The press has made much of the new manual on counterinsurgency produced jointly by the Army and Marine Corps. You can get it on the Internet for free at the link in the previous sentence. I printed it out and started reading it.

I claim no expertise in counterinsurgency. But I can and do apply common sense and my limited military training and experience to what it says.

Public document

For one thing, it is labeled for release to the public. That means it is at least in part a public-relations document. That will cause its authors to slant it so as to please the public and the media and avoid giving them anything to complain about. I also suspect it is an attempt to show the public that the military deserves more time in Iraq. If so, the writers had a conflict of interest and the document has multiple agendas above and beyond the one stated on the cover. That is, it is, in part, a political propaganda document.

I would rather they develop instruction manuals on how to fight our wars privately and keep them confidential. This is supposedly the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency “playbook” and football teams sure as heck do not publish their playbooks for their opponents to read.

Already dated

The manual came out in December 2006, but it is already dated. The Foreword refers to fighting, “former Saddamists.” Saddam Hussein is dead. His “dead enders” seem to have faded away a year or more ago and been replaced by sectarian militias and some residual al Qaeda fighters.

The manual itself says repeatedly that insurgencies are rapidly changing. I agree. But that really means that it is not a matter that lends itself to being the subject of a field manual. It’s more like a fortune cookie message with the following words taken from the Foreword: “Be flexible, adaptive, and agile. Thank you and good luck.”


The Foreword’s third paragraph says, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors...reestablish institutions, local security forces...rebuild infrastructure...basic services...establish local governance...rule of law...coordination and cooperation with many intergovernmental, host-nation, and international agencies.”

Well, good freaking luck with that. That list of tasks for the military includes things which normally would be done by

And this is all now to be “expected” of an American military force whose most well-known, living, enlisted member is Pfc. Lynndie England, the single, pregnant soldier who became famous for being photographed holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi prisoner?

Even Super Soldier John Rambo, who never really existed, could not do one-third of the stuff on that list. I wonder what World War II’s Willie and Joe would think of that list of responsibilities, which the new manual admits is “daunting.” Ya think?

‘Doctrine’ = fundamental principles

The purpose of an Army manual is to promulgate doctrine, which I would define as rules or a cook book recipe for doing stuff. It’s a how-to book. Writing those is what I do for a living. Indeed, my most recent new book is called How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book. I have written 64 how-to books.

Before you can issue how-to instructions, you must first figure out how to do the thing in question. Kind of basic, wouldn’t you think? For example, before I wrote my book on how-to book, I wrote, published, and sold 63 of them (hundreds of thousands of copies).

Before military officers write a how-to book on winning wars against insurgents, they need to win a few such wars. As far as I know, they have won no such wars. Therefore, their manual is premature to say the least. “We’ll let you know as soon as we figure it out,” should have been their response to the request to write it.

But then those military guys are so imbued with a can-do attitude that they even claim they can do when they can’t. See my article “Is there any such thing as military expertise?” for more on the dangers of a can-do attitude when the possessors of the attitude can’t do.

Army versus Marine terms

The new manual is called Army Field Manual 3-24 by the Army and Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5 by the Marines. Why give it two different names? Because the Marine Corps incessantly seeks to attract attention to itself and whines about not getting it like some annoying little brother.

If the Commander in Chief or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had any brains or guts they would tell the various branches of the service to standardize all military terminology. That is, the Army and the Marines should not have two different words or phrases to describe the same thing. Same with the Navy and Air Force. I wouldn’t care if they went with the Marines word or the Army word (the Marines would). But the Commander in Chief and Chairman of the JCS have no such brains or guts.

Men have died in the past because of communications problems between the services. For example, in the Grenada invasion, the Army and Navy radios could not communicate with each other because of lack of coordination of frequencies and some Army guys died as a result. But the politicians are afraid of the Marines because they and their subway alumni will howl bloody murder if they cannot have their own separate, military language, however stupid and dangerous that might be.

Here is an email I got on 11/1/09:

I was at the the U.S. Army "FOB" in Kirkuk, Iraq, from December 2004, until October 2005.   The headquarters for "Task Force Warrior," a brigade sized element, was located at this base.  It had been a large Iraqi Air Force Installation. After the 173rd Airborne Brigade secured it in 2003, the Air Force used the runways at the airfield, mainly for the purpose of ferrying troops around, sending cargo, etc.  It was not an Air Force fighter base that I know of.  The army referred to the base as "FOB Warrior,, but for some reason, the Air Force personnel insisted on referring to it as "Kirkuk Regional Airbase," or KRAB.  There was the typical redundant and useless set of dual command structures all the way up to brigade commander, in our case, a brigadier general, who commanded the whole shootin' match (to the extent he was allowed you so well state in your other writings)...
Near the end of our time there, a poorly led convoy, having trouble finding its way to "FOB Warrior," pulled up to the heavily fortified main entrance ("gate" is insufficient) and its leader asked if he was at "FOB Warrior."  A newly stationed Air Force Airman at the gate told him he was at the Kirkuk Regional Airbase, and did not know where this mysterious "FOB Warrior" was, so the idiot convoy leader turned the whole convoy around, and headed off through the IED and insurgent laden streets to find his destination.  After a couple of senseless hours of wandering, he returned to the gate, was met by a different soldier or airman, and allowed to enter.  All because they insist on having "...their own separate, military language, however stupid and dangerous that might be."

Geoff Schroeder

Are acronyms a substitute for expertise?

The military has an acronym for counterinsurngency warfare: COIN. Cute, eh? They have not yet figured out how to do it, but they have a name for it. If you cannot acquire the expertise at least come up with an official name thereby giving the illusion you know what you’re talking about.

How’s about we wait until we figure out how to do it before we start giving it its own acronym?

Neglected since Vietnam

The Preface to the manual (that’s “publication” for you Marines) says, “Counterinsurgency operations generally have been neglected… since the end of the Vietnam War...” I have a news flash for the authors of the manual: counterinsurgency was neglected during the Vietnam War, a war in which I did a tour. In fact, counterinsurgency has been neglected, period, throughout the modern history of the U.S. military.

The fact is the U.S. military hates counterinsurgency—for good reason—but they lack the guts or integrity to tell the civilian leaders, “We don’t know how to fight these wars,” so they keep getting sent to fight them. Indeed, we rarely have had an opportunity to fight any other kind of war since the Korean Conflict in 1953—but that has never changed the U.S. military’s refusal to focus on, and stop “neglecting,” the subject.

And don’t you love the way successive political leaders including those in the military denounce their predecessors? I do not recall the military during Vietnam or since admitting that they were neglecting counterinsurgency. I don’t recall an earlier version of FM 3-24 that just contained only the words, “We have nothing to say on this subject. We are neglecting it as a matter of policy.”

During the Cold War, the Communists used to have huge photos of their current dictator all over the place. Then, the old guy would get fired and the next day the photos of the new guy would be up in the same places and the photos of the old guy were all gone.

When I went to West Point, we had to endure the Fourth Class System, better known as hazing the plebes (freshmen). There was a new booklet about the System every year explaining the rules and the reasons for them.

We had to brace, that is, hold our chins back toward the back of our necks. Painful. Some guys had to go to the hospital because of it. The Fourth Class System manual duly explained why this was absolutely necessary to make us combat leaders.

Then, a couple of years later, they abolished bracing. Sure enough, the new annual Fourth Class System manual explained why bracing was a dumb idea that should never be imposed on the freshmen. “But you said before...!”

‘Forces that learn COIN effectively...’

The manual introduces a list of nine bullet points with the words: “Forces that learn COIN effectively have generally—”

How would authors Petraeus and some Marine General whose name I forgot know this. The implication is that they have commanded “forces that learned COIN effectively.” Which forces were those?

More likely they each commanded one unit one time in such a situation. Petraeus reportedly was somewhat successful in Mosul in Iraq, but I am not sure there is solid evidence of that or whether Petraeus just schmoozed well with the media and brass so they drew that conclusion based on his “bedside manner” rather than the facts on the ground. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened in a political realm like the world of generals.

Even if Petraeus did really do a great job and have great success in Mosul, he should be more reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions from that one, brief experience in one city in one country at one time. The fact is that generations of U.S. military leaders have not figured “COIN” out and although I may be willing concede, after seeing the evidence, that Petraeus put together one of the U.S.’s COIN bright spots in Mosul, I am not ready to conclude that he’s got COIN everywhere all the time figured out, which is the inescapable implication of the mere issuance of Field Manual 3-24 let alone its handed-down-from-Mount-Sinai tone.

Truth to power

Four of the bullet points supposedly characteristic of “Forces that learned COIN effectively” are

This makes me wonder if Lieutenant General Petraeus has ever been in the Army.

I don’t know if Robert Jackall was ever in the Army either. But he wrote a book published by Oxford University Press called Moral Mazes. His bullet list of the actual code that organizations follow today strikes me as infinitely more real world. It says,

  1. You never go around your boss.
  2. You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even though your boss claims that he wants dissenting views.
  3. If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it.
  4. You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as boss.
  5. Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do what your job requires. You keep your mouth shut.

I submit that Mr. Jackall’s list accurately depicts how the U.S. military has behaved at least since the Vietnam war began, and is likely to behave until the end of time unless the government outsources military matters to entrepreneurs who have to compete for the work based on their success. I further submit that General Petraeus’s list is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy that is virtually impossible to achieve within a hidebound government bureaucracy like the U.S. military.

Speaking of Oxford, that’s where Rhodes Scholars go to study. General Petraeus’s four bullets on subordinates speaking truth to power seem to be taken from Rhodes Scholar Lt. Col John Nagl’s book Learning to East Soup With a Knife which I also reviewed at

Let me state it as plainly as possible. The U.S. military officer corps conducts themselves as a sort of American royalty. Ask anyone who was ever an enlisted man. It will be a cold day in LaJolla before their Royal Pompousnesses ever truly welcome “suggestions, open communications,” or “advice” from below.

The oft-heard Hollywood line, “Permission to speak freely, Sir?” does not exist in the real U.S. military. The fact that such permission would be necessary tells you all you need to know about “open communications” between military brass and their subordinates. The sort of comments that would follow being granted permission to speak freely would more accurately be prefaced by the question, “Permission to commit career suicide, sir?”

Scholarly analysis?

To an extent, Petraeus’ manual has pretensions of being a scholarly analysis of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Although such analysis is probably a necessary part of any such manual, Petraeus has not achieved it here.

I would think such an analysis would have to done by a historian or journalist. The U.S. military has an odd habit of transferring most of its personnel every three years or less. The transfer is to a completely different job often on a completely different continent.

Furthermore, the military is also big on sending its officers to various schools throughout the officer’s career. These include civilian graduate schools as well as various in-house military schools like officers basic and advanced branch courses, Command and General Staff College, The National War College, and so forth. I was only an officer for four years but I went to five different Army courses after West Point.

When you take into account the various military and civilian continuing education courses the average career military officer probably changes assignments 15 times in a 20-year career. If so, that means he or she averages about 16 months at each assignment. Finally, the assignments are deliberately varied. For example, the common pattern is to alternate staff (paperwork) and command assignments.

Contrast that with the typical civilian career where the individual gravitates into the role to which he or she is best suited after trying different roles early in the career.

What does all this have to do with Petraeus’ authorship of the counterinsurgency manual? Petraeus is presumably what the U.S. military deliberately makes of 99% of its officers: a jack of all trades and master of none. And one of the trades Petraeus is not a master of is historian. His year or two of being assigned to writing a counterinsurgency manual, in a career that generally had him doing unrelated things, is characteristic of a dilettante.

The U.S. military should have gotten its manual written by the person or persons most qualified to do so. The nation and the troops whose lives will be risked trusting the manual deserve no less. Instead, we get the half-assed product of an inbred, I’ve-been-moved, “If it’s 2006, I must be a historian,” “If it’s not invented here we don’t want it” military bureaucracy.


My main impression of the manual is that it is muddled. In the first “overview” chapter, they try to define insurgency, counterinsurgency, and the various tactics and strategies used by insurgencies. What a disaster! If this were a freshman college paper, the authors would get ripped by the professor and probably get a D or an F.

Much of what they say about insurgents and their tactics and strategies would apply equally to our Founding Fathers, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Catholic Church, and the American Cancer Society. At times, it sound like the sort of thinking that the FBI used to justify creating files on civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and actor Gregory Peck.

Insurgents can lie?

Some of the statements are simply illogical. For example, at ¶1-13, Petraeus et al say, “Counterinsurgents seeking to preserve legitimacy must stick to the truth and make sure that words are backed up by deeds; insurgents on the other hand, can make exorbitant promises and point out government shortcomings, many caused or aggravated by the insurgency.”

Stated as a more competent writer would put it, Petraeus is saying that insurgents can lie, but counterinsurgents must tell the truth. That’s bull!

Lying is its own punishment. Reputation is like fine china: easily cracked but never really repaired. That applies equally to both insurgents and counterinsurgents. If insurgents lie, they will get a reputation for lying and, like the boy who cried “Wolf,” will be ignored even on the rare occasions when they tell the truth.

We Americans were insurgents in our Revolutionary War. I do not recall that our forefathers were entitled to lie to our fellow citizens then. Nor do I recall our revolutionary leaders doing that. Nor do I think it would have been well received if they had. Honesty is the best policy—for both sides in an insurgency.

U.S. never lies?

I also dispute the notion that the U.S. government in general, or its military in particular, always feel compelled to tell the truth. History in full of examples of governments and their militaries lying—like the exaggerated body counts in Vietnam or former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s posthumous receipt of a Silver Star and Purple Heart (both of which require interaction with the enemy) in Afghanistan. After their cover-up was exposed, the Army admitted he was killed by his fellow Americans.

Substitute “party out of power” for insurgents and “party in power” for counterinsurgents and you can test Petraeus’ assertions with regard to U.S. politics. The party in power in the U.S. prior to the 2006 elections was the Republicans. Did they claim the Democrats were lying the gain power? You bet, as did the Democrats when the Republicans were out of power early in the Clinton Administration.

Viewed in that context, Petraeus is just another politician claiming the other side is lying. Am I saying that al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the sectarian Iraqi militias never lie? Hell, no! They lie all the time. But so do our politicians, including the military ones, when they think they can get away with it—like early in the Pat Tillman incident. The bottom line is that there is nothing intrinsic about insurgencies that permits them to get away with lying and if the U.S. government has abandoned all lying it must be an extremely recent development.

Also, insurgents in the Middle East are not the only politicians who create problems for the other side, then try to blame the other side for those same problems. Republicans and Democrats do that exact same thing all the time.

Free government services and utilities from the U.S.

Petraeus et al say that the occupying counterinsurgents (that’s us in Iraq and Afghanistan) have to provide good police, justice, government, and infrastructure to win over the local people. Where in the name of God are we going to get the money and manpower to offer such massive, comprehensive, free services? Petraeus seems to think it is entirely the responsibility of the Army and Marines. It sounds to me like the military’s legendary “can-do” attitude gone berserk. Or maybe when you spend your entire adult life living off a seemingly bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money you think the nation can afford to adopt the entire population of Iraq as a ward of the U.S. military.

Mao’s book

This is not the first military manual on this subject. Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung wrote one called On Guerilla Warfare. Indeed, his was so good that his readers took over mainland China and won the Vietnam War. Seems to me the way to write a counterinsurgency manual would be to create a mirror image of Mao’s manual with some additions to reflect technological and other changes since Mao wrote his.

‘Precision munition’

At ¶1-23, Petraeus et al describe suicide attacks as the “precision munition of extremists.” I like the use of the word “precision,” but the rest of the phrase is off target.

Suicide attacks are not a munition. They are a delivery system. The munition involved is simply Centex or C4 or some other well-known and long-used military explosive. The vast majority of military forces deliver such explosives to the target via bomb or artillery, weapons that contemporary insurgents rarely possess.

The word “extremist” says more about Petraeus’ bias than it does about our enemies. In World War II, we called Japanese suicide attackers—most notably Kamikaze pilots—“fanatics.” On rare occasions, U.S. military personnel have launched suicide attacks against our enemies. One example is the U.S. destroyer escort Johnston captain Ernest E. Evans in the WW II Battle of Leyte Gulf who attacked much more powerful Japanese cruisers and battleships even though he was out of torpedoes and his 5-inch-gun rounds bounced off the armor of the Japanese ships. He and many of his men were killed and his ship was sunk.

Was he an “extremist?” He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

U.S. military brass have sent individuals and units on suicide missions or missions from which few, if any, survivors were expected—like the WW II Doolittle raid on Tokyo or much of D-Day in World War II. Americans regularly throw themselves on grenades to save their comrades.

Suicide attacks are a tactic used by all militaries, including our own, in desperate situations. Labeling our enemies’ suicide attackers “extremists” while calling ours heroes is precisely the sort of lie that Petraeus said earlier that we counterinsurgents could not get away with.

For this subject, I highly recommend the book Utility of Force. It appears to be a better version of this famed new Army/Marines Counterinsurgency Manual. I say “appears” because it is taking me forever to read the manual. Why? It’s not very readable.

Memo to the Army from a professional writer. A book ought to be readable. If your generals cannot write readable books, have them work with someone who can, like competent publishers do. Then the authorrs are listed as “Petraeus and the Marine WITH [insert name of professional writer here].”

To be continued

John T. Reed

John T. Reed’s Succeeding book, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

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