Hearts and Minds and Force

This month's Military Review -- the in-house journal for the Army's leadership and staff college at Fort Leavenworth -- contains a bunch of great stuff.

One of the best articles comes from Andrew Birtle, a senior military historian who has authored two of the better books on the subject of counterinsurgency. In his article, titled "Persuasion and Coercion in Counterinsurgency Warfare," Birtle examines the role that force plays in "winning hearts and minds," and comes to some interesting and important conclusions about the need to balance hard and soft power during these endeavors.

[T]his brief review of America's experience in waging internal conflicts has demonstrated that the U.S. government and its Army have always used a combination of positive and negative measures to suppress rebellions. Much to the frustration of theorist and practitioner alike, history has shown that there is no simple formula for combining these two essential yet volatile ingredients. Rather, counterinsurgency warfare has proved to be more alchemy than science, with each situation requiring a different proportion of ingredients, depending upon the social, political, cultural, and military nature of the conflict.

This truth notwithstanding, individuals writing about counterinsurgency warfare most emphasize the unusual degree to which political considerations permeate what in conventional conflicts would be purely administrative, technical, or military decisions. This is understandable, but it can become counterproductive when taken to extremes. All too often, people reduce counterinsurgency's complex nature to slogans declaring that political considerations are primary, that nation building is a viable war-winning strategy, and that the only road to victory is to win the "hearts and minds" of a population. As with many clichés, these promote one truth at the expense of another.

There are several reasons why such slogans tend to obscure more than they illuminate. To begin with, simplistic catch phrases do not convey the reality that some political differences are irreconcilable--which, of course, may be why the parties to a dispute have resorted to arms in the first place. neither do such phrases help policymakers navigate the labyrinth of political considerations incumbent in any internal conflict. Just as political and military concerns will sometimes clash, so too will choices have to be made between competing political imperatives. Slogans such as "winning hearts and minds" can also lead to a misapprehension that counterinsurgencies are popularity contests. sometimes unpopular actions such as the Army's relocation of civilians during the Philippine War may be necessary. In the same way, worthy actions such as the liberation of a previously repressed class may fan the flames of resistance among a nation's traditional elite, while promoting democratic reforms, as the United States did in Vietnam, can backfire by increasing instability.

Birtle bases his argument on studies of the Civil War, Philippine insurrrection and the Vietnam War. But his larger point is clearly relevant to Iraq and Afghanistan and broader consideration of the military's new counterinsurgency doctrine. He concludes:

The reality, of course, is that politics and force are inextricably linked in a dynamic, symbiotic relationship, and both are necessary to win. The great challenge is to find the right blend for a particular situation--a formulation that may well be different from that used at another time or place, even during the same conflict. slogans like "politics are primary" are useful if they remind us that, in counterinsurgency as in all forms of war, military means must be subordinated to political ends, and that political and persuasive arts play a vital role in waging and resolving internal conflicts. they are less useful if they lead us into the mistaken belief that political considerations must trump military and security concerns at every turn, that coercion is necessarily antithetical to success, or that we must significantly rework a struggling society into one that is a mirror image of our own.

By Phillip Carter |  July 8, 2008; 12:07 PM ET  | Category:  Counterinsurgency
Previous: A Good and Caring Person | Next: War Dames


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Birtle suggests that coercion, though it should act in concert with persuasion, may be the more important tool in winning counterinsurgency wars.

Miriam Webster defines terrorism as, "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion."

During the Phillipine War, Britle describes a successful use of "coercion" as putting, "the minds of the people [civilians] in such a state of anxiety and apprehension that living under such conditions will soon become unbearable."

Birtle is essentially chronicling the historical efficacy of violent terrorism in counterinsurgecny campaigns. Does anyone have any thoughts about this?

Posted by: Jeff | July 8, 2008 8:07 PM

Jeff, And unfortunately the victor gets to write the history.

But I suspect we are getting to learn that outside genocide and the mass destruction of total wars, other forms of warfare are complex riddles of dynamic and chaotic environments that will move beyond our original assumptions and models.

Megan O'Sullivan would recently note somewhat casually from her Harvard chair that it is a work in progress.

But may be we naturally create societies that are living systems and wars are competition between infectious intrusions into that system and an immunity reaction to the intrusion. "Hearts and minds" to warfare is now similar in comparison to Newtonian laws to relativity physics. As the casualty count rises, we awake to more about how little we understand.

Our Iraqis today demand a withdraw timetable. Hearts and minds? Iranian behest to eliminate a free air space for Israel's long shot? A Yalta demand to George Bush for continued quiet to help a heir's election? Family feud past US response to a domestic crisis? Or may be the immune systems is strong enough to remove the foreign bodies.

How little we understand despite our certainty.

Posted by: Bill Keller | July 8, 2008 9:23 PM

If you start with stupid policymakers you end up with stupid wars for which there are no good strategies. By Birtle's analysis, Lincoln was stupid only in halting the killing before "reeducation" was complete. He fails to acknowledge the difficulty of determining the veracity of a forced acceptance.

Posted by: wisedup | July 8, 2008 9:34 PM

probably better to say
"of determining the veracity and usefulness of a forced acceptance."

Posted by: wisedup | July 8, 2008 9:42 PM

General Hayden, the current director of the CIA, recently stated that developing nations with rapid expansions of young people have the most instability and potential for creating terrorists.

Education is overwhelmed and there are limited economic opportunities for the burgeoning youth. Republican presidents, beholden to the religious right, have defunded international family planning, forcing some clinics to shut down in developing countries. This is unbelievably stupid and counterproductive.

Easy access to contraceptives would contribute to making the argument over soft power or force moot.

A President McCain would keep the ban against international family planning funding. A President Obama would fully fund it. Elections do matter. How many terrorists were created since Reagan, Bush I, and Bush 11 withdrew funding for international family planning over the past 28 years???

Posted by: Mary | July 9, 2008 8:07 AM

Mary...what was the birth rate 150 years ago in developing countries...where were the family planning clinics 150 years ago? Why weren't there muslim terrorists blowing themselves up in western countries back then? Medical advances account for most decreased mortality rates in these countries and that has contributed to growing population of youth without opportunity. The obvious answer would be to keep medicine away from developing countries to return them to a status quo ante. Do you see how silly your logic is now?

In one sweeping statement you take a choice that this country is still having an argument about whether is actually a choice or not and turn it into a counter-terrorism strategy to be used against lesser societies. You need some serious therapy.

>>>How many terrorists were created since Reagan, Bush I, and Bush 11 withdrew funding for international family planning over the past 28 years???

Probably a lot less than the millions of potential good American citizens aborted over the last 28 years.

Posted by: Panhandle Willy | July 9, 2008 1:51 PM

I do see how silly your logic is Panhandle Willy. I never said anything about abortion, with which you seem obsessed. I said access to contraception, which prevents abortion. Or do you not accept the use of contraception? You are the one who suggested keeping medicine away from the developing countries, not I.

Your use of ad hominen attacks such as I need therapy only weakens your argument. Do you think General Hayden needs therapy??

I'll stick with what the director of the CIA says, developing countries with rapidly expanding youth populations are unstable and create terrorists. I think he knows what he is talking about better than you or I.

Posted by: Mary | July 9, 2008 3:59 PM

I found Birtle's argument not very convincing. First the Civil War was not a counterinsurgency, Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas targeted the economic capability of the South to continue the war as well as the moral will to resist, that is was part of a conventional war. The targeting of economic capacity is one of the elements that makes the Civil War a "modern war". Lincoln's increasingly harsh policies against internal dissent also fall under the usual actions taken by states in time of war.

The Philippine War was both a conventional and a guerrilla war. The illustration that Birtle includes in his article is the attack of the Nebraska volunteers under Col. Stotsenburg (who died leading his men in the attack) on Philippine positions at the battle of Quingua which was a conventional fight, with the Filipinos attempting to hold on to fortified positions and hinder the US advance. My point is that Birtle also argues that counterinsurgency is the same as counter-guerrilla warfare, which is widely accepted, but then confuses the issue with his examples and illustrations.

The real point that his examples bring out though he fails to see. That is the larger political context - what Clausewitz would refer to as the specific "nature" of the war in question - was the determining factor. This also includes the other states in the region and their interests and intentions in regards to US goals.

An insurgency never developed in the South because the Southerners lacked the will to continue to resist the US in ways of organized violence. They accepted the fact of their defeat. There was also no chance of outside support.

The Filipinos went over to guerrilla warfare after the failure of their repeated attempts to stand up to the US military in conventional fighting. This was a resort to a strategy of attrition and hopefully wearing down US resources and resolve and coming to some sort of negotiated settlement acceptable to the Filipino patriots. What they lacked was outside support and material cohesion, since the US controlled communication between the islands and the outside, could divide the resistance and clear one island at a time.

Vietnam was a loser because the US was unwilling and politically unable to commit the resources necessary to overthrow the government of North Vietnam. Rather the US was fighting a limited war in order to maintain the existence of the South Vietnamese government which lacked the ability to survive on its own. Also given the backdrop of the Cold War, both the USSR and China were interested in defeating US moves in Southeast Asia and could provide essentially unlimited support to North Vietnam.

Overly emphasizing the tactical level - which is what COIN is all about - blinds too many to the larger political context. The current war in Iraq involves the original policy of 2003 which envisioned a radical remake of Iraqi society by force and the domination of Iraq's mineral resources and economy by the US, this in the regional political context which was/is at best ambivalent. We never committed the resources necessary to achieve this radical goal, so never had a chance in gaining it. This policy has in turn been replaced by an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the old policy through the establishment of a puppet government, but with much confusion as various domestic US political interests see the continuation of the war, not its resolution, as best for their own narrow claims. Meanwhile the regional powers become ever more important players as well.

Seen from this perspective we see the full spectrum of US military actions going from more or less total success (the Civil War) to lesser success (Philippine War) to lesser defeat (Vietnam) and finally to total debacle. . . the current disaster in Iraq.

Posted by: seydlitz89 | July 10, 2008 8:51 AM

Oh, but the "surge" is working.

Posted by: Mary | July 10, 2008 3:49 PM

As the author of the article in question, I would like to make a few points in reference to seydlitz89's comments:

1. The illustrations were picked by the editorial staff of Military Review. I was not consulted and did not see them until the article was published--so don't try to read too deeply into what they may or may not signify with regard to my arguments.

2. Seydlitz, like many, gets diverted by definitions of what "type" of war we were fighting--conventional or unconventional, insurgency or guerrilla war. He can then dismiss an experience or example he dislikes by claiming it is "irrelevant" to the type of conflict he choses to define as being relevant. Since no two conflicts are ever alike, one could easily dismiss all of history by this argument--or just as damaging, only see what one want's to see. The American civil war was an INTERNAL conflict for the United States--that's why the government called them rebels and tried some for treason. (Remember when folks were saying Iraq was a civil war too?) It was fought largely with conventional means but guerrilla warfare, political concerns, occupation governments, and post war reconstruction all were key to resolving the conflict in a means acceptable to the U.S. government. Just because conventional forces are used in a particular conflict does NOT mean that conflict does not have internal socio-political, psychological, and irregular aspects. It does not mean we cannot learn useful things by studying it intelligently. Even Mao during the Chinese Revolution used conventional forces, fighting battles using hundreds of thousands of men on a side that dwarfed battles that have occurred in many a "conventional" war. Does this mean he wasn't waging an insurgency/revolutionary war/internal conflict, etc? Of course not. Did his use of conventional forces make his experience irrelevant? No. As Seydlitz correctly points out, the Philippine War started as a conventional war of conquest that became increasingly unconventional. Sound familiar (think Iraq folks). If the Philippine War was not an insurgency according to seydlitz, then if we apply his same logic does that mean the Iraq War also is not an insurgency? If so, how is COIN relevant? Finally, seydlitz's emphasis on the external factors that drove the Vietnam conflict, while correct, would bemuse the 1960s champions of "hearts and minds" counterinsurgency theory. It was they who continuously minimized the conventional and external aspects of the war and insisted that only South Vietnam's internal politico-guerrilla situation mattered, not the "conventional" war or external matters in general. My point is, let us not get wrapped up in definitions--that is a dead end for all concerned. Let's learn what we can from diverse situations, recognize the differences between them, and think critcally rather than wasting our time throwing around pedantic definitions. Clausewitz knew this--he wanted us to THINK, not to pigeon hole ideas into mutually exclusive mental closets.

3. It always amazes me that many people prefer to bury their heads in the sand rather than see the elephant in the room--that insurgency and counterinsurgency involve the application of coercion & force. To acknowledge that and to accept its consequences does NOT equate into advocating torture, attrocity, wanton killing or destruction. Rather than think clearly, hearts and minds fans prefer to "wave the bloody" shirt and silence any type of honest debate by painting their opponents as bloody minded barbarians. This is the poison of the "hearts and minds" slogan--one which the COIN manual recognized by deliberately NOT using the term (if memory serves, the phrase appears only once, buried in an appendix).

4. I fully acknowledge the critical importance of socio-politico concerns in counterinsurgency--I say so in the article. What I am arguing is that we ALSO must not delude ourselves as to the hard, cold reality of the equally important role that coercion plays. I seem to remember lots of talk after Iraq fell about nation building and winning hearts and minds as being the key. Soldiers were instructed not to wear sun glasses so as not to intimidate women; Marines were told to wear mustaches that would make them look more like Iraqis and thus make civilians more comfortable; soldiers passed out candy; streets were cleaned, and millions were spent on political, social, and economic infrastructure projects. All the while the mantra was that these efforts were the rosetta stone to the situation, much more so than military/police operations. Well, none of those well-meaning "good deeds" stopped the escalation of the insurgency, and much of our nation building effort was wasted. Iraqis did not keep the streets we cleaned free of debris. Kids threw the candy back at soldiers. Rebels destroyed and killed to intimidate and undermine reconstruction. Does that mean the politico-social efforts were wrong? NO. But many were misguided in thinking that these measures, guided by civilian "experts" rather than soldiers and with minimum military presence, would win the day. Security, as any soldier from the allegedly "irrelevant" Philipine War could have told us, is key...and it has been security gained largely by military force--more troops, more operational presence in populated areas, taking the war to the enemy and giving him no rest, more walls separating Iraqi communities into controllable confines (hence, restriction on freedom of movement), more effort to interdict supplies and caches, more intelligence operations, etc.... that has been the fuel of the surge and to what success we lately see in Iraq. Without that, I dare say we would have seen no progress at all. Do these things work in a socio-political vaccum? Of course not. I never said so. But as many historical examples can show (not just the three I picked), force and coercion also are KEY. We should not treat this fact as some dirty secret we need to wisper in the back alley lest it contaminate innocent ears. Doing so only misleads soldiers, politicians, and the public--and comes back to bite us in the end.

5. For example, Petraeus, according to a Washington Post article I read not long ago, is using MORE conventional air strikes and dropping MORE munition tonnage in Iraq than his predecessors! Does he not realize that conventional firepower, no matter how sophisticatedly controlled, kills innocents and alienates them? Whenever I see a news clip I see US soldiers kicking down doors, rousting frightened and sullen inhabitants, and carting off the male folk for examination. Doesn't he realize this alienates the people and drives them into the hands of the guerrillas? I read in the Post that Iraqi security forces continue to use torture and illegal means of interrogation despite US training. Do not he and our Iraqi protoges realize success is IMPOSSIBLE by such means (at least according to "classical" counterinsurgency theory)? Of course he does. But he also knows that force and coercion (exercised under proper controls--which is NOT to say antiseptically) is vital for progress.

6. So to wrap up, I'm not advocating Hitlerite behavior. I am just pointing out the reality that force and coercion are important facts of life in virtually any successful counterinsurgency I can think of. I believe we are better served by acknowleding this reality than by deluding ourselves into thinking counterinsurgency is just some wierd morph of American-style, chicken-in-every-pot peacetime political electioneering, or home town policing on steroids. In general, counterinsurgency is WAR. A different kind of war than World War II to be sure (though even there political, social, guerrilla, military government, and nation building issues were present and can be instructive for today), but armed conflict nonetheless. Let's acknowledge that and get over the tired and fruitless approach of portraying force and persuasion as mutually exclusive and antithetical methods--even the new COIN manual doesn't do that.

Posted by: Birtle | July 15, 2008 4:53 PM

Birtle writes:

"Rather than think clearly, hearts and minds fans prefer to "wave the bloody" shirt and silence any type of honest debate by painting their opponents as bloody minded barbarians."

Since seydlitz89, whose comments Birtle says he is addressing, makes a rather calm, well-reasoned response, I'll have to assume Birtle is here referring to my suggestion that he is essentially advocating violent terrorism, defined as the use of force on civilians to achieve political ends.

Birtle does not address my suggestion, I wager, because coercion, as he has defined it, is a rather flimsy euphemism for terrorism that breaks down quickly upon examination. Instead of assuring us that he does not endorse the use of terrorism, Birtle prefers to skirt the issue by reasserting his thesis that coercion is a reality of counterinsurgency wars. I understand Mr. Britle's argument. I wish only to suggest that he is advocating terrorism. I am not suggesting that terrorism doesn't work.

In the interest of the "honest debate" Birtle worries may be silenced, I'd enjoy hearing his response to these comments, particularly whether or not he believes that his idea of coercion fits the standard definition of terrorism.

Posted by: Jeff | July 22, 2008 11:35 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company