Here’s an index of how long I’ve been in grad school. When I first got the idea for my dissertation project, back when I was a lowly master’s student, I could say I planned on writing about the history of “counterinsurgency” and typically not have to elaborate. Copies of the Army/Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which had hit bestseller lists not long before, often washed up in the wares of the sidewalk used booksellers I frequented in New York. Its purported author, David Petraeus, was still seen as a genius and a role model, a man who would not fight “dumb wars” of the kind newly-elected President Barack Obama swore to avoid. People might not have had a very clear idea of what counterinsurgency was, and of course like tends to happen in academic projects I wound up with a somewhat different definition than the usual.
What a difference most of a decade makes! Nowadays, I find even with people who pay attention to foreign affairs, it’s a crapshoot whether they’ll know the term “counterinsurgency.” And there’s a good reason for this- between his marital woes and the way his supposed accomplishments in Iraq were overturned by a few fanatics in pickup trucks, Petraeus isn’t looking like much of a genius these days. Obama always preferred drone bombings to lengthy, costly counterinsurgency campaigns, and whichever angry dweeb is pulling Trump’s foreign policy strings made a point to dismiss “nation-building” in the president’s latest speech on the subject. Frankly, I wasn’t and am not cool enough to know what was cool around 2008 and isn’t considered cool now, but counterinsurgency is roughly in that category. It makes meeting people and telling them what I do even more of an awkward affair than it usually is, given that I find myself torn between the danger of assuming they know something they don’t and the risk of patronizing them in case they do.
The problem is compounded because like most projects I work on, the key term is in dispute. For some people, pretty much any effort to fight guerrillas – that is, insurgents – is counterinsurgency. I believe that either is or has been in the past the US military’s definition. Of course, militaries have been fighting guerrillas forever, long before the term “counterinsurgency” came into use. More than a fancy neologism – though it is also that – counterinsurgency came to denote a specific strategic concept that started to gel in the late 1950s. Shaped by the Cold War and decolonization struggles, counterinsurgency doctrine held that the way to defeat insurgents – especially the crop of leftwing insurgencies springing up around the globe at the time – was to deprive them of popular support. Insurgents rely on the support of the people in the area they operate, for recruits, supplies, intelligence, and most of all, cover- occupiers typically can’t tell a guerrilla from a peasant, the “guerrilla swims like a fish in the sea of the people,” as Mao put it. So counterinsurgency strategists set out on the assumption that winning the loyalty of the people of whichever area they are trying to pacify is of paramount importance.
While some of the earlier proponents of counterinsurgency were officers in late-colonial conflicts, like the French side of the Algerian Revolution, for the most part counterinsurgency has been undertaken by notionally-independent regimes in the developing world with varying degrees of assistance by some patron power- so, the Malayan government and the British against the Malayan People’s Liberation Army, the South Vietnamese government and the Americans against the National Liberation front, and so on. This is where the “nation-building” component Trump (or whichever dingdong was writing his speeches that day) pooh-poohs come in- counterinsurgency generally involves a larger power (usually the US) bolstering a friendly regime, often one in pretty advanced states of collapse. The patron power attempts to prop them up and get them going on their own in a sustainable way so the patron can eventually leave- that’s what Petraeus convinced everyone he did in Iraq in 2011.
As often happens with subtle but important distinctions, what led to the rise of counterinsurgency as a distinct mode of thought and practice, over and above long-standing ideas about fighting guerrillas is context. The western powers, especially the United States, reevaluated what insurgency meant in the context of Cold War stalemate and rapid decolonization. By the late-1950s, the early battlefields of the Cold War – eastern and central Europe along with northeast Asia – had both stabilized and become far too fraught to make many moves in. Send the tanks in to South Korea or East Germany and nuclear war would ensue. This, along with the process of decolonization that picked up in this period, led to the superpowers doing more of their competition in the developing world. Both powers sought alliances with the newly-independent and other developing states in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and a number of proxy conflicts took place in those countries between forces backed by the US and those seen as representing the Soviet Union, though these distinctions were often murkier than that makes it sound.
American policymakers were not, by and large, opposed to decolonization as a whole. Most of them saw the European colonial empires as embarrassing relics. However, that did not mean that they trusted the non-white countries coming on to the world scene to shape their own destinies. They were especially worried about the political agendas of decolonization movements. Very few of the leaders in the developing world, especially those with much in the way of a popular following, were dedicated to America’s side of the Cold War. Typically, the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were not especially interested in capitalism, which they associated with colonial oppressors, or in holding a line against communism. Most of the newly-decolonized countries, in fact, at least flirted with the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought to elide the Cold War entirely. Few of them were really jazzed by the Soviet Union, though the rapid industrialization that the USSR achieved was attractive to countries trying to establish their own industrial base (alas, the costs of that model were less well-publicized), and China under Mao was reasonably successful at reaching out to other countries with recent experience of overthrowing long-entrenched elites, as the Maoists had. But in general, most of the leaders and the masses in the newly-decolonized and other developing countries wanted freedom, both from formal colonial dominance and from the economic dominance that capitalism often engendered. They wanted out from underdevelopment and inequality, and socialism – if not the Soviet model than one of the many theorized by people in the developing world – looked like the way to go.
Naturally enough, this scared the American defense and foreign policy establishment. Even if they did not tend to see all anti-capitalists as part of a monolith directed by Moscow (and they did), they would still be worried about access to the resources and markets of the developing world should they go over to one or another form of socialism. Moreover, by appealing to the most heartfelt demands of the people – independence, widespread economic development, popular participation in politics, social equality – left-leaning guerrilla movements posed a major threat to American-aligned regimes in many developing countries. The entire developing world seemed like a giant sea that guerrillas could swim in at their leisure, and in most of the world, it was movements who wanted real independence – from American neocolonialism and capitalism, as well as European rule – who seemed to have the initiative. Overwhelming conventional military force didn’t seem to stop them, as witnessed by guerrilla victories in Algeria, Indochina, and elsewhere. The US “losing” two countries it once considered pliable allies – China and Cuba – to differing varieties of guerrilla revolutionaries affirmed their fears of this type of conflict.
While there were always some in the US military establishment who thought that decolonization as a whole was a dubious Communist plot to rile up the duskier people against their rightful betters, counterinsurgency ultimately came to be defined people who sincerely saw themselves as supporters of liberation and development in the decolonizing world- that is, of liberals. Liberal Cold War strategists – figures like Walt Rostow, Roger Hilsman, Edward Lansdale, and others – came to see the energy generated by decolonization as something that could be harnessed to American Cold War goals. The thought was that the United States needed to do a better job engaging with – or channeling, if put cynically – the energies of decolonization rather than thwarting it. That energy could then bolster friendly regimes in the developing world rather than undermining it. The US should, alongside helping deter Communists – seen as “hijackers” of the process of economic modernization according to liberal social scientists – needed to also support economic development and “progressive” elements in allied countries. In fact, the two tasks – fighting insurgents and nation-building – could only really work together. If you can get into the villages and convince the people you are with them – “winning hearts and minds” – through propaganda, aid, and fighting the guerrillas, then the insurgents would lose their popular base and collapse, thereby securing friendly rule.
Naturally, this perspective depended on the idea, common in social science at the time, that value conflicts – like between communist and liberal ideas of freedom – were pathological, or fraudulent- of course, liberalism (of the type practiced in Cold War America) was simply pragmatic and naturally right, and once that’s demonstrated to the villages of Southeast Asia, they’ll get that, the thought went. It also ignored the reality that the ruling regimes in most American-aligned developing countries had vested interests in preventing democratization or social reform on the village level. And there was always a wish-fulfillment element, of a peculiarly American – and peculiarly male – form at work in counterinsurgency. American virility, sapped by Eisenhower-era conformity and comfort, could be reestablished by going out and beating the communist guerrillas at their own game- going out into the countryside, getting your hands dirty digging irrigation ditches and building schools, getting in gunfights in the jungle, meeting some authentic brown folk and getting them to think you’re cool… one can only imagine the profile pictures this would have produced had OK Cupid been a thing back then. There are much more salient historical reasons for it, but it’s not entirely a coincidence that counterinsurgency came to prominence in part due to the interest of a president so invested in projecting intelligent virility that his dad hired prominent writers to help him do it- John Kennedy. It was Kennedy who established two bodies of people to promulgate his vision of rugged, ground-level involvement in Third World development and fighting Communists that symbolize the two sides of this vision: the Green Berets (the story goes Kennedy picked the hats himself) and the Peace Corps.
Taken together, what counterinsurgency represented – and still does, to a certain extent – is an effort to devise a new way to govern fractious societies under severe strain. It was an effort, put together by people who were not political philosophers in any formal sense of the term and who were mainly concerned with practical results, to develop a politics for the developing world. It was highly ambitious; liberals attempting to establish a new, permanent solution to the endemic problem of guerrilla war. Historically, it been dealt with through means that did not accord with Cold War liberalism, like massive retaliation against civilian populations harboring guerrillas, or dividing the people of a given insurgent country against itself (though, as we’ll see, both techniques found their way into the counterinsurgent toolkit). The Kennedy-era counterinsurgents (and, with a little less pizzazz, their contemporary inheritors) promised something new- a way to turn the problem of insurgency into opportunity.
People like Trump and other right-wingers (Kissinger was one by the time he was in power) who dislike counterinsurgency are right to distrust it- it is a very big and roundabout way to accomplish the goal of creating pliable client regimes. Leftists, of course, distrust it for a wide variety of other reasons, lead among them that it tries to reestablish American imperialism on a new, supposedly smarter footing. But the reason I got into it is because it’s an example of a way of governing – a governmentality, to use the fancy Foucauldian term – forming and evolving in response to both changes in ideas and the practical demands of a given situation. Moreover, it’s my belief that changes in counterinsurgency doctrine track alongside – and perhaps, in some cases, anticipate – changes in liberalism as a whole. Decolonization and subsequent waves of turbulence in the developing world stretched the ideological and governmental resources of liberalism to their limit. Tracing the adaptations both in counterinsurgency and in liberalism as a whole in response to these challenges offers a lot of useful perspectives on liberalism and its developments.
Probably the most prominent example of counterinsurgency as a governmentality is the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam. Initiated under the Kennedy administration – that is to say, before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution introduced massive numbers of American combat troops, but well after the US had committed itself to defeating the NLF insurgency in Vietnam – in partnership with the Diem regime in Saigon, the Strategic Hamlet Program was initially envisioned as a sweeping reconstruction of South Vietnamese society. Starting with a few model villages in Binh Duong province, the idea was that peasants would move into new model villages- the Strategic Hamlets. These hamlets would have everything- irrigation, schools, clinics, the works. They would be fenced in to provide security against the NLF guerrillas. They would be run by village committees and political cadres from Saigon would promote popular participation. As people saw the opportunities the strategic hamlets provided, and as the zone around them grew secure from guerrilla attack, more and more strategic hamlets would be built, spreading out from the original zone. Soon, all of South Vietnam would be covered by these model villages, which would be an economic boon as well as a death blow to the Communist guerrillas. This was counter-guerrilla strategy as economic modernization method- and vice versa.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The Diem regime did not care about village democracy or anything involved with consent from the peasants, and his troops brutally forced thousands of villagers from their ancestral homes, often burning them in the process. The Strategic Hamlets they were moved to were not yet built in most cases- Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, Nhu, a nutcase who was placed in charge of the program, insisted that the peasants should build them themselves, to build self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, Nhu’s political cadre harangued the peasants about anti-communism and “personalism” (a weird ideological mishmash the Diems tried to sell as an alternative to communism and liberalism) and routinely stole from them. The peasants were naturally displeased and were actually more receptive to the calls for support that came from NLF guerrillas who had no issue sneaking into the Strategic Hamlets. Operation Sunrise ended within a few months, and while some Strategic Hamlets continued to go up, the idea of a constantly-expanding oil spot of secure model liberal villages in the Vietnamese countryside was quietly tabled.
Ultimately, neither the Americans nor the South Vietnamese could see that alongside all of the logistical difficulties (to say nothing of rights violations) in their scheme, there was a very basic bad assumption- the assumption that the NLF was some foreign element to the South Vietnamese peasantry. It’s possible to overstate how popular the guerrillas were in South Vietnam – after all, it was a long, brutal war – but at the end of the day, the NLF was the closest thing to a form of genuinely popular political organization as existed in South Vietnam, certainly more so than the feeble efforts to create similar movements for the Saigon regime. As often happened in these situations, as the system collapsed, the Americans blamed the South Vietnamese and vice-versa. Soon enough, the greatest backers of counterinsurgency strategy in both countries – Ngo Dinh Diem and John Kennedy – were both assassinated, and a new stage of the war began.
Alongside the Strategic Hamlet project, the Phoenix Program is probably the most prominent Vietnam-era counterinsurgency project. Began in 1967 – five years or so after the failure of Operation Sunrise and several years into the effort to win the Vietnam War with conventional American ground troops – the Phoenix program was dedicated to “neutralizing” the organizing cadre of the National Liberation Front. Run by mixed teams of Americans and South Vietnamese, Phoenix entailed the assassination and imprisonment of tens of thousands of civilians suspected of being NLF members or sympathizers. Understandably, these crimes catch the eye of most commentators on the program- which, it’s worth noting, none of the American coordinators, like future CIA director William Colby, were ever punished for.
Phoenix was part of a larger umbrella program called CORDS, which stood for Civic Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. The “Revolutionary Development” phrase is a holdover from when the South Vietnamese regime tried to depict itself as a sort of nationalist revolution, unlike the (supposed) Moscow/Beijing-puppets in the NLF. Run by longtime American defense bureaucrat Robert Komer, CORDS encompassed a vast array of projects- censuses, military advisors, aid programs, refugee resettlement, agricultural assistance, youth and sports programs, efforts to encourage NLF defectors, and more. Many of the things that strategic hamlets were supposed to were handed over to CORDS to run, as they could, catch and catch can across the South Vietnamese countryside… alongside, and often feeding into, the massive surveillance, assassination, and prison infrastructure of the Phoenix Program. As it turns out, if you want to get a read on the population – if you want to find out who the troublemakers are so as to eliminate them – embedding yourself in the bodies providing social services to the population is a decent way of doing it.
Here we see, rather than nation-building creating attractions which win the loyalty of the people, nation-building creating an information grid which through which to render a population legible, so that the occupying power can remove threatening elements. Now, all stages of counterinsurgency involved both- the strategic hamlets existed in part so the South Vietnamese government and the Americans could know where peasants were and what they were up to, and the various aid programs CORDS oversaw were meant to be effective at their stated purposes. But the shift from the strategic hamlets to the Phoenix program entails a shift in terms of how the Americans viewed the purpose of the South Vietnamese state- from a promoter of development for its own sake (which would guarantee security) to a body where all of its actions, including development programs, existed to feed the eye – and maw – of a security apparatus. Komer always represented himself as a bureaucratic fixer, first and foremost, and under his watch American counterinsurgency strategy shed much of its (notionally) socially constructive elements and focused instead on bureaucratic functioning and the other techniques of making the organization function. In many respects, the means of counterinsurgency displaced the ends as a matter of focus- or perhaps the means became the ends in a way. Of course, CORDS couldn’t win the war either- Komer blamed it on bureaucratic woes and South Vietnamese indifference, though NLF documents later revealed that Phoenix worried them more than any other strategy the Americans tried.
This repurposing of the state – away from instantiating a vision and towards surveilling and optimizing the present composition of a population – that CORDS entailed echoes with other changes in liberal governance techniques at that time, in the crucial decade of the 1970s. Monetarist economics, with its tight focus on the money supply, came to displace Keynesianism and its gauzy social focus. Behaviorist social science argued that policy realms as distinct as policing, social work, and healthcare policy pull back from a more holistic (if often enough patronizing) social understanding of their task and calibrate themselves according to an overarching, quantifiable behaviorist logic. All of these took the same turn counterinsurgency did under Komer- the displacement of the ends of a given social vision by an obsessive focus on technocratic means. Of course, this meant that the means developed an ends all their own, as we’ve seen with the political results of notionally objective economics, social science, etc. In short, counterinsurgency, as reconstituted during the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, came in line with other governing techniques that would become part of the toolbox of the neoliberal school of governance that would replace the welfare state liberalism or soft social democracy that ruled over much of the west after the Second World War.
It’s too much to say that counterinsurgency is neoliberal, even for that oft-abused term (and even as paid contractors – like the ones that set up the Human Terrain Project, which attempted to embed anthropologists with combat units in Afghanistan – become increasingly prominent in contemporary counterinsurgency war). But neoliberalism, at its most basic, entails modeling society after one of the means by which the end of production and distribution is sometimes achieved- the market. Counterinsurgency, once it shed or at least partially retracted the more ambitious welfare-state overtones of some of its earlier iterations, fit in well with this scheme, dedicated as it was to constructing means by which to render societies legible and pliable. There’s a lot of room for communication between neoliberalism and counterinsurgency, just as there is between the logic of markets and that of security.
In theory, I could continue this story, down into Reagan-era counterinsurgency interventions in Central America (which became pro-insurgency, when the US started supporting some very pro-capitalist insurgents of its own, the Nicaraguan Contras) down to Petraeus more-or-less jacking Kennedy-era counterinsurgency, claiming he invented it, and getting hailed as a genius by conservatives and liberals alike. But we’ve gone on long enough, and the source base isn’t really there to write history about that stuff just yet. Moreover, to tell the truth, I’m just a teeny-tiny bit sick of grad school – and with it, my dissertation topic – and am really sort of just gutting it out to get the ball over the goal-line or whatever the proper sports metaphor is. But one thing I don’t think I’ll ever be sick of – knock on wood – is tracing the ways people create sophisticated bodies of thought with wide implications when what they think they’re doing is winning a war, or selling a product, or getting a laugh, or whatever else. I thank you all for not getting too sick of listening to me play show and tell with the results on my birthday.