The key to understanding our wars: the trinity of COIN.

Summary:  Most of our wars since Korea have been counter-insurgencies (COIN), in which we employ a trinity of methods — firepower, mobility, and militia. It doesn’t work for us, or for any foreign armies doing COIN. Today we review the trinity and why it fails, and ask the more important question of why we don’t see this pattern.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Celtic Trinity Knot
Out of 3 tools come one outcome (Celtic Trinity Knot).

Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII, modern armed forces, whether of developed or undeveloped nations, tend to rely on a trinity of methods to fight insurgencies.  None of these are new (almost nothing is new in war; it’s all a matter of combinations, emphasis, and execution).

  1. Popular front militia
  2. Firepower on civilians
  3. Sweep and destroy missions

Armies rediscover these 3 methods, each time dressing them up in the fancy terminology befitting radical innovations. Sometimes they mask their use behind pseudo-science, as DoD did with FM 3-24 (describing our new way of counter-insurgency, behind which they relied on the big 3 methods). We don’t see this history because it’s not useful for the military and their journalist allies to show us, and we have amnesia about our history.

Popular front militia were a core component of our fighting in Southeast Asia. When we recruited local militia in Iraq it’s COINnew, new, new.   Local militia were a staple of our fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the usual frequently ugly results. See these examples from March 2013 (torture by Shiite militia) and March 2015 (“Afghan Militia Leaders, Empowered by U.S. to Fight Taliban, Inspire Fear in Villages“). More articles see this post and this one from 2009.


RAF chinook helicopters on operations.
“We’re here to help! Our allies too: British Black Watch troops in Afghanistan.

Firepower on civilians has been a core tool of warfare since the blitz in 1940.  Despite its record of ineffectiveness since WWII, it has been a major component of most counter-insurgencies by foreign armies. News about our forces killing civilians has been a drumbeat rhythm of our post-9/11 wars (collateral damage from our casual use of force). It’s one of the major reasons the hatred we arouse negates our success at killing foes.

See the examples described here (with links to more) plus our attacks on personnel giving first aid to those injured in our attacks (“double-taps”, probably a war crime). Also see the running totals kept by the invaluable Bureau of Investigative Reporting. Precision use of firepower has been the mantra for decades, but it is not yet precise enough.

“Sweep and destroy” missions (mobility) have been a staple of US warfare from Vietnam to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. It seldom cripples the enemy, but usually increases the local peoples’ animosity to us (i.e., the more we do, the greater the opposition).

Watch the news and you’ll see that our wars consist of these three elements repeated ad nauseam., along with promises that this time they’ll work.

Memories erased


There are two levels of interest here. First, a kind of explanation of why we keep losing 4GWs: we use the same methods, and so should expect similar results. Our military institutions do some things quite well, and so that’s what they do in each war. For all their power and skill, they appear no better at learning than the rest of us.

The second question is more interesting and more important: why do we unknowingly allow these patterns to repeat despite their cost in money and lives? It’s an example of the wonder of our age: how we remain so ignorant of our present and past while sitting on the information highway, with all knowledge at our fingertips — and legions of journalists printing millions of words every day. In effect we watch our screens with our eyes tightly closed and minds off, hence unable to see even obvious patterns and learn from our experience.

This makes us easy to lead. We’re a gift to our rulers, who naturally harvest most of our growth for themselves and exert an increasingly strong influence on our politics.

It need not be like this. We have the ability to more clearly see our world. We can stand together to retake the reins of America. We lack only the will to do so.

For More Information

To understand modern warfare I recommend these two books: The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz by Martin van Creveld and The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  Also see these posts about our wars:

  1. What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why?
  2. Understanding 4GW, the first step to winning the Long War.
  3. Our escalation shows the key US military strategy: FAILure to learn.
  4. A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.



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