

  6. A third possibility might be to retreat to an area and make it a shangri la in which all younf Afghans would aspire to live . The high birth rate and short life span might make this possible in 40 years , by which time Afgh will have a new population to that of 2002.

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