The Nineteenth Century Origins of Counterinsurgency Doctrine

by Thomas Rid on 22 October 2010

Rid, T. (2010) "The Nineteenth Century Origins of Counterinsurgency Doctrine" The Journal of Strategic Studies 33/5 October, p. 727-758.

Counterinsurgency is a military activity centered on civilians. The counterinsurgent competes against the insurgent for the trust and the support of the uncommitted, civilian population. These assumptions have become a core conceptual foundation of today’s counterinsurgency debate and doctrine. The publication of a much-discussed US manual in December 2006, so-called FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency, prepared the ground for a fundamental reorientation of the use and the utility of force. Then, in 2008, the United States Army updated its most elemental capstone doctrine, Field Manual 3-0 Operations. It recognized and consolidated a ‘revolutionary departure from past doctrine’, its foreword announced. Modern wars are ‘increasingly fought ‘‘among the people’’’, General William Wallace wrote there. In more detail:

Previously, we sought to separate people from the battlefield so that we could engage and destroy enemies and seize terrain. While we recognize our enduring requirement to fight and win, we also recognize that people are frequently part of the terrain and their support is a principal determinant of success in future conflicts

Wallace’s carefully pronounced ‘previously’ hints at a historical trend that is as old as modern, industrial-age armies: the professionalization of military organizations, so succinctly described in Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State. Officers became specialists in planning, equipping, training, and using industrial force to fight one another. The battlefield, in Winston Churchill’s words, turned into ‘a common professional meeting ground between military men’. Political affairs, be it in capitals or in theater, ceased to be the prerogative of officers who were trained as apolitical experts in the ‘management of violence’, not public administration. Against this background, the current shift appears remarkable and perhaps indeed revolutionary. So it is highly desirable to better understand the emergence of the military focus on the civilian population in theater. What are the roots of population-centric operations?

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