November 1, 2007  

The dogmas of war

A rigid counterinsurgency doctrine obscures Iraq’s realities

There is an ensconced narrative of the Iraq war within the American military and print media that is hypercritical of the counterinsurgency part of the Army’s conduct of the war over the past four years.

Since the early days of the Iraqi insurgency in the summer of 2003, essays appearing in military journals such as the Army’s Parameters, in conservative magazines like the Weekly Standard and in books such as “Fiasco” by Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks have pummeled the Army into new ways of thinking about how to fight counterinsurgency warfare. Unfortunately, what started as fresh thinking on the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare has turned into a rigid, one-way approach to current operations in Iraq. This collection of writings and the narrative that underpins them reflect the Army’s current approach to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq — known as the “surge” — which has, unfortunately, become dogmatic and noncreative.

The narrative goes like this: Although the Army and the Marine Corps fought well together during the march up to Baghdad, the Army — specifically, certain units — has bungled the counterinsurgency fight and put America in the precarious position it is in now in Iraq. This narrative also acknowledges that within the Army and Marine Corps, a few units and visionary senior leaders have “gotten it right” and conducted effective counterinsurgency operations. But by and large, according to this telling, the Army has sadly and wrongly been consumed with its hard-wired propensity to fight large wars instead of small ones; it has focused on big battles instead of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. This narrative has been buttressed by a body of counterinsurgency experts that has viewed past counterinsurgency operations as a pool of lessons-learned to be plucked at will and applied directly on the ground to the problems in Iraq.

There is, for example, the discussion of the 4th Infantry Divison’s (4ID) purported heavy-handed approach in places such as Tikrit that, as the narrative goes, in the early months of the war in 2003 enflamed rather than subdued the budding Sunni insurgency. There were alternatives to the 4ID’s approach that proponents of the narrative cite, and these were the methods employed by the 101st Airborne Division under then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus and Marines in the south of Iraq under then-Maj. Gen. James Mattis. Implicit in this narrative is that if units like the 4ID had operated as the Marines and 101st did, the virulent Sunni insurgency would not have developed.

This argument suffers from numerous defects. First, the assumption that these formations operated and performed exactly according to the rhetoric of their respective commanders misses the mark. It is assumed that because Petraeus had some signs on his command post walls about how to conduct counterinsurgency operations and because he wrote a doctoral dissertation on Vietnam that his entire division operated exactly the same way. The same goes for the Marines in the south under Mattis. Yet the tactical and operational histories of the early years of the war have yet to be written. They will show that conditions in Mosul for the 101st and the Marines in the southern half of Iraq were very different from those in Tikrit and Baghdad. For the 101st in Mosul, there was not an early, budding insurgency as there was in Tikrit and Samarra, where the 4ID largely operated. And in the south, the initial Shiite happiness with the U.S. for toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime made the Marine Corps units that operated there look like small-wars experts. More importantly, when it comes to viewing the actions of small units on the ground, histories of operations and tactics will demonstrate that there were no substantial differences between the small units of the 4ID and their air assault infantrymen to the north and Marines to the south.


There is a highly uncomfortable contradiction that few have ventured to talk about. In the narrative, it is the Marines in the south and 101st in the north that did things right, while the 4ID in the center fumbled. Yet, fast forward to 2006, when, in a painful and sad irony, troops with the Marines in the south and the 101st were accused of the worst and most damaging transgressions of the law of war: the incidents in Hadithah and Mahmudiyah. What happened between 2003-04 and 2006? Is it that the departure of Petraeus and Mattis created such a difference in tactical and operational methods that we ended up with these two law-of-war transgressions by the Marines and 101st in 2006? No. Instead, what the seeming contradiction points to is that too much has been made, qualitatively, of the differences between the 4ID and the Marines and 101st in 2003-04, while not enough attention is paid to how conditions on the ground affected operations and shaped small-unit action.

Another point from the narrative is the often espoused lament that the Army is hard-wired to fight only large, conventional battles and thus far in Iraq has largely pursued this propensity rather than an effective counterinsurgency approach.

I speak personally here from my view during Operation Iraqi Freedom-1 as a Brigade Combat Team executive officer in Tikrit and in 2006 as an Armored Reconnaissance Squadron commander in western Baghdad, including the important district of Ameriyah.

Contrary to the perception created by the narrative, the brigade that I was in understood the basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare from Day 1. However, the narrative proposes that the only things my unit wanted to do was kick in doors and kill people. Although kinetic operations were one part of what we did, very early on we were rebuilding local governments, establishing essential services and conducting nonlethal operations as part of our early counterinsurgency efforts. I understood basic counterinsurgency theory and doctrine, as did all of the other tactical battalion- and brigade-level commanders who worked with me. We understood the importance of protecting the people.

I established and ran combat outposts where they were needed and were tactically suitable. I patrolled in a dispersed way to get at the dispersed enemy. I focused on the rebuilding of essential services and the importance of aligning all operations at my disposal. Yet the narrative argues that we did not, that we had forgotten about the importance of protecting the people. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the operational records of my unit and those of others that I worked with show.

So the influence of this narrative over the past four years has placed the Army in a box, defined by a simple syllogism: History, reduced into lessons learned, has shown the way to do counterinsurgencies right; the Army, up to and including 2006, has not followed the rule. However, it is now following the rule with the “troop surge” and victory will, therefore, come in time if there is support from the American people. Yet this perceived “right” way may be the wrong way, based on conditions on the ground that involve Iraqi politics and culture, American policy, troop strength, and tactical vulnerability.


Counterinsurgency experts have tended to rely heavily on two historical cases: the British in Malaya in the late 1950s, and the French in Algeria in the 1950s as expressed in the writings of one of its participants, the French officer David Galulla. Derived from these two historical cases into lessons learned by the counterinsurgency experts is the operational method of establishing combat outposts in areas of a country controlled by insurgents with the primary purpose of providing security and protecting the people.

In fact, this “right” way, as defined through history, was effectively and brilliantly put into practice two years ago in Iraq in the northern city of Tal Afar by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment under Col. H.R. McMaster. It revolved around the operational method of establishing large numbers of combat outposts manned by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers throughout the city, while simultaneously isolating the city with a surrounding sand berm.

But now, a “right” way to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Iraq has become the only way. Our new operational approach in Iraq is applying, without apparent question or deep analytical thought, these historical counterinsurgency lessons and those from experience in Tal Afar and Ramadi.

Arguably, this 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 a civil war and that 25,000 additional combat troops are not enough to solve militarily what is essentially a political problem. To replicate Tal Afar in Baghdad would require 120,000 American troops. The recent surge in sectarian killings in Tal Afar should also teach us that there are limits even for the “right” way to conduct counterinsurgencies. Yet, we are so confident of our newly released counterinsurgency doctrine — a doctrine that was built on the writings of lessons learned by the counterinsurgency experts — that we apply it dogmatically in Baghdad. Dogma means adhering to a set of principles and tenets and applying them in an overpowering way without considering alternatives. This is what we have come to in our current operational approach in Baghdad.

Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz said that history should inform the commander’s judgment, not accompany him to the battlefield. On the streets of Baghdad, history and its reduction into lessons learned by counterinsurgency experts is determining the operational method on the battlefield. Ironically, at a time when senior commanders should be re-reading Clausewitz for his profound and still relevant insights on war, our new counterinsurgency doctrinal manual intentionally removes “On War” from its counterinsurgency classics reading list. By my reckoning, the reasoning was to bludgeon big-battled minded conventional army officers out from the dark side and into the light of counterinsurgency warfare. Somehow, the Counterinsurgency experts have blamed Clausewitz for the conventional mindedness of the American Army. How as an Army did we come to forsake the brilliance and immediate relevance of Clausewitz for the simplistic principles of David Galula and the pop-anthropology of “armed social scientists?”

We are thus unable to see the war in Iraq as it really is now, and are unable to devise policy and operational methods to suit it. The Army has been turned into a counterinsurgency-only force with a severely atrophied capacity to fight those “legacy” large-scale battles that might, in fact, still be looming on the horizon. In this sense, one can argue that our Army is broken.

Douglas Macgregor argued in AFJ [“Washington’s War,” October] for a reinvented American military that is focused on joint capabilities and directed by a strategy that acknowledges the limits of American military power. The U.S. Army certainly has a place in Macgregor’s conception of a joint capable force. But our hyper-emphasis on counterinsurgency moves us away from Macgregor’s ideal and pushes us toward missions that might be impossible to accomplish.

Lt. Col. Gian Gentile, an active Army lieutenant colonel, commanded an armored reconnaissance squadron in west Baghdad in 2006. The views in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense.