LONDON – Out of the blue, and right from the heart of the American military establishment — the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, no less — comes a coup of analysis that has a really important message for the British and American 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 America to demonstrate that all the rhetoric about bringing, respectively, Britishness, liberty 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? But 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 U.S. Army in the Philippines war, were used on U.S. unions and even suspected “reds” in Hollywood.
There are many villains in his story, including five-star U.S. 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 United States have a budget of $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’s 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 Winston Churchill helped develop, and with similar degrees of failure and stupidity in Palestine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
He is sharp about the United Kingdom’s performance in Basra and Helmand, 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 Prime Minister Tony Blair’s two major deployments has quite sunk in. Even the severest British critics haven’t described the U.K.’s performance in quite such stark terms. But 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, 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 NSA surveillance of Americans and the fears expressed recently in the Senate about FBI drones spying on innocent U.S. citizens underline that aspect very well.
Yet he wasn’t writing simply for the pleasure of causing conniptions in the U.S. and U.K. 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 doesn’t offer any alternative strategy. There remains a question of what the best response to 9/11 was: without COIN, there would certainly have been a policy vacuum.
However, for British and American 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.
The more you think about it, this is about our attitude to other races and cultures — the little brown people with no lights — and the disdain for their rights, captured by the French novelist Alexis Jenni, who observed that whole populations in Algeria were treated by the French military as no more than obstructions in the terrain. This disregard for rights and freedom abroad is very soon imported home so that the public is treated as another kind of obstacle, while the democratic processes are ignored.
That is why the U.S. director of national intelligence felt able to lie to senators about NSA spying and why, on the same issue, British Foreign Secretary William Hague came out with contemptible claptrap about having nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong. To abandon COIN policies abroad will be one step towards restoring the balance of power between the public and the state at home.
Henry Porter, an Observer columnist and writer, specializes in liberty and civil rights.