Debating the Surge: The Dangers of a Single Narrative

Gian Gentile’s WPR article, Misreading the Surge, has touched off a minor firestorm which, fortunately, is creating more light than heat. Phillip Carter over at Intel Dump has all the relevant links so far, and a brief pro-con summary even made it onto Andrew Sullivan’s site over the weekend. Not bad for what at first glance might seem like arcane COIN tactical debates.

The debate is a crucially important one to have, though, because in war, narrative matters. And while that seems obvious when it comes to parsing defeat (the Vietnam War is a prime example), it’s also true in assessing victory, as the impact of the first Gulf War on Pentagon priorities, from weapons systems to strategy, demonstrates.

Significantly, Gen. David Petraeus is known to be a master at handling the press, and it’s no coincidence that he and his brain trust emphasize narrative in their COIN field manual:

Since counterinsurgency is a competition to mobilize popular support, it pays to know how people are mobilized. Most societies include opinion-makers — local leaders, religious figures, media personalities, and others who set trends and influence public perceptions. This influence often follows a single narrative — a simple, unifying, easily expressed story or explanation that organizes people’s experience — and provides a framework for understanding events. Nationalist and ethnic historical myths and sectarian creeds are examples of such narratives. Insurgents often try to use the local narrative to support their cause. Undercutting their influence requires exploiting an alternative narrative. An even better approach is tapping into an existing narrative that excludes insurgents.

. . .This is art, not science. (p. 193, Appendix A-7)

Now, I’m in no position to know whether Gentile’s critique of the Surge’s effectiveness is more accurate than Pete Mansoor’s defense of it, because to a great extent I’m dependent on them (and others like them) for the information on which I base my own conclusions.

What I do know is that it’s important to have more than just a “single narrative” when judging the Surge. An overly triumphalist version of the complex interplay of events runs the risk of not only distorting American policy, but also of exagerrating Gen. Petraeus’ power. And as anyone familiar with institutional turf wars knows, that often means the kind of over-compensation that Gentile is warning us against.

A rush towards a COIN-based military posture would be dangerous enough if it only meant influencing the American military’s doctrinal orientation based on a pre-mature assessment of the Surge’s success or failure. But as I noted in a post about Admiral William Fallon the other day, and as commenter FDChief at Intel Dump also pointed out, the danger is multiplied by the American military’s mission creep, which has seen it expand into an overarching umbrella institution for foreign policy implementation, at the expense of the State Dept. The obvious temptation — once a lean, effective, counter-insurgency force has been tailored — is to use it, and the global environment seems ripe for potential applications.

So Gentile’s critique is welcome, if only for triggering the kind of debate and reflection that might keep us from acting hastily. Because a single narrative might be effective in counterinsurgency, but in policy formulation it’s deadly.