Americans as Insurgents and Counterinsurgents

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Via Brad Plumer, a new paper for Cato by Dr. Jeffrey Record on the US military’s counterinsurgency problem. Specifically, Record argues that effective counterinsurgency strategies run against deep-seated elements of American military culture (“the American way of war”) and that the defense establishment is essentially incabable of learning lessons about how to do this better no matter how many times the problem is pointed out to them. Record’s conclusion is that whenever possible — and it’s usually possibly — we should simply avoid embarking upon actions that are going to put us in the position of waging counterinsurgency warfare. Fascinatingly, Rich Lowry calls the paper “excellent” while also saying he doesn’t “agree with [Record’s] bottom-line that we should give up trying counter-insurgency campaigns altogether.” Then I wonder what he thought was excellent about it?

At any rate, if I may make a slightly idiosyncratic point about this, I think that at least some of the American military’s cultural aversion to counterinsurgency is related to the strong Southern cultural influence on the US Army and to the peculiarities of the American Civil War.

In a lot of ways, the Confederates were in a structural situation where you would expect to see insurgent or otherwise “unconventional” warfare. But by-and-large it didn’t happen. Instead, the CSA amassed formal armies that quite agreeably attempted to defend Southern cities from capture by meeting the forces of the numerically, financially, logistically, and technologically superior union on the field of battle. They succeeded at this for a while but eventually the Union commanders succeeded in rendering the CSA military’s positions untenable at which point the CSA surrendered in a gentlemanly fashion. What’s more, at least according to the predominant story, the South’s most celebrated commander, Robert E. Lee, went so far as to believe that the South’s political goal — secession — was wrong. Nevertheless, like a good professional he went about doing the business of war as best he could and, by all accounts, proved rather good at it.

This was basically an odd dynamic to emerge. The American military keeps expecting other numerically, financially, logistically, and technologically inferior foes to behave in that manner, but it’s a rather daft thing for a numerically, financially, logistically, and technologically foe to do. It essentially dooms you to failure.

By contrast, the South in a lot of ways would have been very well-positioned to wage an unconventional strategy. The CSA land area was positively enormous. What’s more, though the CSA population was distinctly smaller than the Union population, the ratio was very favorable to the South by the standards of counterinsurgency dynamics, and basic proficiency in firearms and the like was widespread among the CSA’s white, male population.

The trouble is that insurgency couldn’t possibly have achieved some of the major political goals of the CSA leadership — namely maintaining slavery and the plantation economy. Insurgents could have made it impossible for the federal government to effectively govern the South, but wouldn’t have been able to maintain the apparatus of repression necessary to shore up the socio-economic system. You couldn’t fade away into the hills (or wherever) while simultaneously keeping control over the South’s black population, who would have run away, rallied to the Union cause, etc., etc., etc. just as they did wherever CSA territory came to be occupied by the Union. By contrast, surrender actually proved reasonably effective as a method of maintaining the plantation economy and, if not slavery, white supremacy.

That, however, was a very unusual dynamic having a great deal to do with the specifics of the situation. The whole experience — and, in particular, the tendency toward idolization of Lee and other Confederate commanders — teaches a very misleading series of lessons about what sound military strategy is and how you can expect wars to go.