The Lincoln Brigade

FRED KAPLAN The insurgentsIn a previous post on what I called ‘the martial Arts‘ I commented on the teaching of humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point.  Now NBC has posted an extract from Slate columnist Fred Kaplan‘s new book, The insurgents: David Petraeus and the plot to change the American way of war (Simon & Schuster, 2013) that speaks directly to the role of the Department of Social Sciences (“Sosh”) in the reformulation of US counterinsurgency doctrine.

I’ve grown weary – and sceptical – of the constant placing of David Petraeus front and centre in these discussions, since I think that much of the effort was de-centred, emerging through pragmatic experiments by different commanders on the ground at different places in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq, but Kaplan provides an interesting gloss on the history of the social sciences at West Point – and in particular the attempt to produce ‘a sense of separate space for critical inquiry’ – and the reach of its interpersonal network of alumni who called themselves ‘the Lincoln Brigade’.

SOSHThe social sciences program at West Point owed its power to General George ‘Abe’ Lincoln – who, astonishingly, insisted on a demotion to Colonel in order to take up a position at West Point – who, in the wake of the Second World War, envisaged a new kind of staff officer, one ‘with three heads’: one military, one political and one economic.  (The current course catalog is here: it emphasises American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations and Economics).

Over the years, a network of Lincoln’s acolytes—and the acolytes of those acolytes—emerged and expanded. They called themselves the “Lincoln Brigade” (an inside joke on their left-wing stereotype, referring to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the group of American leftists who, in the 1930s, had gone off to fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War). Over the years, when these alumni-officers were appointed to high-level positions, they’d usually phone Colonel Lincoln—or, later on, his successors as department chairmen—and ask for the new crop of top Sosh cadets, or the most promising junior faculty members, to come work as their assistants.

I can imagine that Petraeus on the cover – or between the covers – is a strong selling-point (the revelation of Petraeus’s affair pushed up the book’s publication from February), but Kaplan has used e-mails, documents and interviews to bring into sharper focus the role of men like John Nagl, H.R. McMaster and Peter Chiarelli in reformulating ‘the American way of war’.

Janet Maslin‘s New York Times review here, and Eliot Spitzer’s interview with Kaplan here (where he emphasises Petraeus’s skill at building a myth about himself….).

Learning to eat soup with a silver spoon

John Nagl,  one of the principal architects of the revised US counterinsurgency strategy – and the author of Learning to eat soup with a knife: counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (the title is a riff on T.E. Lawrence) – retired from the US Army in 2008 and became a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and its President in 2009.  In January 2012 he was elected to the Minerva Chair at the US Naval Academy.  There are more than a dozen of these Minerva Chairs: Montgomery “Mitzie” (sic) McFate, another advocate-publicist of the ‘cultural turn’ in counterinsurgency, holds one at the Naval War College.   But it’s now been announced that from July 2013 Nagl will be stepping down (or up) to become the ninth headmaster of Haverford, an exclusive prep school in Philadelphia that “prepares boys for life”.

None of this would matter very much, except that some commentators see in this the final nail in the coffin of counterinsurgency (COIN).  Over at the American Conservative, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos claims that ‘there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan’ than Nagl’s move to Haverford.

Vlahos contributes to Fox ‘News’ and to, and her ability to walk on both sides of the street gives her an interesting perspective on counterinsurgency and the Center for a New American Security.  Three years ago she quoted – with evident approval – one retired colonel: “You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What’s the difference?”  And she concluded:

‘COIN has yet to be fully tested or even legitimated by any success outside of the [Iraq] surge narrative. So while one well-connected think tank gets top billing in Washington, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as the American men and women serving dutifully there — remain “long-term” guinea pigs. If it doesn’t work, an office on Pennsylvania Avenue might shut, but the implications for the world could be catastrophic.’

Certainly Obama has little appetite for future counterinsurgency campaigns.  He’s made his preference for a mix of covert-ish drone strikes, special forces operations and cyberwar perfectly clear: war by any other name.

But the revision of Army FM 3.24 – the new COIN Bible issued in 2006 (Nagl wrote an extended foreword for the University of Chicago Press edition) – has been under way since the end of last year.  And the US Army Combined Arms Center is no less clear on its aspirations:  ‘Simply put, the revised FM 3-24, informed by the many lessons learned after a decade of sustained land combat operations, will allow US ground forces to continue to address irregular threats in an uncertain future.’  You can download some of the preliminary briefing papers here – including notes on “Clear-Hold-Build” – and, if you’re so inclined, submit your own reflections through a questionnaire.  The process is to be completed by August 2013, and there have already been two conferences at Fort Leavenworth to discuss the revisions.

So the game is far from over, and while Ms Vlahos may be right,  I’m not convinced that the Pentagon is ready to put away these particular knives.  Or that the soup will be any easier to eat.