Policy Review Banner

Afghanistan: America’s War of Perception

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In the days before he was forced into retirement by scandal, General Stanley McChrystal was fond of referring to the Afghan theater he commanded as a “war of perceptions.” In February he spoke to the Washington Post:

“This is all a war of perceptions,” McChrystal said on the eve of the Marja offensive. “This is all in the minds of the participants. Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this.”

McChrystal’s phrase — which, we will see, is a superficial interpretation of counterinsurgency theory — aligns regrettably well with the zeitgeist, particularly with what I will call “perspectival culture.”

Counterinsurgency theory, or coin, represents the extension to warfare of the same validation of the “eye of the beholder” that has characterized the arts and even aspects of the social sciences in the 20th century. This shift marks a departure from and constitutes a critique of an older, classical understanding of what it means to win or lose a battle or a war — indeed, about the nature of reality itself as externally given and immutable fact, as opposed to a social construction built of competing and shared “perceptions.” Although the critique has ample merit, as we shall see, it also poses underappreciated difficulties of its own.

I will argue that perspectival culture is so dominant today that it has led to a nearly uncritical embrace of “perception” as the heart of coin theory. The essential problem of coin theory, at least in its crude form (such as General McChrystal voices it), is its nonfalsifiability, the impossibility of phrasing it in ways which can be tested and disproved.

The dominance of perspectival culture has led to a nearly uncritical embrace of “perception” as the heart of COIN theory.

When scientists evaluate a new medicine, they want to see if it is better than a placebo at treating a disease. They test it accordingly, and the scientific community agrees that medications that don’t work aren’t brought to market. But coin advocates insist that perception, in this case the perception of the local population in a conflict area, is ultimately determinative of the success or failure of U.S. military operations. If bribing the villagers and spending billions on dubious training programs fails to produce security, coin advocates answer that we need more troops and money. They will not admit the possibility that the medicine does not work. And nonfalsifiable is a very dangerous thing for a military theory to be.

I have argued elsewhere that our strategy in Afghanistan is far from sound, indeed far from a strategy; that we are neglecting the political factors and following a “strategy of tactics” that will inexorably lead to an unnecessary, self-inflicted defeat. I have also argued that the American civilian and military leadership has been unfortunately reluctant to test our strategy by available metrics, insisting instead that we have not had enough time, or enough troops, to make it work. The understanding of counterinsurgency in the “war of perceptions” is a far cry from the unglamorous, common-sense measures that are recommended in the classic works by David Galula, Roger Trinquier, and Sir Robert Thompson that underlie the Counterinsurgency Field Manual supervised by General David Petraeus, “ fm 3–24.”

Or consider this excerpt from General Eisenhower’s 1945 manual, “Combating the Guerilla”:

The most effective means of defeating guerrilla activity is to cut them off physically and morally from the local inhabitants. While stern measures, such as curfew, prohibition of assembly, limitations of movement, heavy fines, forced labor, and the taking of hostages, may be necessary in the face of a hostile population, these measure must be applied so as to induce the local inhabitants to work with the occupying forces. A means of bringing home to the inhabitants the desirability of cooperating with the forces of occupation against the guerrillas is the imposition of restrictions on movement and assembly and instituting search operations with the area affected.

Counterinsurgency operations, like any other military activity, should be judged on their merits. And counterinsurgency has worked in some times and places, though not under conditions acceptable to the current American population (Algeria, the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, the Sri Lankan struggle against the ltte). Even during our own Civil War and Reconstruction, federal commanders treated American citizens with harsh measures that would never have passed muster in Iraq in 2006. In 1868, an Army commander took Ku Klux Klan sympathizers hostage to prevent an assault on Augusta, Georgia. In 1863, Northern troops forcibly resettled relatives of the insurgents in Missouri who were attacking towns in Kansas.

There are ways of measuring whether counterinsurgency operations are working, besides the elusive perceptions of the population. Economists look at the price of transportation, travel data, crop prices, and other variables to try to devise objective measures of effectiveness. They also look at simple measures of violence like ied attacks and assassinations. The problem is that many in the top leadership don’t seem to be interested in what these metrics tell them. The coarse “war of perceptions” gloss on contemporary coin theory encourages a lack of interest in metrics and an emphasis on rhetoric instead.

The metrics of the Afghan war continue to deteriorate under the banner of coin, and yet Petraeus, who replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, has recently assured the American public that our strategy is basically sound. While Petraeus is a very capable general who understands the difficulty and subtleties of counterinsurgency as McChrystal did not, he too appears to be trapped in a conceptual dead end.

Understanding the intellectual history and context of coin helps to turn it from an article of faith to the mere doctrine it is, so that it can be criticized, improved, amended, or abandoned as needed. We are, after all, in Afghanistan to win, not to serve a theory.

Where did coin come from?

There were counterinsurgencies long before there was counterinsurgency theory. There have been counterinsurgencies since the Greek city-states fought among themselves. No technology was necessary to do what Galula and Trinquier recommended — but why was counterinsurgency not isolated as a body of thought until after World War II?

The term “counterinsurgency” is itself a post-World War II creation. The distinguished Vietnam historian Andrew Birtle thinks it dates to around 1960. He told me:

I believe the word “counterinsurgency” is an American invention — and possibly a U.S. Army invention. It seems to have first surfaced in 1960. The earliest uses of the term I have been able to identify come in two documents written at roughly the same time thousands of miles apart. The first was a study prepared by the Special Warfare Division of the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations on 1 December 1960 titled “Counter Insurgency Operations, A Handbook for the Suppression of Communist Guerrillas/Terrorist Operations.” The second was a plan developed by the U.S. Military Advisory Group in Vietnam in 1960 and released in early 1961 that was titled “Counterinsurgency Plan for South Viet-Nam.” The term slowly gained currency in 1961 and was fully accepted by early 1962. For example, the first use of the term in an Army Field Manual appeared in “fm 33-5,” Psychological Operations, written at Fort Bragg in 1961 and published in January 1962. The following month the Department of Defense added the word “counterinsurgency” to its list of officially defined terms in the 1 February 1962 edition of jcs Pub 1, “Dictionary of United States Military Terms for Joint Usage.

There is one obvious component of the answer. The 19th-century experience of colonial wars introduced the paradigm of Western soldiers fighting technologically inferior local soldiers — and having trouble winning. No one would have bothered to spend time on the techniques of colonial policing or pacification in the 15th century because those problems didn’t exist. Secondly, the procedures of coin require a certain kind of army that didn’t exist until the late-19th or early-20th century in Western Europe: a relatively educated army. It is not enough that general officers understand a doctrine like counterinsurgency; enlisted men and women must understand it too, since they are the ones who have daily contact with the population.

General literacy among enlisted men was necessary. Theodore Ropp noted that the American Civil War was the first “in which really large numbers of literate men fought as common soldiers.” In England, widespread literacy came a little later. Edward Spiers wrote that “The illiteracy rate within the army declined from 90 percent in 1871 to almost zero by the 1890s, though fewer than 40 percent of soldiers achieved (or perhaps troubled to achieve) more than the lowest standard of education required.” French soldiers were likely literate earlier, though handicapped by the persistence of regional dialects well into the 19th century.

Thus, counterinsurgency theory had to wait until Europe emerged from Third World conditions, and until it found itself bogged down in “small wars” in its colonies. In the last decades of the 19th century, it was French commanders who first developed a counterinsurgency strategy, which they used in French campaigns in Africa and Asia. This stream of thought remained nearly unknown in the Anglosphere, however, and English and American military thinkers did not begin to theorize consciously about counterinsurgency until they encountered the revolutionary warfare theory of Mao. coin as a conscious discipline came into being as military thinkers like Galula aimed to counter Mao, who wrote and lectured on guerrilla warfare even as his armies fought Japanese invaders in the late 1930s. And the first flourishing of coin in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a response to the then-feared communist threat, whether in Vietnam, Malaya, Greece, the Philippines, or Algeria.

Mao in the 1930s and 1940s wrote very originally on war: “There are those who say ‘I am a farmer’ or ‘I am a student’ . . . . This is incorrect. There is no profound difference between the farmer and the soldier . . . . When you take your arms in hand, you become soldiers.” Mao rethought almost every conventional notion in warfare, including what a battlefield victory looks like. The Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld writes in The Transformation of War:

From the Austrians at Ulm in 1805, all the way down to the Egyptian Third Army at Suez in 1972, the story of modern strategy is always the same. Large armed formations are regarded as having been defeated — and, equally important, regard themselves as having been defeated — as soon as they are surrounded and their lines of communication are severed.

Yet when Chiang Kai-shek’s armies surrounded Mao’s forces in 1934, Mao didn’t surrender — he retreated on the epochal “Long March” of 5,965 miles. And he went on to philosophize about his dilemma. In On Protracted War, a very influential series of lectures Mao delivered in the spring of 1938 in which he strategized resistance against the Japanese occupation of China, he considers the ideas of “inside” and “outside,” of what it means to be surrounded, and the relativity of the concept: From one perspective, the revolutionary forces are “strategically encircled by the enemy,” in another, “if one considers all the guerrilla base areas together,” the revolutionaries “surround a great many enemy forces.”

For Mao, even victory is a matter of having the right point of view — the right perception — and his views were heard deep within the American foreign policy establishment in Vietnam. Edward L. Katzenbach, at the time an American deputy assistant secretary of defense, wrote in 1962 that “Although Mao never states it quite this way . . . his fundamental belief is that only those who will admit defeat can be defeated . . . . Or, conversely, when the populace admits defeat, the forces in the field might just as well surrender or withdraw.” Similarly, Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak, who ran one of the few successful counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam with his Combined Action Platoons, echoed Mao in saying of the war, “It has no front lines. The battlefield is in the minds of sixteen or seventeen million people.”

The positioning of counterinsurgency as a “war of perceptions” gained currency after World War II. As early as 1950, the New York Times Magazine published an article on the French counterinsurgency in Vietnam titled, “A War not for Land, but for People.” This reflected the beginnings of French coin theory, which itself had roots in the extensive literature of French colonial warfare. Even political leaders in Vietnam began to use the language of perceptions. In 1953, Arnaud de Borchrave wrote in Newsweek of Diem’s predecessor as premier, Premier Tam, who ruled under the Emperor: “The important thing, says Premier Tam . . . is to convince the village populations that we and not the Vietminh are fighting for their independence.” In retrospect, it’s clear that the important thing was to change the situation of the village population, not their minds. Yet President Diem sounded the same note as Tam in a statement from 1958: “Democracy is not a group of texts and laws to be read and applied. It is essentially a state of mind, a way of living with the utmost respect toward every human being, ourselves as well as our neighbors.”

Widespread American popularization of COIN theory began in 1958 with a novel by two former military men.

Reading this, it’s easier to understand how a brilliant and well-intentioned man ended up hated by his people and condemned by his allies. If you think democracy is “a state of mind,” it’s easier to believe you can win by a sort of advertising campaign, ignoring the realities of corruption and the abrogation of the rule of law.

Widespread American popularization of coin theory began in 1958 with a best-selling novel by two former military men, The Ugly American, which sold over five million copies (the U.S. population was 179 million at the time). Coauthors William Lederer and Eugene Burdick — respectively a Navy Captain and a Lieutenant Commander who had consulted at the Naval War College — have a character, Major “Tex” Wolcheck, reflect on how to stop the series of defeats he sees being inflicted on the French Legionnaires around Hanoi in 1954: “When I was in Korea, I picked up a book by Mao Tse-tung. I hate what he stands for, but he does have a kind of genius.” In the epilogue, Lederer and Burdick point out that the essentials of Mao’s doctrine were available in English in 1934, and that “The battles which led to Dien Bien Phu were classic examples of the Mao pattern. And yet our military missions advised, and the French went down to defeat, without having studied Mao’s writings.”

The Ugly American was still on the best-seller lists during the 1960 presidential campaign, and its most influential fan was John F. Kennedy. While a senator, Kennedy and five other opinion leaders bought an advertisement in the New York Times saying that they had sent copies of The Ugly American to every senator.

Kennedy’s advocacy of coin had been formed by visits to Indochina during the Viet Minh struggle against the French. On January 18, 1961, two days before taking office, Kennedy set up the new Special Group, Counterinsurgency (sgci), headed by General Maxwell Taylor, designed as a way to jumpstart the military transformation to counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, it contained no real coin experts. The contrast with Kennedy’s predecessor could not be greater. In his State of the Union address on January 7, 1954, President Eisenhower had stated, “I saw no sense in wasting manpower in costly small wars.”

Kennedy’s advocacy of studying counterinsurgency had a huge influence on the spread of the doctrine.

According to Rusk’s right-hand man for Vietnam, Roger Hilsman, Kennedy was reading the special issue of the Marine Corps Gazette on guerrilla warfare the day before his State of the Union address, January 10, 1962. This included Griffith’s 1941 translation of Mao. Six days later, Kennedy sent a letter to the editors recommending the volume to “every Marine”; it was later bound with the book.

Hilsman — a West Point graduate who had fought in Burma and worked for the oss in the Second World War — was the author of a paper in this special issue. He conducted a study for the president on how to respond to the Viet Cong outside the maneuver war. Hilsman notes in his memoir that circa 1961–62, Kennedy’s national security advisor, Walt Rostow, and others were trying to figure out how to win guerrilla wars. “Other pioneering work was going on in the Pentagon, in cia, in the Agency for International Development, and particularly at Fort Bragg,” Hilsman wrote.

Kennedy’s advocacy of studying counterinsurgency had a huge influence on the spread of the doctrine. In his brilliant 1982 Duke master’s thesis, then-Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Bowman has documented the near-frenzy of coin activity in the Kennedy administration. Bowman, who died in 2009, a retired colonel, would later teach at West Point and head the military history department at the Army War College. Bowman notes that Kennedy made it clear that promotions to general officer would depend on counterinsurgency expertise. So it is no surprise that Secretary of the Army Elvis Stahr Jr. wrote on February 8, 1962, that “guerrilla warfare is actually being fought in many parts of the world today, and the ultimate fate of freedom could well rest in the hands of the so-called irregular troops involved.”

Kennedy tried hard to remold the American military. He doubled the size of the Special Forces from 2,000 to nearly 5,000. The “Howze Board Report” of January 28, 1962, advocated the “creation of an experimental unit to develop tactical doctrine for counterinsurgency.” The Board also predicted that special warfare might become typical of future conflicts. Helicopters were added to conventional Army brigades for the mobility demanded by the new type of warfare. As Andrew Birtle chronicles, the Army began a six-week counterinsurgency course at Fort Bragg on January 26, 1961, which was aimed at the groups the Army thought would use it most, foreign armies and their American advisors. The first Special Warfare Staff Officer Course trained 527 officers in 1961, its first year, and 1,212 in 1962. A “Counterinsurgency Course” for colonels and generals was offered in May 1962. The Army Infantry School offered a voluntary 40-hour course on Vietnam by 1963. And the United States Military Academy was not far behind, with Mao, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Truong Chinh required reading for cadets starting in 1962.

Predictably, a pile of publications by ambitious officers followed these signposts. Bowman tallies them:

The Army published a book, Readings in Counter-Guerilla Operations (Special Warfare School, April, 1961) while Army devoted its March 1962 issue to coin. A year later, the Special Operations Research Office, under contract to the Army, published “A Counterinsurgency Bibliography” which contained 965 different sources concerned with counterinsurgency.

Even after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, coin retained momentum. In October 1964, Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson viewed coin as “the major mission in the foreseeable future.” Robert Taber’s Castro-sympathizing 1965 analysis of Mao, The War of the Flea, was so interesting to the American military that they bought up the whole first printing. And by 1965, the Army Infantry School “was operating two mock South Vietnamese villages” to train troops.

But the top-down imposition of coin on the American Army during Kennedy’s administration was not sufficient to make a lasting impact. Ever since the Vietnam war ended, impressive scholars have tried to make sense of the American defeat, arguing that we did not use enough counterinsurgency theory, or that we used too much, or that the role of coin had ultimately little influence on the outcome of the war. Without trying to adjudicate these learned disputes, I would simply add that the cultural context of coin must also be factored into the eventual explanation. Its cultural moment had not quite come. Today, it clearly has.

The Iraq Surge narrative and ‘fm 3–24’

The counterinsurgency field manual prepared in 2006 under the supervision of General Petraeus begins by presenting counterinsurgency as a painfully complex combination of concrete tasks, a difficult slog which, it is careful to note, may be properly executed and still fail. It recommends common-sense measures long used by counterinsurgents, such as taking a census of the local population and issuing id cards — which have still not been done in Afghanistan. The emphasis is on concrete, modest measures that are unglamorous but necessary.

The word “perceptions,” beloved of McChrystal, occurs just three times in the 30 pages of Chapter 1. But there is much discussion of the need to get the population to accept their government as legitimate. In words that speak directly to today’s dilemmas in Afghanistan, the authors warn against what some (including me) have charged we have done in Afghanistan, following a “strategy of tactics” while allowing the Afghan government to alienate the population: “Tactical actions thus must be linked not only to strategic and operational military objectives but also to the host nation’s essential political goals. Without those connections, lives and resources may be wasted for no real gain.”

Pro-Surge became assimilated to pro-COIN and to pro-Republican or pro-Bush or pro-neocon ideology.

Re-reading the manual in the light of deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, one cannot help being struck by the contrast between the sober, even dour tone of Chapter 1, with its emphasis on the host nation government’s legitimacy, and the buoyantly optimistic tone of many official military statements about the Afghan war. We have all but completely failed to identify, control, or police the population of Afghanistan, never mind controlling the 3,436 miles of border that allow insurgents refuge in neighboring countries. Changing “perceptions” seems beside the point in the face of such basic failures. Conrad Crane — who was the lead author of “fm 3–24” and the main author of Chapter 1 (“though gen Petraeus had a lot of input,” as Crane told me in an e-mail) is a serious scholar, as well as a jaundiced observer of counterinsurgencies and a retired colonel. But Crane’s ideas have been coarsened in popularization, and hardened into a dogma.

The political polarization surrounding the Iraq war is partially to blame. Pro-Surge became assimilated to pro-coin and to pro-Republican or pro-Bush or pro-neocon ideology, though in fact one could reasonably be anti-Surge yet pro-neocon or pro-Surge and anti-Republican, and either take coin or leave it. But at its bare bones, relatively unpartisan form, the conventional narrative behind the current adulation of coin takes the Iraq war as its lodestone.

This narrative assumes that the Surge of American troops in 2006–07 brought security to most of Iraq and enabled Sunnis to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq and back the Shia-led government instead. There were enough troops, living in close enough proximity to the people, to settle things down. And we spent enough money — $3 billion by June 30, 2009, according to the inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction — on “armed social work” to give unemployed men an alternative to planting ieds.

This is a hotly contested narrative in military intellectual circles. Another colonel, Craig A. Collier, a former squadron commander in Iraq, recently wrote that “the amount of money spent on economic development is a seductive and misleading statistic. It has become to Iraq what the body count was to Vietnam.” He continued:

Our economic development programs did not play as significant a role as credited in the success that we witnessed in Iraq in 2008. Lethal operations were primarily responsible for the real economic development we observed. The Iraqis were usually capable of finding their own financing for business development once security was established.

Colonel Collier goes on to argue that there was little interest in the military establishment in measuring exactly what we accomplished in Iraq with our vast expenditures.

Still another colonel who served in Iraq, Gian Gentile, argues that the situation there turned around because we bribed the sheiks, because Iraqis in Baghdad had more or less created sectarian apartheid for themselves, and because they tired of waking up to see bodies with drill wounds in them every morning. Another American colonel, Joseph Felter, has coauthored some nber papers which suggest that unemployment has little to do with terrorism. Finally, while violence levels in Iraq are much improved from 2005–07, they are still such as would raise alarm almost anywhere else in the world, with bombings regularly killing tens of civilians at a time and the government paralyzed and dysfunctional for long periods following elections. There are still big problems with providing basic services like electricity and water in Iraq. It is not a “success” that many governments would be proud of.

It is worth noting that “fm 3–24” places much less emphasis on spending money on development projects than our execution in the field has. Perhaps because the money was easy to obtain, it was spent. But relatively little has been done in terms of strengthening local governance in Afghanistan, a subject that “fm 3–24” suggests is much more important.

Ignoring the metrics of the Afghan war

I spent only a few weeks in Iraq, and those in 2003. But I’ve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan regularly since 2002, and I have witnessed an extraordinarily impressive effort by our military in southern and eastern Afghanistan in building roads, schools, irrigation facilities, and the like. During the same period, of course, security has deteriorated in the very provinces where we have been — if you take a cynical view — bribing the locals most assiduously. And also during the same period, we have added more and more troops to “provide security” to the Afghan people.

Unfortunately, we appear to be winning neither the McChrystalian “war of perceptions” nor any other kind. In 2010, Afghan insurgents planted 14,661 ieds, a 62 percent increase over 2009’s 7,228, which in turn represented a 120 percent increase over 2008’s figure. In many respects this is a fairer measure of insurgent activity than the more commonly used numbers of foreign troops’ deaths from ieds, because that needs to be adjusted for the vastly increased number of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Most of these victims are exactly those high-capacity, courageous Afghans who are providing an example of good local governance.

Our exit timing depends on the Afghan National Security Forces stepping up to the plate, yet they are universally viewed as unready. The problem is not lack of funding. The $11.6 billion appropriated for training the ana and anp next year is not far off Israel’s 2008 defense budget. Put another way, for $11.6 billion, we could hire 116,000 men at $100,000 apiece, a number which would surely attract some well-trained American soldiers. Looking at a developing country case, Sri Lanka built an army of 350,000 that decisively routed the ltte (Tamil Tigers) at a cost of $1.74 billion. Perhaps we should just hire the Sri Lankan army to fight the Afghan insurgency and be done with it.

Perhaps we should just hire the Sri Lankan army to fight the Afghan insurgency and be done with it.

Even judged by the metrics that partisans themselves choose to measure progress, the situation in Afghanistan has been steadily deteriorating. A recent report from the mainstream think tank csis shows statistically that the Afghan population has grown less and less willing to cooperate with counterinsurgents — even as we have supposedly refined our coin tactics and increased the number of troops. The report tracks the percentage of undetonated ieds reported to Coalition forces by locals from January 2004 to the present. Since May 2008 the percentage has hovered just under 5 percent whereas in 2005–06 — when the official story now has it that we were not doing effective coin — it was often over more than 10 percent. In May of last year, it was reduced to 1 to 2 percent.

It’s the coin advocates themselves who consider the percentage of ieds turned in a useful measure. The Center for a New American Security, the think tank at the epicenter of coin, issued a report in June 2009 written by Andrew M. Exum, Nathaniel C. Fick, Ahmed A. Humayun, and David J. Kilcullen, which stated that

a rise in the proportion of ieds being found and defused (especially when discovered thanks to tips from the local population) indicates that locals have a good working relationship with local military units — a sign of progress. Conversely, a drop in the proportion of ieds found and cleared indicates the population is not passing on information to security forces, and is standing by while they are attacked — a sign of deteriorating security.

Such metrics have to be looked at carefully. In some areas, Afghans have first planted and then reported the planting of ieds in order to pocket reward money or give the appearance of cooperation. Yet in practice, it seems that more troops doing more coin are correlated with less local cooperation and less security. coin is like a medicine that shows declining effectiveness the longer you take it and the higher doses you take it in.

There are some very smart people in the Pentagon, and in the field, whose response to the continued deterioration in a key metric of coin effectiveness has been to claim that they do not yet have enough troops in the field. Such irrationality suggests our leadership are wearing blinders, and one of the reasons is that they are, along with the rest of us, influenced by a hundred years of perspectival culture.

The emergence of perspectival culture

Counterinsurgency theory could not have been formulated — or accepted — before a sort of Copernican inversion in looking at warfare was possible, and this in turn depended on a wider cultural openness to the idea that reality is determined by the beholder.

There is nothing so unlikely as the adoption by the world’s best military forces of a doctrine, counterinsurgency, based on a quintessentially unmilitary principle: that each man must judge reality for himself. This flies in the face of the foundational ideas of a chain of command and the obeying of orders. To validate the individual’s viewpoint takes the military to a slippery slope. Yet powerful forces in our society have pushed it in this direction.

Following Nietzsche, its most famous and eloquent exponent, I will call this cultural faith “perspectivism” or “perspectival culture.” Perspectival culture takes reality to lie mainly in the eye of the beholder rather than being fixed, immutable, and objectively given. As articulated by Nietzsche in the 1870s and 1880s, truth is perspectival; the truth of Christianity — to pick one of Nietzsche’s favorite themes — is suited to what he called the guilt-ridden “bad conscience.” Ontology serves cultural, indeed political purposes. Science is not value-neutral: as Nietzsche wrote, “The human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives, and only in these.” The seeds of these ideas go back to the Renaissance — along with the re-discovery of perspective in drawing and of the rotation of the earth around the sun. In philosophy, Montaigne was probably the first major exponent of valuing the individual’s unique standpoint.1

Perspectival ideas were at the heart of Renaissance thought, culture and — most decisively — science. The 17th century mathematician and philosopher Leibniz, inventor of formal logic and co-inventor of calculus, argued that everyone except God knows reality only from his own particular viewpoint. He believed, as Babette Babich and Robert Sonne Cohen wrote in “Nietzsche and the Sciences,” that “The world is not known as it is in itself, it is known in terms of how it presents itself to a knower in a certain position.” Perspectivist ideas were only possible in the West when the stranglehold of the church on thought was loosened. Thus it is tempting to evoke the rise of Protestantism with its view of “each man a priest” and its emphasis on the individual’s perspective determining truth. But I would not push that link much further, for Montaigne, a Catholic, was as much a perspectivalist as Nietzsche or his legatee, Emerson. The ideas were in the air throughout the 16th century and after.

There is nothing so unlikely as the adoption by the world’s best military of a doctrine based on an unmilitary principle.

The historian Peter Burke has noted that linguistic hybridization grew in 16th- and 17th-century Europe with increased migration, the decline of Latin, and the rise of large international mercenary armies. Exposure to new languages and new words would reinforce perspectivist ideas in those so inclined, even if it was not likely enough to trigger them. The adaptation of military innovations from one part of Europe to another would also weaken fixed ideas. Perspectival thought grew in the Enlightenment, as the philosophes looked to nature rather than religion for answers and the divine right of kings disappeared with Louis XVIII’s head. In 1798, just a couple of years before Clausewitz entered the Prussian Military Academy, a new spirit rang out loud and clear from the then-famous joint satirical verse collection of Goethe and Schiller, Xenien: “In the end the created truth is the only truth we can see.”

Social and economic changes in early-19th-century Europe accelerated the transition to perspectivalism. The replacement of the traditional patronage system in music and literature by the sale of works to the bourgeois public led to an increase in the creator’s autonomy. Classical music shifted from “occasional” works composed for courts or churches to works composed for the concert hall — with a concomitant increase in personal expressivity and the emergence of the musician-composer as celebrity. As music emerged from craftsmanship to art, it became natural for composers to take greater risks in their personal vision and for an avant-garde public to follow them.

Having a distinctive personal vision became key to artistic achievement.

Early-to-mid-19th-century European Romantic artists in many fields pushed at the boundaries of acceptable content and form — the grim realism of Courbet’s “A Burial at Ornans” in the 1850 Salon, and Turner’s pre-Impressionist dissolution of form in light come to mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the great popularizer of the perspectivalism that would later saturate 20th-century culture and prepare the way for the triumph of counterinsurgency theory. He was both the legatee of Montaigne and an influence on Nietzsche. Writing in Representative Men in 1850, Emerson said of Montaigne’s Essays, “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life . . . ” Emerson articulated a distinctly American perspectivalism — homely and unpretentious — in his 1841 “Essay on Self-Reliance,” exhorting readers, “Trust thyself.” “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” he wrote, advising, “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

We know that Nietzsche was reading “Self-Reliance” in the summer of 1881. And the original edition of The Gay Science in 1882 begins with a quotation from Emerson, who died that year.

Nietzsche was so influential that he was blamed by some British writers for inspiring World War I.

The spread of Nietzsche’s influence is a barometer of the spread of perspectival thinking. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Nietzsche became a pop-cultural figure by the early 20th century, though as much for his perceived anti-Christian and elitist ideas as for his subtler perspectivism. Here too, cause and effect are hard to separate. Even modern dance was influenced by Nietzscheanism, with a proto-commune at Ascona espousing the philosopher’s ideas, and Isadora Duncan waxing ecstatic on her first reading of Nietzsche in 1902 Berlin. More ominously, Rudolf Laban staged a dance with a text from Thus Spoke Zarathustra at the Berlin Olympics.

Nietzsche was so influential that he was blamed by some British writers for inspiring World War I with his predictions of an apocalyptic and purifying war. Though this ignores Nietzsche’s complexities, it is true that the man who killed the Archduke Ferdinand, Gavrilo Princip, was given to reading Nietzsche’s poem “Ecce Homo” aloud. And when war came, German soldiers were issued 150,000 pocket editions of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Of course, the enthusiastic reception Nietzsche’s ideas received almost at once shows a society already attuned to a “revaluation of all values,” as much as it shows the force of his thought. In 1898, Tolstoy wrote a thunderously conservative essay titled “What is Art?” (condemning even the anodyne pleasures of the ballet), but to ask the question is to acknowledge the frightening probability that it was just what you wanted it to be.

In the last decades of the 19th century and first of the 20th, artists abandoned representation in their paintings, and composers like Wagner, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg pushed at the boundaries of tonality in organizing their works. But one artist, Marcel Duchamp, took perspectivism a step beyond Nietzsche.

Duchamp created a great scandal by exhibiting the Cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” in the 1913 Armory Show in New York — at a time when German soldiers were presumably lapping up Zarathustra. But when Duchamp exhibited a urinal as a work of art in 1917, he brought the audience into the party. As he wrote 40 years later, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Duchamp and his notion of the audience’s creation of or complicity in the work of art would be a perennial influence on the Western avant-garde, gaining a new generation of admirers after World War II. In 1963, the first Marcel Duchamp retrospective opened at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). Many artists attended, including some, like Andy Warhol, Edward Ruscha, and Robert Irwin, who were revolutionizing the art of the day.

Once a significant number of people agreed that reality lay in the eye of the beholder, indeed in their own eyes, the later developments of conceptual art and Abstract Expressionism and happenings and performance art made sense. Some of these works announced little besides their provisionality, that they were art only if we agreed that they were. Perhaps the most conceptually elegant was John Cage’s 1962 piano piece “4’33”,” which consists solely of silence.

At the same time, scientists were making discoveries that supported the perspectivist schema, at least in the way the general public understood them. Einstein’s work on relativity opened up vertiginous vistas of “God playing dice with the world” in popular culture. Physicists discovered that matter was made up of invisible particles whirling around other invisible particles! The world as seen by the naked eye was, truly, the illusion.

And like art, 20th-century science was turning its gaze on its own foundations. In 1962, just as coin enjoyed its first American vogue, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued that not all ideas are thinkable at all times and that scientists operating in one “paradigm” will evaluate experimental results differently than they would operating in another. “Paradigm shifts,” according to Kuhn, occur when a new theory explains anomalies better than the old one. While Kuhn wasn’t a relativist, his insistence on the cultural context of science shares an emphasis on the eye of the beholder with population-centric counterinsurgency theory. It also suggests an obvious way to evaluate coin: Does it explain the data?

Putting the genie back in the bottle?

Writing about duchamp in a recent issue of the New Yorker, critic Peter Schjeldahl summarizes the trouble with perspectivalism: “The traffic of the ready-made is one-way; a urinal that becomes art — Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917), . . . can’t escape to be a urinal again.”

That is, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. With perspectival culture a powerful force in today’s military, the “war of perceptions” is easy to understand. Once you start looking at a war as a matter of swaying the attitudes of the local population or capturing the so-called “human terrain” — a term only the military could have invented — it’s difficult to stop. It’s harder to understand that you might have the population behind you and still lose, because they’re more intimidated by the insurgents.

The cure may lie partly in a re-immersion in the actual classics of coin (as opposed to potted summaries). Reading carefully in Galula or Trinquier, or even “fm 3–24,” it is hard to get the impression that coin is a matter of changing perceptions, like running an ad campaign. Books like Trinquier’s Modern Warfare and Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare and Pacification  in Algeria discuss minute and tiresome details, from building latrines to triangulating the location of insurgents to tactics for night ambushes. They all insist on the difficulty of counterinsurgency operations, and the dim outlook for counterinsurgents.

Success in Afghanistan and future “small wars” means moving past the glossy “war of perceptions.”

If we are to succeed in Afghanistan and future “small wars,” we must move past the glossy “war of perceptions” to focus on the mundane tasks recommended by the classic theorists and almost systematically ignored by us in Afghanistan: closing the borders, counting and identifying the people, and controlling the movements of the population in hostile areas.

Another part of moving beyond perspectivalism is returning to the cold, dry realities of success and failure — those dreaded metrics that many in our military are now so reluctant to credit. While a wholly quantitative approach is as bad as a wholly subjective one, it may be better to err on the quantitative, analytic side in correcting for our recent giddy embrace of the subjective. Here too, past contributions offer fresh guidance.

One work that never received its due at the time is a book from 1970, Rebellion and Authority, by Charles Wolf, Jr. and the late Nathan Leites.  The authors say that counterinsurgents ought to focus on reducing the supply of insurgency — which they prefer to call “rebellion” — rather than the demand. (Wolf is an economist by training; Leites was a Soviet expert.) In other words, cut the inputs that allow rebels to act, rather than focusing on changing the preferences of the population.

The authors point out, correctly, that often rebellions can take hold even if the rebel cause is unpopular. The population makes a calculation of the costs and benefits of supporting one side or another and decides accordingly. Making the government lovable will not necessarily impact that calculus. But reducing the supply of insurgents may, because the less effective the insurgents are at enforcing their threats, the less the population will obey them.

It’s worth quoting one of Wolf’s earlier publications, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: Old Myths and New Realities, for its bracing common sense and disdain for mystification:

The primary consideration should be whether the proposed measure is likely to increase the cost and difficulties of insurgent operations and help to disrupt the insurgent organization rather than whether it wins popular loyalty and support, or whether it contributes to a more productive, efficient or equitable use of resources . . . Insurgency may be recognized not as an inscrutable and unmanageable force grounded in the mystique of a popular mass movement, but as a coherent operating system that needs to be understood structurally and functionally if it is to be effectively countered.

Given the need for two successive administrations, and the Pentagon, to sell the Afghan war to the American people, it is perhaps inevitable that the drudge work would be lost sight of, and the need for careful planning subsumed by buoyant rhetoric. But the unwillingness of both the Bush and Obama administrations to rigorously assess and critique coin tactics cannot be explained away so easily. Our future wars are likely to be either asymmetric or stupid, in the words of Crane. If we treat war as a question of perspective, like art, we will end up doing to ourselves what no army in the world can do: inflicting defeat.

1  By “perspectivalism” I don’t mean “relativism.” Philosophers generally agree that Nietzsche was not a relativist; he clearly thought certain perspectives and moralities — plural intentional — were better than others. He thought some moralities are more useful, some nobler, some more productive of high culture.