I find it refreshing to hear an historian analyze ideas about counterinsurgency (COIN), if only to break the monotony of listening to COIN practitioners and doctrineers analyzing history. A new article by Professor Jonathan Gumz from USMA West Point makes the point.

Gumz begins by noting that a flood of new scholarship on COIN has emerged - particularly in military journals - over the past six years. Articles typically include case studies and analyses of past conflict to make their points about the present. They mostly draw bright lines between conventional and unconventional wars and focus on non-European conflicts in the post-WWII era (mostly "Third World national liberation movements as well as to communist insurgencies"). In so doing, Gumz argues, scholars and warthinkers have created, rather than described, an historical COIN narrative to fit the demands of the present. That narrative of past warfare, he believes, is "deeply flawed."

"This suggests that most of the current professional military scholarship on insurgency is driven primarily by the desire to make arguments about priorities in the here and now, not the relative importance of insurgency in the past."

The critique does not focus on current COIN doctrine, but rather on attempts at scholarship and historical analysis. First, he notes, the common assumption that insurgency has always been a part of warfare, moots our ability to understand it actual historical origins.

"One could easily make the argument that professional military scholarship on insurgency has all but gutted the historical specificity of this form of warfare. This takes place because much of the scholarship maintains that insurgency has always been a part of warfare and thus immediately extracts insurgency from its historical moorings."

A second problematic historical assumption, is that the past efforts to use "development" to further COIN objectives can be simply replicated in modern conflicts.

"Those who emphasize development-centered counterinsurgency seem curiously unaware of its origins. Instead, COIN advocates believe that development-centered counterinsurgency can simply be plucked from its larger historical context and deployed in the present."

Gumz' summarizes his indictment of fuzzy - often revisionist- historical analysis in the following way:

"The current professional literature’s approach to history is a curious one. Where the authors either explicitly or implicitly create a new narrative of insurgency to deploy against what they view as the dominant narrative of conventional warfare, that narrative remains cut off from the broader history of war itself. It remains trapped in a cage of either weakly connected ‘lessons learned’ or in a narrow narrative of American military memory. Modernization and development and their role in counterinsurgency strategy certainly do have a history, one embedded in the post-WorldWar II era, which the professional military literature largely looks past. In so doing, the literature lifts development and counterinsurgency out of its particular time and place. In turn, it falls directly into what one of the most perceptive current counterinsurgency experts, David Kilcullen, warns against and looks to simply apply the correct ‘lessons learned’ from the 1960s."

So, if these assumptions are inaccurate - or at least overgeneralized - what historical truth is being overlooked?

Gumz argues that Carl Schmitt's concept of "war autonomy", and its implications are conspicuously absent from the newly-created narrative. War autonomy focused on restricting war to the sphere of the state, and imposing limitations on enmity between opponents. Schmitt called it the ‘bracketing’ of war. There was much debate in the early modern era around such issues as the "question of an insurgent’s legal status, the qualifications of a belligerent, and the loyalty an occupied population owed a military occupation."

These debates were part of the underpinnings of what would become the foundations of international laws of armed conflict. In its early modern form this was expressed in European public law (the jus publicum Europaeum). Gumz argues that "the appearance of insurgency was linked to the breakdown of bracketed conflict and with it the jus publicum Europaeum at the advent of the early twentieth century....Only with the collapse of the jus publicum Europaeum in the first half of the twentieth century in Europe did insurgency assume an increasingly prominent position in war. ... Insurgency’s appearance has less to do with technological changes or advancing stages of war than with normative changes in war’s boundaries."

Gumz states at the outset of the article that his analysis "does not offer prescriptions for the present," but he concludes with some possible implications of viewing the history of insurgency in the alternative way he suggests:

First, we have to avoid using history as a bland cupboard from which to raid lessons learned which serve to confirm ideas already arrived at in the present.

Such an effort would compel us to abandon notions, deeply embedded in the COIN literature, that we live in an age of irreversible insurgency beyond our control.

We might go a step further and decide that the lessons to draw from the conflict in Iraq since 2003 should have less to do with counterinsurgency. For that, in a sense, would be to accept an era of collapsed conflict. The new counterinsurgency tactics should be looked upon as temporary solutions to an aberrational situation, instead of charting a fundamentally new path. The real lessons of Iraq, historically seen, have far more to do with avoiding a botched occupation in the first place and thus eliding the problem of insurgency altogether.
Consequently, understanding how to effectively occupy countries, what not to do so as to avoid an insurgency, should receive at least some attention as we begin to look back on the Iraq conflict.

Finally, a more historical approach to insurgency should encourage us to abandon some of the dichotomies which distort far more than they clarify. As employed in the current literature, these dichotomies have overwhelmed historical events. They simply slot wars into different columns and thereby undermine attempts to understand the nature of conflicts.

Gumz, J. (2009). Reframing the Historical Problematic of Insurgency: How the Professional Military Literature Created a New History and Missed the Past Journal of Strategic Studies, 32 (4), 553-588