Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency

Wrong Turn: America's Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency

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by Colonel Gian Gentile

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Colonel Gian Gentile’s 2008 article “Misreading the Surge” in World Politics Review first exposed a growing rift among military intellectuals that has since been playing out in strategy sessions at the Pentagon, in classrooms at military academies, and on the pages of the New York Times. While the past years of U.S. strategy in


Colonel Gian Gentile’s 2008 article “Misreading the Surge” in World Politics Review first exposed a growing rift among military intellectuals that has since been playing out in strategy sessions at the Pentagon, in classrooms at military academies, and on the pages of the New York Times. While the past years of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan have been dominated by the doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN), Gentile and a small group of dissident officers and defense analysts have questioned the necessity and efficacy of COIN—essentially armed nation-building—in achieving the United States’ limited core policy objective in Afghanistan: the destruction of Al Qaeda.

Drawing both on the author’s experiences as a combat battalion commander in the Iraq War and his research into the application of counterinsurgency in a variety of historical contexts, Wrong Turn is a brilliant summation of Gentile’s views of the failures of COIN, as well as a searing reevaluation of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

As the issue of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan inevitably rises to the top of the national agenda, Wrong Turn will be a major new touchstone for what went wrong and a vital new guide to the way forward.

Note: the ideas in this book are the author’s alone, not the Department of Defense’s.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 2006, after five years as a warzone, Iraq was descending into chaos. But then General David Petraeus arrived, adopted counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics, and ended the war. That’s the official story, but according to Gentile (a former Iraq War commander and current director of West Point’s military history program), it didn’t really happen that way. In this vivid and astute polemic, Gentile argues that the U.S. military’s appropriation of COIN, a strategy with a long and fraught history, as the author explains, was a dangerously misguided attempt “to refight the Vietnam War—but this time in Iraq.” COIN, in Gentile’s estimation, is little more than “a recipe for perpetual war.” In fact, he argues that the conflict in Iraq was settled not by Petraeus’s use of COIN; rather, the violence subsided when Sunni insurgents turned against al-Qaeda, and Shia factions quit fighting one another. Yet that hasn’t stopped the powers that be from implementing COIN in the Afghan theater. Gentile ultimately offers a sobering warning—if we refuse to learn from the failures of COIN and end our foolish belief in savior generals, we are “doomed to repeat the same mistakes for a long, long time.” This should be required reading for military scholars and active soldiers. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

"Here in this timely, incisive, and unflinchingly honest volume, the essential task of dismantling the myths already enshrouding America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan begins. . . . An important book that will give Washington’s war-mongers and militarists fits."
—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country

"Colonel Gentile asks us to confront some blisteringly urgent questions. Have COIN tactics ever worked the military magic their proponents claim? Or have they merely provided cover for beating exits from wars that never should have been fought in the first place? . . . Wrong Turn deserves a wide readership by all who must make these supremely important strategy decisions—as well as those who will live with the consequences."
—David M. Kennedy, professor of history, Stanford University, and editor of The Modern American Military

"Counterinsurgency rises over and over again from the ashes of defeat. It is Gian Gentile’s ambition to 'drive a stake through its heart,' and in Wrong Turn he has succeeded—brilliantly."
—Marilyn Young, professor of history, New York University

"A brilliant and persuasive book . . . offers by far the most convincing explanation extant of why America has not succeeded recently with COIN.”
—Sir Colin Gray, professor of international relations and strategic studies at the University of Reading

"A lively, provocative and readable book . . . never misses its mark."
—Hew Strachan

"Based on his personal experience in Baghdad as well as some fine historical scholarship, Colonel Gentile takes aim at America’s current COIN doctrines and shows how ineffective they really are. An exceptionally courageous book, clearly and forcibly written."
—Martin van Creveld, author of The Transformation of War

"Gentile finds the common flaw in our failed strategy as evidenced in our last three military misadventures. . . . We did not lose the Vietnam War—it was never ours to win. Is Afghanistan becoming a repeat performance?"
—Volney Warner, General (Ret), U.S. Army

"How I wish we’d had this telling critique of counterinsurgency warfare before Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It would have been far harder to make those tragic mistakes. A must-read for our national security experts, and U.S. citizens."
—Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former columnist for the New York Times

Kirkus Reviews
"The story on which the current practice of [counterinsurgency] depends…is a myth [and] a recipe for perpetual war," insists Gentile (Securing the Snake's Head: The Question of Air Power as a Political Instrument in the Post Cold-War Security Environment, 2012, etc.), a former Iraq War commander and director of the military history program at West Point. The author takes a spirited, polemical approach in support of his argument against "the simplistic idea that the U.S. can intervene to rebuild entire societies if the tactics are just right and the right general is put in charge." What he calls "the story" is a view of the history of wars in Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, which he considers to be tendentious at best and downright wrong at worst. Though many believe that gifted generals, like David Petraeus in Iraq, learned the lessons from Vietnam and corrected the mistakes of their fumbling predecessors, Gentile disagrees. Sifting through the countless reports that were filed, he shows just where this mythical narrative is flawed. In each case, there was no transforming succession of methods of warfare, and there was no redefining shift in leaders. Nor, he insists, are the wars referred to in the official narrative comparable, whether in scale, context or scope. The strategy adopted to force a negotiated settlement in Vietnam was not applicable in Iraq, and the Iraqi surge was less of a discontinuity than it is usually portrayed to have been. For Gentile, it is the political circumstances that are the most important elements, as well as political leadership looking for what Petraeus' predecessor Gen. George Casey called "something that appeared different." A forcefully presented, corrective analytical approach to today's headline-grabbing orthodoxy.

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Meet the Author

Colonel Gian Gentile is an army colonel, a former Iraq War commander, and a professor of history at West Point; he was also a 2010 Visiting Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Gentile is a contributor to the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Small Wars Journal, and the World Politics Review. He lives in West Point, New York.

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