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"War is War" and Violence

(To read the entire "war is war” series, please click here.)

Bing West made an appearance on The Colbert Report last week, and his thoughts are illustrative:

“You are dealing with honest to goodness stone killers who believe in this Islamist version of history and the only way you can deal with them is to put them down in the earth. And as long as we try to win hearts and minds, we’re diverting ourselves.”

“American soldiers, handcuffed by strict rules of engagement, have surrendered the initiative to their enemies.”

“We’re winning hearts and minds. We’ve been doing it for ten years. And at some point we have to say, why would they still be allowing people to do this if they were on our side. And the answer is you have to win the war first.”

“The third thing we should do is just take our troops and get them back to warfighting.”

Yep, illustrative of the “war is war” position. Mr. West, welcome to the club.

Bing West gets to the heart of my criticism with “war-is-war”-iors, whose philosophy I’ve been debunking over this series of posts. They want to kill more bad guys, but don’t care to offer an alternative. I do, however, have an outlandish idea for how to kill more bad guys. To get there, I first have to explain a couple of things. Today, I am going to describe the two uses of violence in a counter-insurgency: security and counter-force.

All violence isn’t created equal, in warfare. Said more clearly, all violence doesn’t have the same purpose. By violence, I mean the confluence of maneuver and fires to kill the enemy. Some violence is offensive and deliberate in nature; other times it is reactive and defensive. Both are necessary, and a counter-insurgent most be versed in both.

Most of the time a counter-insurgent is defensive, focused on the security of the local population. Think of this like a shield. The counter-insurgent patrols roads to fend off IEDs. The counter-insurgent walks down the street to prevent crimes. The counter-insurgent places themselves between the insurgents and the population. Security patrols don’t set out to cause violence, but deny the insurgent the ability to operate easily.

Security isn’t just the realm of foreign counter-insurgents or even the government. In Iraq, the best example of security patrolling were the Awakening groups that rose up. Afghanistan has failed to create a similar movement, and its primary security force, the Afghan National Police, are inordinately corrupt.

When “war-is-war”iors preach their gospel about getting “back to warfighting”, what they mean is conducting more “counter-force” operations. This is the other branch of counter-insurgency, the sword (sometimes called the stick, though On Violence doesn’t compare other people to animals).

Counter-force missions attempt to kill or capture the insurgency. This means raids, counter-sniper missions and specialized reconnaissance designed to fight the enemy, the insurgent and other destabilizing forces. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army tries to do this all the time. Tries. We call it “targeting”. Usually, because of a lack of intelligence (that comes from good security operations), the missions don’t yield dead bad guys, and the threat networks can easily rebuild.

“War-is-war”-iors often don’t understand this nuanced role of violence in warfare. When they say they want us to “win the war first”, “war-is-war”-iors really mean they want a different ratio of offensive to defensive operations. That doesn't sound nearly as hardcore. Sometimes they advocate softening our Rules of Engagement. All this does is risk more civilians during security operations. That harms our strategy in the long run.

I’ll admit, you can’t win a battle with only a shield. “War-is-war”-iors love to compare us COINdinistas to care bears more concerned with “winning hearts and minds” than killing.

I’m not. I know that we need to have a sword and a shield. Whether that sword should be precise like an Epee or unwieldy like a broad sword, that is what we’ll discuss on Monday, when I'll explain why the military--especially Special Operations troops--fails to kill bad guys in Afghanistan.

(I first came across the term “counter-force” in this manuscript called the “Tao of Counter-Insurgency”.)

eleven comments

Doing research for this post, the Care Bears theme song really is crap, at least compared to the classic TV theme songs like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ducktales and the all time classic Gummy Bears.

On Bing West, I think Filkins sums up the “War is war“ior position in his review of West’s book ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/books/.. ), “The subtitle of West’s book promises a “way out,” but it’s a little thin on exit strategies.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) setup is close to what the Awakening groups/SoI were like. They have a bit more government support – and are better vetted at the village shura level.


I’ve seen this work very well, particularly in areas where the shura has transcended the tribe and become a village shura.

Guys, minimizing Bing’s words to a “war is war” strawman is a grevious misunderstanding of what he is saying. See my interview with him at SWJ. Also, see Octavian’s interview we published today on French counter-rebellion.

@ Mike F – That’s a fair criticism, and one I worried about when I reviewed this post. A five minute interview isn’t nearly enough time to give justice to the ideas in a full book.

That said, the central premise—that Bing doesn’t provide many solutions—is supported by the review I cited above.

MikeF I will admit that boiling down an opponents beliefs to fit into a post usually short change their thoughts. That actually gets into part of the point of writing about “war is war”. As a serious issue, we should discuss military theory. When we get talking points about “killing the enemy”, it ruins the debate.

Also, Mr. West was really just the latest example we found using this line of thinking. The most important part of the post is defining violence in warfare. If someone wants to criticize our security operations, or if they want to criticize how we do offensive operations, and they have specific solutions, that is what I want to hear.

And some of the people I have used to demonstrate the “war is war” position—namely Bing West and Stephen Metz—are people whose books have those aspects. Professor Metz is an amazing academic, I love his stuff. But he has drifted into speaking about “war is war” and that fuels a larger narrative. Still love his work though.

Jon, whoever you are, if only I had someone on the ground giving me their eye view into the conflict.

@ MikeF – Could you link to the Bing interview?

@Michael C,

I’m busy growing a beard – it’s not as easy as it looks…

All that I’m suggesting is that y’all reconsidering labeling. IMO, it’s not helpful to the real discussions. It’s like the old west coast/east coast rappers dispute. It was nonsense that only led to bloodshed :).

Bing’s long term plan is similar to what I thought we should do pre-surge. It actually is very thorough, takes the longest, and is cheapest. Except, the advisors don’t have to grow beards. They already wear them.

Please don’t get defensive when I post a critique. I love y’all’s site. I only post when I see grevious fouls!!!

My interview with Bing.


I didn’t mean to come across as defensive. I just wanted to emphasize that when I label someones’s words as “war-is-war” it doesn’t mean their thought out academic work is immediately suspect.

Michael C,

I think Stephen Walt jumped on y’all’s bandwagon today with a “War is War” entry!


Personally, I still think this debate presents false choices.