In This Review

Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq
Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq
By David Fitzgerald
Stanford University Press, 2013, 304 pp.
Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency
Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency
By Gian Gentile
The New Press, 2013, 208 pp.
Hearts and Minds: A People's History of Counterinsurgency
Hearts and Minds: A People's History of Counterinsurgency
Edited by Hannah Gurman
The New Press, 2013, 304 pp.

Although U.S. forces are now out of Iraq and are quickly withdrawing from Afghanistan, debate still rages over counterinsurgency (COIN) and the concept of “winning hearts and minds.” Fitzgerald’s book is less concerned with the lessons of history than with the history of the lessons, especially those of the Vietnam War. Fitzgerald describes how stories of conflict get told and retold, even while the fighting is still under way, to support shifts in policy and strategy. The U.S. military has always been at best ambivalent about COIN, with a strong preference for recasting every contest in terms that suit more traditional forms of fighting. During the Vietnam War, this preference exasperated COIN enthusiasts, who believed that the war could be won if only the United States were less dependent on search-and-destroy tactics. But as Fitzgerald notes, it is not clear that any strategy could have succeeded given the underlying politics of the Vietnamese civil war. After the war, most U.S. military strategists took the view that the problem lay with COIN theory rather than their own uncertain application of it, and so they returned to their comfort zone of preparing for large-scale wars. This meant that they were totally unprepared for the Iraq war in 2003.

Fitzgerald’s point is illustrated by Gentile’s polemic against the “hearts and minds” approach to COIN. Gentile, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, shares his own bitter combat experiences in Iraq and vigorously indicts COIN and its proponents. He argues that narratives of Vietnam that he considers misleading harmed U.S. strategy during the Iraq war and strongly disputes the claims of COIN advocates who credit the counterinsurgency-based “surge” for the turnaround in Iraq that began in 2006. Outraged by the hype surrounding General David Petraeus, Gentile seeks to puncture the myth of the general as savior. His point, undoubtedly correct, is that success in wars such as Iraq depends mostly on the underlying political dynamics. In the case of the surge, the fact that members of Iraq’s Sunni minority turned against al Qaeda proved far more important than any U.S. tactic. Gentile also challenges the concept of hearts and minds as failing to recognize the unavoidable violence involved in such conflicts. But he pushes his argument too far, suggesting that all military interventions, regardless of the motives and the circumstances, are bound to end in failure.

Gurman offers a more telling critique of the hearts-and-minds approach by looking at the strategy from the bottom up rather than the top down. She and the book’s contributors consider the perspectives of the people whose loyalties were at stake during the insurgencies in British Malaya, the Philippines, Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan: villagers caught between local party bosses and militants, communities suspected of harboring insurgents, peaceful dissidents lumped together with crude terrorists, and activists who subverted governments they supposedly supported by building up their own power bases. These stories clarify why it is so difficult for any counterinsurgent military to appear as a benevolent force. The conclusion may be less that it is hard to win over hearts and minds and more that it is easy to lose them, owing to the insensitivity of foreigners, the careless use of firepower, counterinsurgents’ readiness to reduce risks to themselves at the expense of endangering host populations, and an inability to grasp foreign cultures and political currents.