Home > Q&A > Echo of Debate: Linn weighs in on Nagl vs. Gentile

Echo of Debate: Linn weighs in on Nagl vs. Gentile

February 12th, 2009
Daily prayer at FOB Falcon, Iraq. (Defenselink: PO2 Todd Frantom)

Daily prayer at FOB Falcon, Iraq. (Defenselink: PO2 Todd Frantom)

Readers of Joint Force Quarterly were treated in the current issue to a pointed exchange between John A. Nagl and Gian P. Gentile. Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel and now senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argued that the U.S. Army “has not taken its current wars seriously enough,” neglecting counterinsurgency and nation-building. Gentile, an Army colonel who now directs West Point’s military history program, took the counterpoint, arguing that “we court strategic peril as a result” of too much emphasis on irregular warfare. Texas A&M historian Brian McAllister Linn, author of The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War–a book cited favorably by both sides–joins the discussion from Singapore, where he is now a Fulbright Fellow at the National University.

For those not familiar with Linn’s work, here’s a quick summary of the taxonomy he constructs to classify the “martial philosophies” that have guided the evolution of the U.S. Army since its inception:

  • Guardians: “war is best understood as an engineering project in which the outcome is determined by the correct application of immutable scientific principles.” Exemplar? Colin Powell.
  • Heroes: “war is simply battle–an extension of combat between individuals on both the physical and the moral plane.” Exemplar? George S. Patton.
  • Managers: “war is fundamentally an organizational (as opposed to an engineering) problem–the rational coordination of resources, both human and materiel.” Exemplar? George C. Marshall.

1. You argue in your book that “much of American military thought has been narrow, contradictory, and logically suspect.” Much of your work is a criticism of the strength old dogmas have had, from coastal fortifications to limited atomic warfare. What do you make of Gentile’s assertion that counterinsurgency doctrine has became one of those dogmas?

Let me say at the beginning that Gian Gentile is an excellent historian and a good friend. I would never characterize any of his work as narrow, contradictory, or logically suspect. I admire him greatly and view his contributions to the current COIN debate as essential reading–I assign them to my students. Does the COIN school represents a new intellectual “vision of war” that should be placed alongside the Guardians, Heroes, and Managers? I think it is too early to tell, but I suspect not. Most of the COIN theorists (and their critics) in the past fell within one of the traditional schools. In the colonial wars of the early 20th century, Heroes tended to dominate the COIN discussion and their writings reflected traditional Heroic emphasis on martial virtues, experience, the individual commander’s genius, and so on. Many of these values still echo in the current COIN rhetoric. Some might argue FM 3-24 represents an effort to decentralize the command structures established to fight conventional warfare and restore power and control to lower-level officers. FM 3-24 does not try to create a system-of-systems for counterinsurgency (as Managers would) or attempt to reduce COIN to a predictable science (as Guardians would). Interestingly, Gian’s critique of FM 3-24 also references Heroic values. At least from the outside, it appears to me that the debate over FM 3-24 and the counterinsurgency school is really an internal dispute between two groups I would term Heroic.

On patrol in Baghdad. (Defenselink: PO2 Todd Frantom)

On patrol in Baghdad. (Defenselink: PO2 Todd Frantom)

2. The COIN debate, in some respects, mirrors the history vs. political science debate. The former emphasizes uniqueness and uncertainty while the latter emphasizes models and conceptual frameworks. As a military historian yourself, do you have any thoughts on adopting COIN as doctrine?

I think there is a danger of seeing doctrine as an end to itself. That is, doctrine is the foundation, i.e. the first place to look for not only how an Army intends to fight but also its central concepts. This fixation on doctrine may owe much to the impact of FM 100-5 Operations (1976) and its holistic vision of war. But doctrine should be seen as an ideal–it may not accurately reflect how military forces actually conduct operations. As my friend Gian has noted, his unit (4th ID) was criticized for its heavy-handed approach in 2003 in Tikrit and the 101st widely praised for its pacification campaign in Mosul. But Gian’s own command practiced counterinsurgency techniques in 2003 that were designed to assure local peace and order and would be validated in FM 3-24. Three years later, the supposedly COIN-focused 101st was accused of brutality and war crimes. What was widely seen in 2003 as a case of conventional doctrine failing (4th ID) and counterinsurgency doctrine (101st) working was really a far more complex issue, perhaps most effected by local conditions, the nature of the insurgency, and what innovations and adaptations the COIN forces on the ground made. This is the essence of Gian’s argument. But I don’t think John Nagl and the other authors of FM 3-24 would disagree with him. What would be a fascinating debate is Nagl and Gentile on Army conventional warfare doctrine. There is an implicit suggestion in Gian’s work that Army conventional warfare doctrine prior to Iraq-Afghanistan worked well (and therefore we can safely return to it). But Gian might agree that the pre-Iraq Army conventional vision of war was far more dogmatic than the COIN school of today is. As I recall, in 2000 the Army senior leadership (through Army Vision statements and transformation initiatives) declared that the service’s top priority was effective early entry forces able to deploy in 96 hours. There was much attention on tracks versus wheels, interim versus legacy forces, NWC, “timeliness and granularity,” the Future Combat System, the maneuver BLOS and so on. There was little thought at the senior level (at least from what I saw) directed at the problems of fighting a sustained war of attrition. The Chief of Staff’s professional reading list in history for 2001 is relentless in its focus on conventional big-unit warfare. Did these accounts of WW2 and Civil War battles anticipate the wars their readers would be fighting in a few years? I could be wrong, but I think that the operational doctrine the Army took into Iraq (FM 100-3: Operations, 1993) devoted all of 11 sentences to insurgency and counterinsurgency. Now that was a doctrinaire (and Guardian) vision of war. Suffice it to say that compared to where the Army was intellectually in 2000, it has come a long, long way, and both John and Gian should be credited for dealing with the hard issues in such an informed manner.

British patrol in Basra. (Defenselink: Pfc. Rhonda J. Roth-Cameron)

British patrol in Basra. (Defenselink: Pfc. Rhonda J. Roth-Cameron)

3. “Win all wars,” argues Gentile; “win these wars,” argues Nagl. Where would you fit on the spectrum?

Well, I guess I’d want to know what wars. At the risk of being too clever, I think the obsession with winning (or not losing) may explain much of the current mess. There is the phenomena of short-term winning (missions accomplished) and long-term defeat. Certainly the reputation of the conqueror of Baghdad, Tommy Franks, is not what it once was. There is also the issue of setting such a lofty standard for “winning” (democracy, peace, and free trade in the Middle East) that the objectives are unobtainable despite military victory on the battlefield. And then there is the question of whether winning an immoral war by barbaric methods that permanently corrupt, or bankrupt, or permanently weakens you constitutes winning–the Persian-Byzantine conflict that resulted in both sides being too weak to withstand Islam being an example. That long digression aside, Gian is correct that US military power is limited and should not be squandered on wars that are not crucial to national survival. Yet I don’t find the all-or-nothing argument of extreme conventional warfare advocates convincing (I am not referring to Gian here!) They act like a persecuted minority when, in fact, they continue to control most doctrine, most training, most equipment purchases, etc. For all the complaints of the conventional warriors, the curriculum at all the Army service schools is still far more focused on conventional wars that have been fought or may be fought than it is on the counterinsurgency conflicts the US Army is currently fighting. I am yet to be convinced that an exclusive focus on conventional warfare such as the Army had in 1999-2000 produces a ‘better’ Army–particularly in the realm of commanders who can adapt and innovate under wartime circumstances. Paul Yingling has some interesting things to say about this. The US Army is a global force and will be exposed to a variety of military challenges–most of which are far more likely to be the scenarios envisioned in FM 3-24 than in FM 100-5 (1993). A final word. The Army is unlikely to win a particular war, much less all wars, unless it starts thinking a lot more seriously about war and a little less about process and procedure.

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