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On Memorial Day, Debate Over Counter-Insurgency at West Point

The President laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery today, and he made a proclamation:

“After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,” he said at Arlington National Cemetery, drawing applause when he noted the “milestone” of it being the first Memorial Day in nine years without Americans fighting and dying in Iraq.

“As commander in chief, I can tell you that sending our troops into harm’s way is the most wrenching decision that I have to make,” Obama said shortly after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“I can promise you I will never do so unless it is absolutely necessary and that when we do, we must give our troops a clear mission and the full support of a grateful nation.”

No wars unless “absolutely necessary.” I feel so reassured!

More seriously, I’d say this is the most patriotic thing happening in America today. It does the most to honor the troops, by rethinking a strategy that puts them into impossible situations and incredible danger:

Now at another critical moment in American military history, the faculty here (at West Point) on the commanding bend in the Hudson River is deep in its own existential debate. Narrowly, the argument is whether the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq and Afghanistan — the troop-heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools and government — is dead.

Broadly, the question is what the United States gained after a decade in two wars.

“Not much,” Col. Gian P. Gentile, the director of West Point’s military history program and the commander of a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006, said flatly in an interview last week. “Certainly not worth the effort. In my view.”

Rethinking counter-insurgency is just long overdue. I never saw it as much more than a make-work program for defense contractors. It was a theory predicated on believing that modern wars take huge commitments over a number of years. It put us into two of the longest wars in our history – three, if you see Vietnamization as an early prototype of COIN – which also happen to be the most tragic and needless. But it filled that marketplace need for a lot of ordnance and tanks and communications equipment and mess hall personnel and all kinds of supplies and activities that a ready civilian army of private military contractors could provide.

Sadly, this remains more of an academic debate than a policy debate. Gian Gentile serves as one side of a debate within West Point, one that hasn’t necessarily penetrated the Pentagon. The Counter-Insurgency Field Manual still animates thinking in policy circles, and the legacy of Petraeus and McChrystal still holds a lot of sway.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, if counter-insurgency has waned, it has been in favor of the new American way of war, characterized by covert operations and drone attacks. While there’s a minor benefit in not risking the lives of soldiers and maximum treasure, it presents a host of other problems, including sowing hatred and risking blowback.

These are not the only two options for foreign policy – occupation or robot warfare. The best way to honor the service of the American military is to ensure they no longer have to fight, regardless of method. I am awed whenever I visit Arlington West, a weekly installation next to the Santa Monica Pier put on by Veterans for Peace, marking the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d be far more awed by its obsolescence.

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David Dayen

David Dayen