September 1, 2007  

Eating soup with a spoon

Missing from the new COIN manual’s pages is the imperative to fight

The Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency operations (COIN), in many respects, is a superb piece of doctrinal writing. The manual, FM 3-24 “Counterinsurgency,” is comparable in breadth, clarity and importance to the 1986 FM 100-5 version of “Operations” which came to be known as “AirLand Battle.”

The new manual’s middle chapters that pertain to the con¬duct of counterinsurgency operations are especially helpful and relevant to senior commanders in Iraq. But a set of nine paradoxes in the first chapter of the manual removes a piece of reality of counterinsurgency warfare that is crucial for those trying to understand how to operate within it.

The title of a highly regarded book on how to conduct counterinsurgency warfare, “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife,” tries to convey in a sound-bite metaphor the com¬plexity of counterinsurgency operations. The new COIN manual takes this premise further with its “paradoxes” of counterinsurgency warfare in the first chapter. These paradoxes, such as “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are” and “tactical success guarantees nothing,” are intended to wrench soldiers and Marines out of their Cold War-conventional-military-operations mind-set and thrust them into the world of complex counterinsurgency operations. The reader can imagine the authors of the manu¬al sending them this pensive, subliminal message: “Hey you, American soldier or Marine. We know what you are thinking. We know that you want to go out and fight large-scale battles with tanks on tanks and infantry on infantry. But those days are over, and if you want to win in a counterinsurgency fight like Iraq, you must start thinking otherwise. So ingest the obvious contradictions in these paradoxes, embrace them, and you will have moved from the dark side into the light and will be ready to execute full-spectrum counterinsur¬gency operations in Iraq or Afghanistan and thus will be able to eat soup with a knife.”

Yet the paradoxes actually deceive by making overly simple the reality of counterinsurgency warfare and why it is so hard to conduct it at the ground level for the combat soldier. The eminent scholar and strategic thinker Eliot Cohen noted that counterinsurgency war is still war, and war in its essence is fighting. In trying to teach its readers to eat soup with a knife, the COIN manual discards the essence and reality of coun¬terinsurgency warfare fighting, thereby manifesting its tragic flaw.

I was not one of those combat arms commanders who only wanted to kick in doors and kill al-Qaida. I was not a tactical commander in a counterinsurgency fight who did large-scale raids at the expense of other logical lines of operations such as essential services and governance. I also acknowledge up front what one of the primary writers of the COIN manual told me recently: Too much negative attention has been given to the first chapter’s paradoxes and not enough to the middle chap¬ters, which offer sound doctrine. However, the paradoxes are intended to frame the thinking of the reader for the entire manual. They are the theoretical framework that informs the entire manual. In this sense, they are crucial to the manual and for how our Army approaches and understands coun¬terinsurgency operations. Two of the paradoxes especially stand out as emblematic of all the paradoxes and the theoreti¬cal framework of the COIN manual. They are: “Tactical success guarantees nothing,” and, “The more you protect yourself, the less secure you are.”

These two paradoxes now especially permeate the thinking of many in our Army and its operations in Iraq. The ongoing “surge” operation in Baghdad, with its emphasis on the tacti¬cal method of establishing combat outposts in the neighbor¬hoods and countryside, is a logical extension of the paradox that the “more you protect yourself, the less secure you are.” Also, as I was close to completing my relief in place in West Baghdad in late 2006 with another combat battalion, a senior officer in the Brigade Combat Team that was relieving my unit showed the influence of the “tactical success guarantees nothing” paradox. He characterized for an embedded news¬paper reporter the nature of counterinsurgency operations that he and his brigade were beginning to conduct by saying “if we are shooting, we are not having a good day.”

And it was my sense of the permeating effects of these paradoxes on our Army coupled with my personal reading of the paradoxes when I was still in combat in Iraq that pro¬duced a reaction in me. It was not at all a reaction of approval and agreement with the theoretical premises of the paradoxes and the COIN manual. Instead, it was a reaction of anger mixed with bewilderment because the paradoxes just seemed too darn chic, too obviously simplistic in their clever formula¬tion of contradictions. But most importantly, I was angry and bewildered because the paradoxes, through their clever con¬tradictions, removed a fundamental aspect of counterinsur¬gency warfare that I had experienced throughout my year as a tactical battalion commander in Iraq: fighting. And by remov¬ing the fundamental reality of fighting from counterinsur¬gency warfare, the manual removes the problem of maintain¬ing initiative, morale and offensive spirit among combat sol¬diers who will operate in a place such as Iraq.


To me, tactical success could guarantee a lot. The high points for my squadron in 2006 were when we achieved tactical suc¬cess by conducting a small ambush team operation that resulted in killing either Shiite militia or Sunni insurgents who demonstrated hostile acts or intent. Those times were few, but they meant a lot and they guaranteed, at least for a time, the regaining of the initiative and increased morale among my soldiers. There are other forms of tactical success: raids that captured Sunni insurgents or Shiite militia; cordon-and-search operations that seized large caches of weapons; even operations that removed garbage from the streets could be all seen as tactical successes in COIN. But if the fundamental ele¬ment of war is fighting, then the tactical success that means the most to the combat soldier is when he can engage and potentially kill the enemy. And the COIN manual’s paragraph that defines the meaning of the term “tactical success” as part of the paradox implies that “tactical success” revolves around “military actions” that involve fighting the enemy.

The logic of the contradiction that “tactical success guaran¬tees nothing,” though, tells the reader he should not be enam¬ored with tactical success because if he achieves it without success in other areas of COIN operations, such as essential services and governance, then it accomplishes nothing. So the lieutenant or the lieutenant colonel preparing for operations in Iraq reads the paradox “tactical success guarantees noth¬ing” and comes away thinking that he has to move beyond tactics, he can’t just focus on raids, he can’t just focus on killing the enemy, because just doing those things and not the other important operations in COIN means he will ultimately fail. The reader of this paradox goes into the counterinsur¬gency fight in Iraq with the impression that tactics, in and of themselves, are just not that important. And because tactics become unimportant, the essence of counterinsurgency war¬fare that is still fighting — fighting that is done at the tactical level by killing the enemy — is removed from the reality creat¬ed by the COIN manual’s paradoxes.

But if tactical success guarantees nothing, the results of tac¬tical failure in a counterinsurgency can be huge, especially on the morale and fighting spirit of the combat soldiers who daily operate deep inside insurgent-held neighborhoods and the countryside. Every time an improvised explosive device (IED) goes off or a sniper attack occurs and the enemy perpetrator of the act is not immediately engaged in response, the immediate tactical initiative is lost for the counterinsurgent unit being hit. Over time, as these types of events accumulate in a combat unit and soldiers die and are wounded as a result, morale begins to erode.

In more conventional wars such as the American Civil War or World War II, in which large battles between military forma¬tions are fought, there is a process of fighting by opposing forces against each other that is made up of actions, reactions and counteractions. The combat soldiers in conventional mili¬tary operations experience this process in real time — often in matters of seconds, minutes and hours, in bits and pieces in front of their eyes. One side fires artillery, the other side reacts by assaulting with infantry the front lines of its opponent, and the opponent counteracts again with a cavalry attack against the side of the infantry line attacking it. Killing and destruction of the opposing side is quantified. Ground is taken or lost. The prospect of progress or lack thereof is a known quality to the combat soldier in conventional warfare. Think of the famous Civil War bayonet charge during the battle of Gettysburg down the face of Little Round Top led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, where he defeated the Alabama infantry that was attempting to push him off of the hill.

In the Iraq war, like other counterinsurgencies, there is a similar process between the opposing sides that consists of actions, reactions and counteractions. But it is very different from the process in conventional warfare. The components of the process are not the same as in conventional war, and it occurs not in real time but in slow- to no-motion. The effects of the process are not usually seen in minutes, or hours, or even days by the combat soldiers fighting it. In a counterinsur¬gency war such as Iraq, progress to the combat soldier appears ethereal. At times, stasis seems existential.

To maintain a sense of momentum, of progress, the oppo¬site of the paradox that “tactical success guarantees nothing” is true: Tactical success in COIN guarantees a lot. And because the engine of tactical success, even in counterinsurgency war¬fare, is fighting, by diminishing the importance of tactical suc¬cess by stating it guarantees nothing, the paradox removes the essential reality of counterinsurgency warfare — fighting — from the pages of the COIN manual.

Conventional warfare is different. At Little Round Top, Chamberlain’s soldiers could see the immediate effects of their bayonet charge: They counted the number of enemy killed; they stood on the hill they retained. In Iraq, conversely, a much slow¬er and disconnected process of action, reaction and counterac¬tion occurs. A roadside bomb goes off against an American patrol and maims or kills a soldier, but the insurgent who set off the bomb is nowhere to be found, and the soldiers cannot take immediate action against him. Instead, a few days or weeks later, after intelligence has been gained, an insurgent cell is raid¬ed and a few insurgents are captured and sent to prison. Or on that same road where the bomb went off, a week or two later, a civil works project is conducted to clean up the garbage off the road that concealed the bomb. Or just maybe the combat sol¬dier gets lucky and a few days after the roadside blast that killed or maimed his buddy, he is part of a small kill team in hiding that catches an insurgent attempting to emplace another bomb in the same spot, and they shoot him dead.

The longer the soldier stays in Iraq and the more casualties taken by a combat unit, the more the discernable links between these actions, reactions and counteractions that demonstrate progress get fuzzy. The paradox that tactical success guarantees nothing makes things even fuzzier and tells the combat soldier that tactical success through fighting just isn’t that important — the exact opposite of how he feels. For instance, putting a bullet through the head of an insurgent emplacing an IED indicates fundamental success to the combat soldier.


A poll of combat soldiers in Iraq during 2006 showed that at least 40 percent believed that torture of Iraqis was justified. Part of the rationale for a soldier condoning the use of tor¬ture of Iraqis is the mistaken belief that torture will produce information on other enemy activities that will protect the soldier and his buddies. But there is also another compo¬nent to the large number of soldiers who condone the use of torture. As troubling as this poll result is, there is a cold logic to it. Because soldiers need tactical success to guarantee the maintenance of their morale and offensive spirit, and because tactical success in Iraq — killing the bona fide enemy — is so elusive, the idea of torture in the minds of combat soldiers fills a void, psychologically, in their desire to regain the initiative. Think about it like this: The IED goes off and kills and maims members of an American patrol, but the enemy who emplaced and triggered it cannot be engaged as an immediate response. Days and weeks go by, and other operations are conducted, but the ability to respond in an immediate and proximate way to the IED attack — a response that would be, in its essence, an act of fighting — did not exist. In the minds of soldiers, the idea of torture replaces the desire for immediate response to hostile enemy acts, albeit in a more generalized, temporally extend¬ed way. If one could capture the hatred, anger and desire for killing the enemy of Chamberlain’s soldiers as they bayonet¬ed the Alabama infantry in front of them and turn it into an object for view, it would resemble the idea of torture in the minds of the American soldiers who took the poll in 2006.

So the lieutenant, the lieutenant colonel, the senior com¬mander who has internalized the idea that in a counterinsur¬gency “tactical success guarantees nothing” is not prepared for the hatred and passion of his soldiers. He ends up quickly com¬ing to the realization that to maintain the morale of his men, the tactical success involved in the just killing of the bona fide enemy through fighting can and does guarantee a lot.

A supreme irony coming out of the “surge” operation in Iraq is that its success, both in the polit¬ical and strategic realms, rests squarely on the back of tactical combat soldiers carrying out the tactical method of try¬ing to secure the people through the use of combat outposts in neighborhoods and the countryside. Tactical success now in Iraq can potentially guarantee political resolution of the conflict.

The “surge” operation is also a logical extension of the COIN manual paradox that states “the more you protect your¬self, the less secure you are.” The idea is premised on the theoretical proposition that the primary objective in any coun¬terinsurgency operation is protection of the people. If you can establish security for the people, then the thinking goes that the people will separate themselves from the insurgents and side with the counterinsurgent and government forces. As a corollary to this thinking, the only way to secure the population is to do it with the tactical method of establishing small combat outposts throughout neighborhoods and the countryside where insurgents hold sway. Protection of the people, there¬fore, comes from the counterinsurgent force being distributed into many small combat outposts among the people. If the counterinsurgent force concentrates on large bases for the presumed fetish of self-protection, it therefore violates a principle of COIN by not protecting the people. Hence the paradox — the more you protect yourself by concentrating in large bases, the less secure you are because you cannot be out with the people improving their security and separating them from the insurgents.

The essence of war, even counterin¬surgency war, is fighting. Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz used the metaphor of a match between two wrestlers to describe at a theoretical level the nature of war and its essence of fighting. In Clausewitz’s wrestling match, there is an action and reaction process, an offense and defense on the part of the wrestlers. The paradox that states “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are” removes the component of the necessity of defense of one’s own forces through protection in counterinsurgency warfare, and hence Clausewitz’s wrestling match becomes a one-sided affair. The wrestling match ends up being not a wrestling match at all but something else; the element of fighting is gone.

So we go back to the lieutenant or lieutenant colonel preparing for opera¬tions in Iraq. The paradox tells him in a boiled-down way to not seek protection of his forces if he wants to be successful. OK, but imagine another subliminal message by the writers of the COIN manual in response. “No, no, you miss the point here. You will get security by giving up the protection of large com¬pounds and move into the cities through the use of combat outpost, which will bring about more security because the people will naturally come to your side because you are there with them, and they will turn the insurgents over to you.” Then, the reality of Iraq hits the officer. In being forced to dog¬matically employ the method of combat outposts in areas such as Baghdad with¬out even close to the required ratio of troops to people, the outposts quickly become tactically vulnerable. Routes leading into the outposts are attacked, as are the outposts themselves. Numbers of casualties rise. Frustration in the minds of soldiers builds.

The natural instinct for a combat sol¬dier when attacked is to protect himself and his buddies. Yet the paradox that “the more you protect yourself, the less secure you are” becomes counterintu¬itive to the soldier. It does not make sense because he experiences the essence of war fighting almost every day. So the paradox creates cognitive disso¬nance in the mind of a combat soldier in Iraq because it essentially tells him to do something that is unnatural to him and his environment — to not fight.


I am not arguing that a counterinsur¬gent force should hunker down on large bases and focus solely on force protec¬tion. But the “surge” plan for securing Baghdad tries to replicate as a tactical method what the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment under Col. H.R. McMaster did successfully in Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2005 without the requisite number of combat soldiers to do it. And in trying to repli¬cate Tal Afar in Baghad, without ade¬quate forces, we have produced supreme tactical vulnerability to the combat soldiers in these combat out¬posts. In these outposts, they now expe¬rience viscerally the opposite of the par¬adox that “the more you protect your¬self, the less secure you are.” They see things now as “the more I protect myself in these combat outposts, in terms of tactical security, the more secure in them I actually become.”

Not only has the security paradox created cognitive dissonance in the minds of combat soldiers fighting on the ground in Iraq, it has also pushed our approach in Iraq into a noncreative, dogmatic box. Arguably, our current operational approach is too little and too late. It does not take into account the reality of conditions on the ground in Baghdad, the fact that there is civil war occurring, and those 25,000 addi¬tional combat troops simply are not enough to solve militarily what is essen¬tially a political problem. To replicate Tal Afar in Baghdad — and, make no mis¬take about it, that is exactly what we are trying to do — it would take 120,000 American troops, not 25,000. Yet we are so confident of our newly released counterinsurgency doctrine — a doc¬trine that is premised on the paradoxes in Chapter 1 — that we apply it dogmat¬ically in Baghdad. “Dogma” means adhering to a set of principles and tenets and applying them in an over¬powering way without considering alternatives. The COIN manual paradox that states “the more you protect your¬self, the less secure you are” has helped frame us into this dogmatic box.

So maybe we should stop, in a metaphorical sense, trying to eat soup with a knife in Iraq and instead go back to the basics and try eating it with a spoon. War is not clean and precise; it is blunt and violent and dirty because, at its essence, it is fighting, and fighting causes misery and death. The authors of the Army’s 1986 AirLand Battle doctrine premised their manual on fighting as the essence of war. Fighting gave the 1986 manual a coherence that reflected the true nature of war. The Army’s new COIN manual’s tragic flaw is that the essence of war fighting is missing from its pages.

Lt. Col. Gian Gentile commanded 8-10 Cavalry armored reconnais¬sance squadron for three years until his posting this summer to chief of the American division history department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He commanded his squadron during a deployment to western Baghdad in 2006.