Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This will make Gian Gentile's head explode

Last Saturday's New York Times finds lessons of counterinsurgency on the fields of Agincourt. James Glanz on how some historians are challenging the legend of English supremacy in the face of massive numerical disadvantage:

The work, which has received both glowing praise and sharp criticism from other historians in the United States and Europe, is the most striking of the revisionist accounts to emerge from a new science of military history. The new accounts tend to be not only more quantitative but also more attuned to political, cultural and technological factors, and focus more on the experience of the common soldier than on grand strategies and heroic deeds.

The approach has drastically changed views on everything from Roman battles with Germanic tribes, to Napoleon’s disastrous occupation of Spain, to the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War. But the most telling gauge of the respect being given to the new historians and their penchant for tearing down established wisdom is that it has now become almost routine for American commanders to call on them for advice on strategy and tactics in Afghanistan, Iraq and other present-day conflicts.

The most influential example is the “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” adopted in 2006 by the United States Army and Marines and smack in the middle of the debate over whether to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the head of the United States Central Command, drew on dozens of academic historians and
other experts to create the manual. And he named Conrad Crane, director of the United States Army Military History Institute at the Army War College, as the lead writer.

Drawing on dozens of historical conflicts, the manual’s prime conclusion is the assertion that insurgencies cannot be defeated without protecting and winning over the general population, regardless of how effective direct strikes on enemy fighters may be.

Mr. Crane said that some of his own early historical research involved a comparison
of strategic bombing campaigns with attacks on civilians by rampaging armies during the Hundred Years’ War, when England tried and ultimately failed to assert control over continental France. Agincourt was perhaps the most stirring victory the English would ever achieve on French soil during the conflict.

The Hundred Years’ War never made it into the field manual — the name itself may have served as a deterrent — but after sounding numerous cautions on the vast differences in time, technology and political aims, historians working in the area say that there are some uncanny parallels with contemporary foreign conflicts.

Out of concern for COL Gentile's health, I cut off the excerpt just before some lady compared the French forces who opposed Henry V to al-Qaeda in Iraq. No, I'm serious.

This is a really odd article. It's ostensibly about research related to Agincourt and competing claims about the relative strength of the forces in the field, but the digression about counterinsurgency and history repeating itself is just... well, weird. I'm not sure where Glanz is trying to go, or if maybe it just helps you get things published if you drop "COIN" in somewhere. Anyway, worth a read if only for the chuckle you'll get when you think about steam coming out of COL Gentile's ears* when he thinks about the clear, objective lessons of clean, decisive conventional combat being muddied by these damned revisionist, Sorley-esque dilletantes!

Technical aside: does anybody else find it strange that Glanz and his editors 1) note that GEN Petraeus now oversees the wars as CENTCOM commander, but didn't clarify that he directed the writing of the COIN manual in one of his old jobs as the commander of TRADOC's Combined Arms Center?, and 2) began a paragraph with "[d]rawing on dozens of historical conflicts..." just two sentences after writing that Petraeus "drew on dozens of academic historians and other experts" in the writing of the manual? Isn't that the sort of amateurish repetition that you'd edit out of your kid's eighth-grade history paper?

*Just kidding. Mostly. Seriously though, I'm obviously caricaturing Gentile and having a little fun at his expense, so you don't need to tell me how wrong I've got it in the comments, and how Sorley really is wrong, and so on. I get it.


  1. charicaturing?

    I kid, I kid, too!

  2. Gee. The whole article seems a bit weird anyway with its focus on longbow technology when for the past 30 years or so people have been saying that it was the cohesiveness and skill of the unmounted English men-at-arms and longbowmen in close combat that won the battle.

    I do like the bit where it seems to be suggesting that the US Army turned up in an ivory tower one day and begged medievalist academics to help them deal with Iraq...

    Also I dare someone to get the lip-sync right so that you have the image of Petraeus with the audio from Henry V. ;)

  3. I do that repeating thing quite a bit when I blog. Of course, I don't have a team of editors following me around, so I guess it's less forgivable in the WaPo.

  4. I went through a childhood phase, before Iraq kicked off and distracted me, where pretty much all I did was read about Henry V and his wars in Normandy, and if I recall the resistance the French put up was not very much like an "insurgency" at all. Just scattered conventional castle garrisons that didn't even interact very much with the populations of nearby towns, backed by the occasional relief column of men-at-arms and mercenaries and so forth. I can't recall there being much popular resistance, let insurgency, at all during Henry V's time - some later in the 1420s and 1430s.

    There is one line in "Henry V" though that pertains to COIN, even though it's talking about a situation where Henry's own troops were more like insurgents (under-supplied and cut off in hostile territory):

    "We would have all such offenders so cut off; and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compell'd from the villages; nothing taken but paid for; none of the French upbraided or abus'd in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner."