Mark Twain gives us advice about our wars

Summary: Most of America’s wars have been counterinsurgencies, fought before Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WW2. As we start a new war, let’s take advice from wise men of our past about such conflicts. Such as Mark Twain (1835-1910), who lived during America’s golden age of counterinsurgency. Today we have two of his articles. One gives advice. The other is something to shock us into sense.

Mark Twain

Contents

  1. Mark Twain’s advice about Counterinsurgency
  2. The War Prayer
  3. Other notes from the past

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(1) Advice

Mark Twain on Counterinsurgency

by Mike Few at the Small Wars Journal
16 November 2010
Reposted with his generous permission

In a month when we’re asking the experts hard questions on the need to reform FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and rethinking the colonial methods, Mark Twain, the quintessential American writer, decided to chime in. Nearly 100 years after his death, Mark Twain is finally publishing his autobiography. In his political views, Twain was decidedly anti-imperialist. Twain wrote in “Returning Home” (interview in the New York World, 4 October 1900):

You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don’t think that it is wise or a necessary development.

As to China, I quite approve of our Government’s action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours.

There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it — perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands — but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector — not try to get them under our heel.

We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now — why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

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More of Twain’s biography and his thoughts on counterinsurgency at NPR.

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The War Prayer

(2)  An attempt to shock us into sense

The War Prayer” by Mark Twain One of his most powerful works. Unpublished at his death in 1910 (as sacrilegious), it was published in 1923.  Opening:

It was a time of great and exalting excitement.

The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

It should be required reading for all citizens in every nation before it goes to war.

Other notes from the past

  1. From the 3rd century BC, Polybius warns us about demographic collapse, 11 June 2008
  2. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
  3. A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
  4. Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009 — by Daniel Ellsberg
  5. France gives us tips for the Afghanistan War, from their successful role in the American Revolution, 11 March 2010
  6. Advice from one of the British Empire’s greatest Foreign Ministers, 18 November 2011 — by Lord Palmerston
  7. George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation, 22 January 2012
  8. Thomas Jefferson saw our present peril. We should heed his warning., 21 April 2012
  9. Voices from the past describe the coming New America, 1 February 2013
  10. Martin Luther King Jr’s advice to us about using violence to reform America, 20 January 2014

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22 thoughts on “Mark Twain gives us advice about our wars

    1. Curious,

      Just as the 2006 version placed great emphasis on building the legitimacy of the “host” state. Pointless verbage, completely ignored in practice. Eight years of experience has shown that the recommended tactics are all that matters from FM 3-24; the rest is pleasant foliage to cover the neo-colonial tactics.

      To what extent have the tactics changed? Is there any recognition of the near-total record of failure by foreign armies — everybody’s armies — fighting local insurgencies since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WW2?

  1. Editor,

    I think it does separate what we did in Iraq/Afghanistan from other ways the United States may enable a host nation in defeating an insurgency. Chapter 1 does tell the reader over and over again that other societies have to solve their own problems. Counterinsurgency is only seen as a “range of various methods”. The “method” we did in Iraq and Afghanistan is boxed off into one chapter (Direct Approach). In sum, I think it makes the case for using security cooperation and various capabilities (i.e. intelligence assets) to enable a society to control an insurgency movement when it is in US interests. That is with the understanding the United States is not the primary driver in the development of other societies.

    Moreover, what we are doing in Syria and Iraq currently is different from the past. We are working through others and not trying to directly drive the conflict or its solutions. I have seen very little thought in the US clear-hold-building in Iraq or Syria. I would just suggest that you are trying to have a debate with a position that the other side no longer takes. Even if it doesn’t say, “we really suck and we have failed at this over and over in the past”, directly in the text.

    1. Curious,

      This post is about what Samuel Clemens thought about the secondary and tertiary effects of our involvements overseas. At the time, pre-WWI, we were expanding our sphere in the Pacific and Americas. Teddy Roosevelt and others felt that we had a moral obligation to rule the uncivilized world.

      It didn’t work.

      FM 3-24 (new or old) is irrelevant in this discussion. A rose is a rose by any other name. While we might not occupy Iraq or Syria, conducting unconventional warfare to force regime change while simultaneously conducting shaping operations in Africa to disrupt “rat-lines” is going to lead to horrible effects.

      In the beginning, our goal may or may not have been noble. However, Clemens conclusions are probably how we’ll all think about this mess in 10 years,

      “But now — why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.”

    2. Curious,

      “I would just suggest that you are trying to have a debate with a position that the other side no longer takes.”

      You are misreading what the critics are saying. FM 3-24 is not all about invasion and occupation, US involvement in CI seldom been invasion and occupation, and it fails for deeper reasons than the occasional use of ground forces.

      We first became involved in Vietnam in the early 1950s, in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and in Iraq in the early 1990s. Invasion and occupation were late stages of these conflicts. Yemen and Pakistan are early stage involvements, as was Libya. Not all early stages run to the late stage; few are successful at any stage.

      If we continue our tactics, curiously changed little over 60 years (despite many different labels and formal doctrines), history suggests we will be drawn into other adventures with “boots on the ground”. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has told us so about our next chapter in Iraq.

      “That is with the understanding the United States is not the primary driver in the development of other societies.”

      That has always been what we’re told. That’s what we were told when we had 500 thousand troops in Vietnam.

      “I think it makes the case for using security cooperation and various capabilities (i.e. intelligence assets) to enable a society to control an insurgency movement when it is in US interests.”

      I think you mean bombing, providing weapons, sending trainers and advisers, and inserting special operations forces. Those are the major common elements from the 1950s through today. The program seldom works. Local governments often win, but the post-WW2 record shows that those that win seldom get more than arms and money.

      That we can provide more useful intel on insurgencies in foreign lands than the local government is absurd, unless we have a large local establishment (in which case we assume many of its functions, and vaporize its legitimacy).

    3. “what we are doing in Syria and Iraq currently is different from the past. We are working through others and not trying to directly drive the conflict or its solutions.”

      Like, say, what took place in the 1980s with the contras in Nicaragua, or has been with the Ethiopians, Kenyans and others since the 2000s in Somalia? Success with those methods has proven elusive too.

    4. Editor and others,

      Define success. If “success” is achievement of the policy goals of the United States at the time of the conflict, the record is mixed. But it isn’t all negative. If success is a nebulous thought that the world would be a better place if the US wasn’t so involved, then it is an impossible case to prove either way. One would simply state, “look, everything is terrible.” But how does one prove the counterfactual. What does the world look like without the US ensuring access to the global commons, for example. And if the world looks terrible, doesn’t it look a lot better then it used to? Conflict is not more likely, it is less likely. For example, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

    5. Curious,

      ” If “success” is achievement of the policy goals of the United States at the time of the conflict, the record is mixed.”

      I believe everybody older than 12 knows that few things are black and white. That’s a pure form of the false dilemma fallacy. But the net balance of results on foreign counterinsurgencies since WW2 is overwhelming negative, despite vast expenditures in blood and money. By now only the blind do not see that.

      The History of COIN, one of almost uniform failure by foreigners fighting local insurgents:

      1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
      2. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
      3. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
      4. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
      5. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
      6. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012

      About our wars:

      1. A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?, 26 June 2010
      2. Time to ask about lessons learned from our wars, a last opportunity to gain something from them, 30 October 2013

      About Afghanistan:

      1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
      2. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
      3. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
      4. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
      5. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
      6. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012

      About Iraq:

       

      1. If we won in Iraq, what did we win? Was it worth the cost?, 15 July 2009
      2. We collect our winnings in Iraq, 27 December 2009
      3. One criterion of victory in Iraq: when will the oil flow?, 3 February 2010
      4. About our successful nation-building in Iraq, 31 August 2010
      5. The end of our Expedition to Iraq: war-boosters cheer despite its long-predicted failure., 24 October 2011
      6. Peter Van Buren explains “What We Lost in Iraq and Washington in 2009-2012″, 10 April 2012
      7. Time to ask about lessons learned from our wars, a last opportunity to gain something from them, 30 October 2013
      8. Iraq gives us another opportunity to confront our mistakes, and learn from them, 27 June 2014
    6. “That we can provide more useful intel on insurgencies in foreign lands than the local government is absurd, unless we have a large local establishment (in which case we assume many of its functions, and vaporize its legitimacy).”

      One point on this. It isn’t better or worse. It is different. I would assume a person conducting a local insurgency would like access to the various types of intel assets we have. Moreover, I would assume they would like capabilities that could do things like disrupt the funding of the insurgency.

    1. Dissenter,

      That is nice to know, but operationally useless as an insight. Either to understand (causes, dynamics), to predict, or to persuade.

      As phrased, it is what my grandmother called “giving them a piece of your mind”. You feel better afterwards, but that’s all.

  2. I should have included the following from Wikipedia …

    “War Is a Racket is the title of two works, a speech and a booklet, by retired United States Marine Corps Major General and two time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley D. Butler. In them, Butler frankly discusses from his experience as a career military officer how business interests commercially benefit (including war profiteering) from warfare.”

    Present company excluded, but if it shocks some into thinking about the subject at hand further, then yes, I feel better.

    1. Dessenter,

      That’s my point exactly. Shouting “war is a racket” accomplishes nothing.

      I have written about Butler’s analysis, and I agree that it is a provocative –although limited in scope — analysis. Works like it and “War is the health of the State” help us understand the deep role of warn our social, economic ic, and political systems.

  3. BREAKING: According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the rich are getting richer while the poor in America continue to get poorer. And the government is contributing to all this.The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality.

    The Gini for the U.S. is 85; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85.

    Odd company for the “exceptional nation.”

    http://wemeantwell.com/blog/2014/09/19/hah-hah-you-are-so-poor/
    Hah Hah: You are So Poor

    I do not know if you are familiar with PVB’;s wbsite:
    http://wemeantwell.com/blog/2014/08/30/dinner-with-morris-berman/
    Dinner with Morris Berman
    Google Morris Berman

    “Berman’s book is no feel-good experience with a happy ending. In that sense, and it matters, Spinning Straw picks up the themes from his previous books and slaps them down inside you. In an interview, Berman spelled it out:

    I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. I discovered that the best way of escaping American values—values that were killing me—was to escape America. It was the smartest decision I ever made. Most of us don’t realize how the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life has wrapped its tentacles around our throats, and is squeezing the life out of us. We merge with “our” narrative so as to have some measure of safety in our lives; but what if it’s a death-oriented narrative? (Usually it’s some version of the American Dream, which is the life of a hamster on a treadmill)… Life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up. Americans are probably the most superficial people on the planet. To dull your sadness with Prozac or cell phones or food or alcohol or TV or laptops is to suppress symptoms, and not live in reality. Reality is not always pleasant, but it does have one overriding advantage: It’s real.”

    http://wemeantwell.com/blog/2014/09/05/morris-bermans-new-book-spinning-straw-into-gold-chicken-soup-for-reality/

    Morris Berman’s New Book, Spinning Straw into Gold: Chicken Soup for Reality

    Interview by Naomi Prins:

    http://www.alternet.org/world/154453/why_the_american_empire_was_destined_to_collapse
    Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse
    Author and social critic Morris Berman says the fact that we’re a nation of hustlers lies at the root of our decline.

    Conversations with Great Minds with Morris Berman, Part 1. Why America Failed

    Conversations with Great Minds with Morris Berman, Part …
    View on http://www.youtube.com
    Preview by Yahoo

    Conversations with Great Minds with Morris Berman, Part 1.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6MBzA9lGSQ&feature=related
    Why America Failed – The Roots of Imperial Decline
    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/WhyAmer
    CSPAN Book Video of Morris Berman’s latest book
    http://www.greanvillepost.com/2011/05/19/rainbow-pie-morris-berman-remembers-joe-bageant/
    Rainbow Pie: Morris Berman remembers Joe Bageant

    http://www.truthdig.com/avbooth/item/morris_berman_tolls_the_bell_for_american_society_20120210/
    Morris Berman and the Decline of America

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,778396,00.html
    Once Upon a Time in the West

    Berman also discussed here:
    http://theautomaticearth.org/Finance/to-where-our-oppositonal-culture-takes-us.html

    related:
    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2014/03/anglo-american-capitalism-run-strategies.html

    Has Anglo-American Capitalism Run Out of Strategies?
    Posted on March 25, 2014 by Yves Smith
    Yves here. The Real News Network commemorates the 30th anniversary of the coal miners’ strike in the UK, which was in many ways labor’s last stand, with a broad-ranging interview with George Irvin, research professor at the University of London. He takes a broad historical perspective to show how the rise of a low-wage, debt driven economy and the pressure to reduce the role of government have painted Anglo-Saxon capitalism in a corner.

  4. Editor and Others,

    I did write one sentence poorly. Of course many of the activities we are doing in Syria and Iraq aren’t new. Some that make use of cyber capabilities are new, but most aren’t. However, it isn’t the activities being new or old that make something new. It is the mixture of those activities to meet a certain context. And that mixture changes, rather the conflict is World War II and Korea or Vietnam and Syria. It is how to effectively meet ones policy goals with the correct mixture of ways to achieve them that is the question.
    That said, editor provided me with a long list of COIN “failures”. If we are arguing about the fact that we don’t meet our policy goals, shouldn’t the debate be about what to do, not if we should do anything? Most of the posters here seem focused on the policy. That is fine. But it provides a position that is impossible to move. If you don’t think we should do anything, what is the point of bring what we can do? What is the point of bring up FM 3-24, if any answer it provides is wrong?

    1. Curious,

      Why bring it up?

      Because after four decades of interfering in the Middle East (Doing something), we’ve yet to learn anything.

    2. MikeF,

      Which would be my point. Is this really about the methods in FM 3-24 or that we are doing something. If it is about doing something, what have this in the article: “In a month when we’re asking the experts hard questions on the need to reform FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and rethinking the colonial methods.” If we should not be involved, there is no need to discuss reform of doctrine to do something.

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