Balance and Modesty in America’s Military Posture

Matthew E. Valkovic and Brian M. Burton pen a Small Wars Journal op-ed that pushes back a bit against Andrew Bacevich’s recent Atlantic piece on the Army’s internal “COIN vs. Conventional” doctrinal debates. You have to gather some momentum in order to influence an institution as massive and resistant to change as the U.S. Army, especially in the immediate aftermath of the violently imposed transformation of the Rumsfeld era. Add the immediacy, very eloquently expressed by Abu Muqawama, of watching your fellow soldiers die and I think the conviction of the COIN “crusaders,” as Bacevich characterizes them, becomes very understandable.

Now that the COIN approach has won its bona fides in Iraq, a consensus — and it strikes me as a reasonable one — is emerging, expressed by Bob Gates in the speech I flagged yesterday, and echoed by Valkovic and Burton. According to that consensus, we need COIN because that’s what we’re doing at the moment, and it’s very likely we’ll be called on to do it in the future. That doesn’t mean we’ll abandon our conventional capacity, which is why Gates, Valkovic and Burton, emphasize balance. But it makes no sense to lose the war you’re fighting in order to win one you might fight in the future.

But perhaps more importantly, nor does it mean that we’ll go actively looking for places to apply our new COIN capacity, which is why Gates emphasized modesty, and Valkovic and Burton concur with Bacevich’s notion of “strategic choice.” I didn’t flag the Gates passage on modesty, but Tom Barnett did, and it’s worth a read (as is Barnett’s inimitable commentary that follows). I also interpret Gen. David Petraeus’ recent comments about the limited applicability to Afghanistan of what’s been learned in Iraq as an implicit endorsement of this notion of modesty.

I’m reassured by the “Gates Consensus” and hope it solidifies, because I take the risk of COIN-toxication (by which I mean the same kind of over-confident interventionism that led to the Bush-Rumsfeld Iraq fiasco, only directed towards stability and reconstruction operations) seriously. COIN-centered operations — especially as formulated by Gen. Petraeus’ field manual and incarnated by his multidisciplinary, interdepartmental approach — are a tempting vision of the military instrument as something other than a warfighting tool. It’s a vision that has a special appeal to the left, with its humanitarian interventionist impulse, and to the right, with its forward defense mentality.

Which makes the kind of modesty that Gates articulated all the more essential. Because COIN is still war, and war is still hell. And I say that confidently, as a civilian who’s never witnessed it. That’s not to say that war isn’t sometimes necessary. But when it isn’t, it should be avoided.