Out of the blue, and right from the heart of the US military establishment — the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, no less — comes a coup of analysis that has a really important message for the British and US public. It is that the counterinsurgency wars of the past decade have not only been a bloody failure, but that the tactics, methods and hardware of these wars have inevitably ended up being used against the public at home. Think of mass surveillance, of drones, secret courts, the militarization of the police, detention without trial.
Hannah Arendt identified “the boomerang effect of imperialism on the homeland” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but the academic Douglas Porch has used the history of Britain, France and the US to demonstrate that all the rhetoric about bringing, respectively, Britishness, liberte and freedom and democracy to the “little brown people who have no lights” is so much nonsense and that these brutal adventures almost never work and degrade the democracies that spawned them in the first place.
We always vaguely knew that there must be link between what our forces were doing abroad and what was going on at home — did we not? However, what Porch does so crisply in Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War is to underwrite Arendt’s insight with scholarship that goes back two-and-a-half centuries, taking in numerous forgotten conflicts. For example, he shows how intelligence techniques, devised by the US Army in the Philippines war, were used on US unions and even suspected “reds” in Hollywood.
There are many villains in his story, including five-star US generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, who used tactical sleights of hand, spin and self-publicity to convince the public that they were winning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, when in fact they were leaving chaos and mountains of bodies behind. Then there are the politicians who abdicated their authority to forceful military and intelligence personalities and allowed themselves to submit to the fantasy of the ever-present domestic threat; neoconservative historians and commentators such as Niall Ferguson and Robert Kaplan, who prepared the way for counterinsurgency (COIN) by outlining a new imperialist agenda; and the many journalists who talked up the prowess and strategies of neocolonialists such as Petraeus and McChrystal in exchange for access.
Threaded through his argument is a dismay for the aura of comic-book manliness that surrounds special operations forces, which in the US have a budget of US$12 billion, and a steady murmur of disbelief that the philosophy and practice of COIN have gone unquestioned for so long. He is the first person with all the necessary scholarship and standing to say: ‘Hold on, this policy is not only bad, it is an utter failure and, moreover, it never worked in the first place.’
He is particularly tough on the British, who developed COIN after the last war and exercised it with largely ignored brutality in Malaya and in Kenya, where thousands of Kikuyu tribesmen were murdered and tortured, despite the European Convention on Human Rights, which former British prime minister Winston Churchill helped develop, and with similar degrees of failure and stupidity in Palestine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
He is sharp about the UK’s performance in Basra and Helmand, Iraq, about which he says, though not in the book, “the British totally screwed up.” With Britain’s enduring admiration for the army, I am not sure that the message about former British prime minister Tony Blair’s two major deployments has quite sunk in. Even the severest British critics have not described the UK’s performance in quite such stark terms. However, is that any surprise? Britain has allowed 10 years to elapse since the Iraq war, yet there has still been no report on the decision to go to war.
Unsurprisingly, Porch, who lectures at the Department of National Security Affairs at Monterey, California, expects to be given a hard time when the message of his book reaches historians, who he believes have distorted the record to show the success of COIN strategies, yet never considered the blowback in their own democracies. Edward Snowden’s revelations about US National Security Agency surveillance of US citizens and the fears expressed recently in the US Senate about FBI drones spying on innocent US citizens underline that aspect very well.
Yet he was not writing simply for the pleasure of causing conniptions in the US and UK militaries. The book came from listening to his students, many of whom are seasoned officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who repeatedly told him that COIN hadn’t a hope of changing the countries for the better. And when he lost two students to “green on blue attacks”, he felt an obligation to expose the official doctrine and, in some way, to stop scholarship being militarized.
If I have a reservation about Porch’s book, it is that he does not offer any alternative strategy. There remains a question of what the best response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was: without COIN, there would certainly have been a policy vacuum.
However, for British and US readers, and to a lesser extent French readers, his polemical history will be a chastening experience. It is compelling because his insights about war are as important as what he says about three providential democracies that are his subject — in other words, those countries that believe they have a duty to export their values through dominion, even though that compromises the qualities and systems they proselytize.