It's become popular for pundits to disparage the ability of American
troops to deal with irregular warfare. This is odd, as the United States has an
enviable track record when it comes to defeating guerillas, and irregular
forces in general. Even Vietnam, which conventional wisdom counts as a defeat,
wasn't. The conventional wisdom, as is often the case, is wrong. By the time
the last U.S. combat units pulled out of South Vietnam in 1972, the local
guerilla movement, the Viet Cong, was destroyed. North Vietnam came south three
years later with a conventional invasion, sending tank and infantry divisions
charging across the border, and conquering their neighbor the old fashioned
the United States first got involved with Vietnam in the late 1950s, there was
good reason to believe American assistance would lead to the defeat of the
communist guerilla movement in South Vietnam. In the previous two decades,
there had been twelve communist insurgencies, and 75 percent of them had been
defeated. These included Greek Civil War (1944-1949), Spanish Republican
Insurgency (1944-1952), Iranian Communist Uprising (1945-1946), Philippine Huk
War (1946-1954), Madagascan Nationalist Revolt (1947-1949), Korean Partisan War
(1948-1953), Sarawak/Sabah "Confrontation" (1960-1966), Malayan Emergency
(1948-1960), Kenyan Mau-Mau Rebellion (1952-1955). The communists won in the Cuban
Revolution (1956-1958), the First Indochina War (1945-1954) and the Chinese
Civil War (1945-1949). The communists went on to lose the guerilla phase of the
Second Indochina War (1959-1970). Guerillas make great copy for journalists.
You know, the little guy, fighting against impossible odds. What we tend to
forget (and the record is quite clear, and easily available), is that these
insurgent movements almost always get stamped out. That does not make good
copy, and the dismal details of those defeats rarely make it into the mass
media, or the popular consciousness.
main problem with COIN (Counterinsurgency Warfare) is that the American armed
forces takes it for granted. U.S. troops have been defeating guerilla movements
for centuries. Through most of American history, COIN has been the most
frequent form of warfare American troops have been involved with. But COIN has
always been viewed as a minor, secondary, military role. It never got any
respect. The generals preferred to prepare for a major war with a proper army,
not playing cops and robbers with a bunch of poorly organized losers.
the U.S. Marine Corps, after half a century of COIN operations, were glad to
put that behind them in the late 1930s. All that remained of that experience
was a classic book, "The Small Wars Manual," written by some marine officers on
the eve of World War II. That book, which is still in print, contained timeless
wisdom and techniques on how to deal with COIN operations, and "small wars" in
general. Every COIN book since simply repeats the basic wisdom laid down in
"The Small Wars Manual."
basic truth is that COIN tactics and techniques have not changed for thousands
of years. What has also not changed is the professional soldiers disdain for
COIN operations. This sort of thing has never been considered "real
soldiering." But the U.S. Army and Marines have finally come to accept that
COIN is a major job, something that U.S. troops have always been good at, and
something that you have to pay attention to.
when you see more news stories about new COIN manuals, or American ignorance of
irregular warfare, keep in mind the history of that kind of warfare, and how
long, and successfully, Americans have been dealing with it.