I ran into Tara McKelvey at a thing the other night and she told me to keep an eye out for a forthcoming piece she did for Columbia Journalism Review on Tom Ricks. Well,the piece is out now and I haven’t finished reading it yet, largely because this is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me:
In The Gamble [Ricks] is particularly enthusiastic about counterinsurgency, an approach to small-scale war known in the military as coin, which in its most recent incarnation places less of an emphasis on killing insurgents than on protecting the civilians and attempting to win their “hearts and minds.”
Ahhhhhh Dear God stop saying that please let this misunderstanding die. Tara: I am not picking on you. This is ubiquitous. Counterinsurgency is not not not about hearts and minds, no matter how many times over the years you’ve read that it is. Even Sir Gerald Templer, the British officer who suppressed the Malayan insurgency, expressed regret over coining (har har) what he called "that nauseating phrase."
Think back to our recent counterinsurgency experiences and the point becomes clear. At no time did the U.S. set its aims back more stunningly than when we presumed that Iraqis and Afghans would rally to the nebulous cause of "freedom." That sort of ideological effort is the actual meaning of "hearts and minds," and experience demonstrates that amidst an insurgency it’s the strategic equivalent of prayer. Counterinsurgency, by contrast, gains its force from the recognition that offering up nice ideological platitudes is gibberish when a population is getting killed at will; has no plausible path to material prosperity; and no legitimate means to settle its grievances.
In short, counterinsurgency isn’t about winning hearts and minds. It’s about tending to heartbeats, stomachs and wallets. (Yes, that’s a tweaking of a previous formulation of mine.) For a better exposition of this distinction, viewed through the framework of legitimacy, read this PDF. Now let’s never make this mistake again, OK?
*Confused by my headline? Then read this. I am proud to note that if you Google "kufi smack Jim Jones," I wrote the third and fourth links that pop up.