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The Colonels and ‘The Matrix’

In the spring of 2007, as the first wave of new combat brigades arrived in Baghdad to execute President George W. Bush’s troop surge, an Army lieutenant

Jul 31, 2020
In the spring of 2007, as the first wave of new combat brigades arrived in Baghdad to execute President George W. Bush’s troop surge, an Army lieutenant colonel named Paul Yingling booted up his computer at Ft. Hood, Tex. He received an email accusing him of moral cowardice. It was from Yingling’s friend, a fellow Iraq veteran and Army lieutenant colonel named Gian Gentile.
Gentile was concerned about a highly influential article that Yingling had written for the magazine Armed Forces Journal titled “A Failure In Generalship.”The piece was incendiary. Yingling, barely 40 and an Iraq veteran twice over, had issued a *j’accuse *to the entire general officer corps for failing, over the previous 15 years, to anticipate low-intensity conflicts with insurgents and prepare U.S. troops accordingly. He further contended that the generals failed to deliver their best military advice to the Bush administration about the true costs of the war in Iraq, preferring not to challenge the White House’s optimistic fantasies. “Failing to visualize future battlefields represents a lapse in professional competence,” Yingling had written, “but seeing those fields clearly and saying nothing is an even more serious lapse in professional character.” The people he criticized have the power to end his career.
But to Gentile, Yingling was the lapsed officer. In his email, and then in a volley of op-eds and blog posts over the next year, Gentile derided Yingling for failing to call any general out by name. Worse yet, Gentile now contends that blaming the generals represents a myopia on the part of Yingling’s fellow counterinsurgency enthusiasts — until recently, he counted himself one — to accept the U.S. failure in Iraq. “By not naming names,” Gentile, now a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said in a phone interview, “he has left it open for the generals themselves to interpret who’s in the Yingling-screw-up crowd. The way that comes out, until the early months of the surge, he doesn’t want to say who but he really means [former Iraq commander and now Army Chief of Staff Gen. George] Casey, only a few units got it right and finally, maybe, we’re on the right track with Gen. Petraeus and the surge.” Both Yingling and Gentile claim to have received heaps of supportive email from soldiers.
In this argument between two respected senior officers, the next major debate over U.S. defense policy can be gleaned. Yingling speaks for an ascending cadre of young defense intellectuals, most of whom are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who assert that the U.S. military must embrace principles of counterinsurgency if it is to triumph in the multifaceted fight against global terrorism. Gentile, formerly one of those theorist-practitioners, believes the military has already moved too far in the direction of counterinsurgency, which he contends allows analysts to ignore the limits of U.S. military power. Both arguments represent an attempt to answer a searing question: What are the lessons of Iraq?
Ultimately, the answer to that question will probably be endlessly debated. But the counterinsurgency community — they call it “COIN” — has perhaps the most organized answer. Counterinsurgency is a much-disputed concept, but it refers to methods of warfare used to divide a civilian population’s political and sentimental allegiance away from a guerrilla force. From the start of the Iraq war, a cadre of warrior-thinkers in the military has questioned the use of tactics that focus more on killing enemies than giving the Iraqi population reasons not to support terrorists, insurgents and militias. “We don’t just talk about the enemy, we talk about the environment,” explained Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, until two weeks ago the corps commander in Iraq, in a lecture Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation. Not all of them assert that the early use of a counterinsurgency strategy could have won the war. But most contend, after the decline in violence in Iraq during the last half of 2007, that a counterinsurgency strategy would have allowed the war to have been less deadly than it is.
This small but dedicated group includes, most prominently, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. military forces in Iraqand Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command. Other luminaries are Petraeus COIN braintrusters like David Kilcullen, a gregarious former Australian Army officer and State Department adviser; Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who will soon teach military history at the Ohio State University; and Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft Petraeus and Mattis’ much-praised Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, a seminal text for the COIN community known as FM 3-24.
Less visible but highly influential members — many are lieutenants, captains and enlisted soldiers and Marines who came of age in Iraq and Afghanistan — include Janine Davidson, who works in the Pentagon’s directorate of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict; cultural anthropologist Montgomery McFate; Harvard human-rights expert Sarah Sewall (an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign); and Marine Corps University Professor Erin M. Simpson. The Democratic-aligned Center for a New American Securitythink tank plays host to many emerging counterinsurgency figures, like Colin Kahl, Nate Fick, Roger Carstens, Shawn Brimley, and, starting in the fall, Nagl. During moments of downtime, the community obsessively reads and comments on the Small Wars Journaland Abu Muqawamablogs.
Drawing on arcane military and academic histories of largely forgotten “small wars” in places like Malaya and the Philippines, the counterinsurgents place a premium on using the minimum amount of violence needed to target a shadowy enemy; on intimate knowledge of foreign cultures to cleave civilian populations from an insurgency; on distinguishing enemies that can be co-opted from “irreconcilables” that must be killed; on using proxy forces whenever possible; and on the central recognition that military force can never substitute for a political strategy that offers better, deliverable alternatives to a population than those presented by an adversary.
These are the lessons that the counterinsurgents believe need to be applied — first in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then institutionalized throughout the military. To them, institutionalization is key: it’s something that the military avoided in the generation between Vietnam and Iraq, so as not to entangle the U.S. in any more counterinsurgency campaigns — even as adversaries adjusted to America’s conventional military dominance. During the Clinton years, the Pentagon focused on buying “more high-tech jet fighters, artillery systems, and sensors, while there was very little [emphasis] on low-intensity warfare,” Yingling said. “Even as we’re operating in Somalia, the Balkans, and elsewhere, where we’re trying to develop security forces and build governance capacity, we were disconnected from our experience in the 1990s.”
There are some early signs of institutionalization. First, Petraeus has become a national hero, thanks in large measure to the administration’s use of him to bolster dwindling support for the war. Second, before he left for Iraq, Petraeus commanded the Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, a bastion of the Army’s institutional knowledge, where he established perhaps the first counterinsurgency course for young officers. Third, in the fall, the Army briefly recalled Petraeusto the U.S. to preside over which colonels to promote to brigadier general.
Fourth, the Army recently raised stability operations to equal importance with offensive and defensive operations in its official Operations manual, FM 3-0 — adding a new category of warfare for the first time in the Army’s 232-year history. Finally, Petraeus’ corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, will become the Army’s vice chief of staff, though Odierno’s commitment to counterinsurgency is a matter of debate within the community.
Yet the counterinsurgents, owing to their outsider status for a generation, consider themselves a besieged minority inside the military, with “Big Army,” elements in the Marine Corps, and the non-ground services out to marginalize this method of warfare it finds undesirable. The Marine Commandant, Gen. James Conway, has seemed to slight counterinsurgency in his public statements as a “lesser-included” mission of the Marine Corps. Counterinsurgents noted glumly that Nagl never received a promotion to full colonel. Even with Petraeus at the helm of the promotions board, some wonder whether a colonel named H.R. McMaster, who successfully implemented a counterinsurgency strategy in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005 at the command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, will ever receive his first star.
Meanwhile, the procurement priorities of the Army haven’t significantly changed since Iraq, nor have the ground services gotten a significantly bigger piece of the budgetary pie. “The Army has gotten a much bigger share than it has traditionally because of the costs of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it plays the dominant role,” said Steve Kosiak, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “In terms of the ‘base’ budget — i.e., the budget exclusive of war costs — its share has grown as well, but only very modestly. It still receives slightly less than the Navy and Air Force.”
Gentile considers the counterinsurgents’ sense of beseigement to be ludicrous. To him, the military is undergoing a titanic shift in favor of counterinsurgency with little debate over the implications. “I worry about a hyper-emphasis on COIN and irregular warfare,” he said in a phone interview, with “less mechanization, less protection and more infantry on the ground walking and talking with the people. It’s a potential recipe for disaster if our enemies fight the way Hezbollah did against the Israelis in the summer of ’06.”
He continued, “Petraeus sat on the promotion board. Do we reallythink H.R. won’t have a star on his shoulder? They’re the ones in control. I don’t see how they can think otherwise. They’re almost like the minority party that finally becomes the majority party and can’t get over the fact they’re the majority!”
Gentile even has a term for the counterinsurgents’ view of their place in the Army: he calls it The Matrix, after the mind-controlling Baudrillardian machine that alters the perception of reality in the eponymous Wachowski Brothers films.
There was a time when he would have swallowed the blue pill. Gentile served two tours in Iraq, first in Tikrit in 2003 under Odierno and then in western Baghdad in 2006, commanding an armored cavalry squadron. Despite what he calls a counterinsurgents’ “master narrative,” whereby counterinsurgency arrives in Iraq first in Tal Afar with McMaster and then in Baghdad with Petraeus, Gentile said that units — including his own — applied COIN practices throughout the war. “Clearly, there are examples of units not getting it,” he said. “But I believe that at the tactical level — infantry scouts, platoons, companies and battalions — performed [counterinsurgency operations] by the book even beforeFM 3-24.” Yet, Gentile observed, conditions in Iraq got worse, not better.
That realization turned Gentile from a COIN practitioner to a COIN skeptic. Essentially, he swallowed the red pillto escape the Matrix during the triumphalism surrounding the troop surge in 2007. Counterinsurgency, he now believes, has a role in a modern military, but an excessive focus on it serves as an alibi to avoid recognizing that the U.S. military is not omnipotent. “I think Andrew Bacevich, at the policy-strategy level, has basically nailed it,” Gentile said, referring to the retired Army colonel who contends that Iraq is an irredeemable strategic mistake. “He points out the limits of what American military power can accomplish.”
Yingling finds his friend’s argument to be, at the least, premature. To him, there are too many vestiges of an improperly-footed military encumbering counterinsurgency to conclude that it has been fully tested and found wanting. “Why are our acquisition priorities the same as before 9/11?” he said from Ft. Hood, where he commands the 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery. “My field artillery battalion, we’ve got a multi-launch rocket system to guard detainees. We built the wrong Army in the 1990s and now we’re breaking it apart to fight the war we’ve got.” He continued, “The notion that America’s power as a nation is somehow at its limits today as we spend four percent of our GDP on defense and have an active-duty Army of half a million just doesn’t square with history.”
Nor can he accept Gentile’s argument that “A Failure In Generalship” needed to name names. “The failures of our general officer corps, through Vietnam and Iraq, occur independently of a single individual,” said Yingling, who learned counterinsurgency while soldiering for McMaster in Tal Afar. “To focus on individual culpability misses the point. There’s a structural problem with how the armed forces develop senior leaders. And until we address it, we’ll keep getting the same result.”
Just as Gentile believes there’s a place for counterinsurgency in the military, neither does Yingling adopt a zero-sum approach to conventional warfare. “The high-intensity [side of things], I certainly don’t want to abandon it,” he said. “There’s a good debate to be had about what that balance should be.”
Striking that balance is the central question in U.S. military circles in 2008, and the counterinsurgency community is at the heart of it. Gentile has joined the battle in a very visible way. In newspaper pieces, in blog posts and in extended scholarly articles — including some that call out Yingling directly — he has warned of an uncritical drift toward counterinsurgency. In a widely read Small Wars Journal post on Tuesday, he accused the Army of sleep-walking into adopting FM 3-24. “It is necessary now to accept the truth that there was not wide-ranging debate within the Army and from that premise start one over our Counterinsurgency and Operational doctrine that is truly based on wide-ranging criticism in a ‘big tent,’” he wrote. “It is time to start thinking out loud.” That earned him a rebukefrom Charlie, one of the pseudonymous authors of the military blog Abu Muqawama: “Charlie is looking forward to reading his competing approach to counter-insurgency operations.”
That’s “the Matrix, though,” Gentile contends — “that’s why I’m hammered so much.” To Gentile, the inability of the counterinsurgency community to see that it’s winning the debate represents a convenient distortion of reality comparable to the leitmotif of the hit film: “They think they’re me, but I’m them.”
One thing Yingling and Gentile readily agree on is that the military will suffer from lack of intellectual reassessment. “We don’t agree on every point,” Yingling said, “but we do agree on the need for a rigorous debate in the Army about what kind of threats we face and what the Army needs [to defeat them]. I would not want the Army to rigidly adopt COIN doctrine in the same way we rigidly adopted high-intensity mechanized state-on-state warfare.”
Like most in the Army, Yingling cannot afford to treat that debate frivolously. Next month, he and his battalion will go back to Iraq, where they will be part of the first wave of post-surge forces. “I hope that we are able to build Iraqi capabilities to the point where the stability the surge produced becomes self-sustaining,” he said on the phone. “If we accomplish that, if we contribute to it, during my third tour in Iraq, I will consider it pretty successful.”
And there will be more lessons to learn — and debate — when he returns.
Hajra Shannon

Hajra Shannon

Hajra Shannona is a highly experienced journalist with over 9 years of expertise in news writing, investigative reporting, and political analysis. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Columbia University and has contributed to reputable publications focusing on global affairs, human rights, and environmental sustainability. Hajra's authoritative voice and trustworthy reporting reflect her commitment to delivering insightful news content. Beyond journalism, she enjoys exploring new cultures through travel and pursuing outdoor photography
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