This is the first installment of an occasional series for Politics, Power, and Preventive Action (3PA): “Ten Whats With….” In each installment I will ask a standard set of questions to friends and colleagues who work on interesting topics.
Colonel Gian P. Gentile is a serving army officer and is currently a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He teaches history at West Point. He has had two combat tours in Iraq, most recently in command of a Cavalry Squadron in West Baghdad in 2006. He holds a PhD in history from Stanford University.
3PA: What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?
Col. Gentile: This past year at CFR I have been working on a book on four modern wars of counterinsurgency: the British in Malaya, the United States in Vietnam, and the current American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My basic argument is that counterinsurgency—American style of winning hearts and minds of populations to defeat an insurgency—doesn’t work. The title of the book betrays the argument in it, “Wars that Never Were: Exposing the Myth of American Counterinsurgency.” The myth—as put forward in the narrative of counterinsurgency (expressed in texts like Galula’s, and more currently books by writers like Tom Ricks’s “The Gamble” and Linda Robinson’s “Tell Me How This Ends”) is that it works, yet good history and an unbiased view of current experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that it does not.
What got you started in your career?
My father was in the Army Air Forces in World War II and my older brother served in the Army during the Vietnam War, so I grew up in a family with a tradition of military service. My father after World War II became a high school history teacher and football coach. So I think I always had this dual career path in my mind; that of a soldier and also of a teacher.
What advice would you give to young people in your field?
As a soldier and officer my advice would be to always maintain one’s integrity and honor, and then work hard at developing a professional ethic of high competence brought about by hard work and the resolve to carry any mission or assignment through to completion. As a historian it would be to do good scholarly history through the grounding in primary sources; primary sources and the historians use of them is what makes us different from other scholarly fields, and is what allows us to contribute to knowledge.
What person, book, or article has been most influential on your thinking?
Over the long term the book that still resonates with me, the book that I can still pick up anytime and re-read and gain insights and knowledge, a book that makes me think differently each time I read it, is Carl Von Clausewitz’s “On War.” As far as books in the short term that have influenced my thinking would be John Mackinlay’s “The Insurgent Archipelago” since it has been the only adequate explanation and interpretation of the current global insurgency and its historical roots.
What was the last book you finished?
Paddy Griffith’s brilliant “Battle Tactics of the Civil War.” I am in the middle of preparing to lead a Gettysburg staff ride later this month and Griffith’s book offers excellent historical analysis as to the nature of civil war infantry combat.
What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?
I think with the current fad and fetish of counterinsurgency, irregular wars, often times caricatured as “wars amongst the people” fought to win the allegiance of local populations and to suppress so called “irregular threats,” we may be losing the bubble on the fact that states still exist, and potentially in the future we may one day have to face a hostile state again. This is not to say that the Russians will emerge again for us to fight in the Fulda Gap, but the future seems to hold perhaps a competition for natural resources, of which states will try to garner and protect, and the possibility of confrontations with such states.
What is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?
Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is the faux bogeyman that has been constructed to justify long term nation building in Afghanistan. There to be sure is the threat of al-Qaeda in that region, but it is not an existential one, and certainly can be managed with much less blood and treasure than we are committing now to it.
What is the most significant emerging global challenge?
For the United States the most significant emerging global challenge is actually within our own house and backyard, and it is the vitality of the American economy. Unfortunately, we have spent far too much blood and treasure on the strategic wastes of Iraq and Afghanistan when our real source of strength and security rests within our own borders. This is not in any way a call for isolationism, but instead to realize where our real strength and security comes from and it doesn’t come from slaying wretched guerillas in the troubled spots of the world in order to change societies in those places.
What would you research if given two years and unlimited resources?
Either of these two medieval battles: Poitiers or Agincourt. I have always been quite interested in the military history of the medieval period, but have never had the time and resources to devote to primary historical research in that field.
What are your criticisms of the lessons drawn from past counterinsurgency campaigns, and how the United States has applied those lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan?
As I said above, counterinsurgency (COIN) American style doesn’t work. History and current operational practice shows this to be the case. American COIN is based on a flawed understanding of history, and it is based on a theory of insurgency and countering them that is equally flawed and broken. Yet still, because folks think that COIN worked in Iraq during the Surge, we are attempting to replicate that “success” in Afghanistan. Yet it is a fool’s errand and a strategic waste; we can accomplish the president’s core political objective in Afghanistan (“disrupt, disable, and eventually defeat al-Qaeda”) with much less blood and treasure. Unfortunately the American Army and parts of the American defense establishment has placed itself in the straightjacket of the operational framework of population centric counterinsurgency, and cannot think otherwise about alternative strategies. One hopes that with the upcoming change in American Army generalship in Afghanistan that finally some “otherwise” thinking might be injected.