Ave Caesar!

SWJ’s Dave Dilegge takes on Ralph Peters (Go Dave!)

As Dave notes, the urge to solve political and social problems with brute force runs deep. Near the end, Dave quotes Steve Metz of the US Army War College [– see correction in the first comment, below]:

As always, I’m green with envy over Ralph’s way with words. But this hasn’t shifted me from my long held position: in the broadest sense, there are two approaches to counterinsurgency. Treat it like war and either kill or cow those who oppose you (call it the “Roman” method). Or try and minimize the extent to which it is like war, stress the political and economic, and try and win support thereby undercutting the insurgency (call this the “British” method).

My feeling is that history suggests that the Roman method is more effective. The British method takes much longer and has a lower probability of success. But American strategic culture has simply taken the Roman method off the table for us. Where, I think, Ralph and I diverge is that I don’t believe that even the most articulate national leadership can sell the American public on it. The British were able to deviate from their own method–South Africa and, to some degree, Kenya–specifically because their public was not as engaged in the course of colonial wars as our public is in small wars. American strategic culture may be a terrible impediment, but we cannot wish it away. So we’re left with the British method even given all of its complications and shortcomings.

As delightful as it is to see anybody deflate Ralph Peters (although Peters has trumpeted his “kill them all” tough guy rhetoric for so long that he’s become a parody of himself), it’s disturbing that as astute an observer as Steve Metz has forsworn counterinsurgency and is pining away for tactics based on mass killings and genocide (… that the Roman method is more effective).

Van Creveld makes a strong case in his latest book, The Changing Face of War, that this is true where local governments are fighting local insurgencies (which also covers Peters’ case of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. Even there, however, the British were eventually forced out).

When it comes to suppressing insurgencies that are fighting foreign occupiers, however, nothing has worked very well since about the middle of the 20th century. The Belgians probably hold the modern record for use of the Roman method, killing by some estimates 50% of the local population in the Congo, but were still driven out. The Soviets didn’t hesitate to use it, and where is their empire? We killed several million people in Southeast Asia. Gen Hermann Balck told Boyd that shifting the Schwerpunkt towards Leningrad would probably have worked, but in the end, the excellence of the German Army couldn’t compensate for the fanatical opposition generated by Hitler’s racial policies (van C notes that forces available to Germany for long-term occupation would have amounted to less than 1% of the population of the planned Nazi empire).

As Gen Sir Rupert Smith writes in The Utility of Force, if you’re going to use coercion as your C/I tool, you can never, ever let up. The moral and financial toll this extracts eventually saps the moral foundation — in a democracy, popular support — for continuing the war. OK, it’s true that if you can kill 100% of the inhabitants, the job is easier, but somewhere along the line we have seriously degenerated into fantasy.

But I have a bigger bone to pick. American strategic culture is not “a terrible impediment.” It is our best counterinsurgency tool, perhaps our only effective one. Van Creveld also suggested that although nothing works well, the “British Solution” is the only one that stands a chance of working at all. As Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye explain in yesterday’s Washington Post:

More broadly, when our words do not match our actions, we demean our character and moral standing. We cannot lecture others about democracy while we back dictators. We cannot denounce torture and waterboarding in other countries and condone it at home. We cannot allow Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay or Iraq’s Abu Ghraib to become the symbols of American power.

The United States has long been the big kid on the block, and it will probably remain so for years to come. But its staying power has a great deal to do with whether it is perceived as a bully or a friend. States and non-state actors can better address today’s challenges when they can draw in allies; those who alienate potential friends stand at greater risk.

Or, to paraphrase Gen Petreaus’s own advice for counterinsurgency operations, you can’t win by manufacturing enemies faster than you can eliminate them.

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