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Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency,

by Colonel Gian Gentile, The New Press, 2013

Thumbing through the pages of FM 3-24, the U.S. Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency warfare, in early 2007, Gian Gentile soon found himself questioning the doctrinal template upon which it was founded. Gentile, then a lieutenant colonel, eventually concluded that the manual scarcely resembled the maddeningly complex, multi-faced conflict he had experienced as a combat commander in Iraq and, equally disquieting, seemed like an attempt to “refight the Vietnam War—but this time in Iraq and with allegedly better tactical doctrine.”

Profoundly troubled not only as a professional soldier but also as a trained historian teaching at the U.S. Military Academy, Gentile embarked on an exhaustive reexamination of the decades-old “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency (COIN) narrative that informed FM 3-24. Provocative, unsparing, yet wholly engaging, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency represents the culmination of that endeavor.

The origins of the hearts and minds COIN narrative, Gentile explains, predate Vietnam and lie instead with the British experience in Malaya. Known as the Malayan Emergency, that conflict (1948- 60) pitted British-led forces against Malayan Communist insurgents. There, the narrative holds, the British—unlike the trigger-happy, firepower-reliant Americans—successfully subdued a Communist insurgency by protecting the population and earning the allegiance of the people. Hearts and minds counterinsurgency, in other words, with its emphasis on winning the support of the local populace through security,economic development and sound governance, had prevailed.

Critical aspects of the Malayan conceit, however, crumble under close historical examination. Gentile, exploiting a diverse collection of primary source materials on British operations in Malaya, argues rather persuasively that British forces achieved victory without winning the hearts and minds of the population. Large search-and-destroy-style sweeps by British battalions early on, for example, prevented the insurgents from massing or establishing base areas in the jungle, key components of the Communists’ initial strategy, and aggressive small-unit patrolling in subsequent years harried guerrilla forces and deprived them of vital food supplies.

Indeed no less an authority than General Gerald Templer, the commander most often credited with introducing hearts and minds COIN to the conflict and resurrecting British fortunes in Malaya, reminded his troops that their primary function was to“kill or capture Communists terrorists.” Military operations, coupled with the forcible relocation of some 500,000 ethnic Chinese to resettlement camps called “New Villages,” physically separated the insurgents from their principal source of support, the Chinese minority community, and in the end broke the back of the Malayan insurgency.

Nevertheless the hearts and minds COIN narrative survived and invariably inspired, shortly after the Vietnam War, the so-called better-war thesis. Proponents of this thesis, many of whom espouse much of the COIN narrative uncritically, posit that the war in Vietnam could have been won if only the United States had eschewed the firepower-dependent, conventional operations preferred by General William Westmoreland in favor of a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at securing the population and winning the people over to the South Vietnamese government. Hidebound and institutionally rigid, the U.S. Army, they claim, stubbornly refused to ape the successful approach employed by the British in Malaya and as a result lost the support of the rural population—and the war.

Yet, as Gentile points out, the two conflicts were manifestly dissimilar. Typical guerrillas, the Chinese Malayan Communists lacked the martial prowess and professionalism of the North Vietnamese Army and numbered fewer than 8,000 at the peak of their fighting strength. Nor did the Malayan Communists derive any appreciable material support from China. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, thousands of North Vietnamese regulars, armed by China and the Soviet Union, participated in the fighting and ultimately toppled the South Vietnamese state. General Westmoreland, unlike the British in Malaya, was therefore obliged to respond militarily to both a main-force threat and a highly sophisticated insurgency.

Westmoreland attempted to do exactly that, contrary to the assertions of the better-war theorists. Noting that the war in Vietnam hinged on obtaining the loyalty and cooperation of the South Vietnamese people, Westmoreland sensibly proposed meeting the main-force threat with better-trained, better-armed U.S. forces while leaving much of the more delicate task of counterinsurgency to the South Vietnamese. Westmoreland also expected American units to help promote pacification through civic action programs, and he was instrumental in the creation of the modestly successful CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) program. Gentile, moreover, presents a compelling case that the operational conduct of the war changed very little under Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton Abrams.

Ending with a searing indictment of hearts and minds COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wrong Turn invites policymakers, professional soldiers and the American public to consider the myths sustaining the COIN narrative and the limits of counterinsurgency warfare.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.