Janine Davidson speaks at CATO’s Book Forum

by Phillip Witteveen on March 29, 2013

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Marking the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Hayek Auditorium of the CATO institute hosted a panel discussing Fred Kaplan’s new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.  The book is the story of revolutionary changes to the practice defense and foreign policy, in order to respond to a new kind of insurgent warfare that was springing up across the globe, in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti – and eventually, Afghanistan and Iraq. The protocols and field manuals that sprang up during this time that all fell under what became referred to as COIN, (Counter-Insurgency).

Chris Preble, moderator and officer of the CATO Institute introduces Dr. Janine Davidson, assistant professor at George Mason University, former aircraft commander, and author of Lifting the Fog of Peace: How Americans Learned to Fight Modern War. Dr. Davidson had been chosen to represent the academic community of “COINdenistas” — a group of soldier-scholars, that The Insurgents‘  central action revolves around.

“I come to this topic as an academic, as a practitioner, as a policymaker,” Davidson said. She would later reveal, that in writing her own book, she felt like a participant-observer.

Dr. Davidson began with a counterpoint to Kaplan’s book. “COIN stinks. Everyone knows this.” she says. “Now, on the book promotion blurb, that Chris read, and I’m going to read again, it says

… it is also a cautionary tale about how creative doctrine can harden into dogma, how smart strategists — today’s “best and brightest” — can win the battles at home but not the wars abroad. By adapting the U.S. military to fight the conflicts of the modern era, they also created the tools — and made it more tempting — for political leaders to wade into wars that they would be wise to avoid.

“I actually fundamentally disagree with this,” Davidson continued. Pointing out that COIN, as a impractical, and inflexible doctrine has “actually demonstrated that it’s not tempting at all.” This doctrine, she explained, works well in theory. In practice, however, it has always been shown to fail slowly, even when it is followed. The infamous fm 324, written during the Surge, ended up being very much like the Bible in way. “And what I mean by that,” she says “is that most people don’t actually read it, but they all think they know what it says.”

Empirically, counterinsurgency takes a long time, and any progress will come with a high expense of human life, Davidson argued. Although “victory”  she said, making air quotations, “is illusive—we talk about success, more than we talk about winning, when we talk about COIN.” Ultimately, however, unless the host nation shares that vision, any solution becomes artificial, and inherently works against itself.

You can get in on the full conversation on the CATO Institute’s website. For an in-depth review of Davidson’s insight, check out Lifting the Fog of Peace.

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