When COIN Came Home

Counterinsurgency experts have often pitched their ideas as a solution to tensions within the United States.

Counterinsurgency’s once-vocal American advocates have gone silent. This group once touted “COIN” as the political-military-social strategy for neutralizing irregular, armed challenges to friendly regimes or occupying forces. But the unsatisfactory outcome in Iraq, which is increasingly an Iranian satrapy, and the resiliency of the Afghan Taliban, despite the commitment of billions of dollars and loss of lives, have helped quiet those policymakers, military officers and analysts.

In her introduction to the 2007 edition of the influential U.S. Army-Marine Corps COIN field manual, Harvard’s Sarah Sewell touted COIN as a form of armed social work aimed at promoting what she called “a more holistic form of human security.” It is a testament to the oddly romantic appeal of the doctrine that such naïve notions went largely unrecognized and unchallenged at the time. (Recent studies by scholars such as Douglas Porch, David Martin Jones and David Anderson are welcome correctives to the overweening claims made by counterinsurgency enthusiasts in and out of uniform.)

As the current counterinsurgency era draws to a close, the time is ripe for further assessments of the COIN’s costs and consequences. One important area of inquiry is the its impact on the countries that have conducted protracted counterinsurgency campaigns. The United States during the Vietnam era offers a particularly rich case study.

During counterinsurgency’s heyday in the 1960s, COIN notions percolated throughout the U.S. national security establishment. What appeared to be brilliantly effective against communist guerrillas abroad also seemed to hold great promise for dealing with civil unrest at home. The popular press, before it soured on Vietnam, served as a transmission belt for such notions. One nationally syndicated author, writing in 1965, described the counterguerrilla exploits of General Edward Lansdale in the Philippines and Vietnam, and insisted that “our ghettos, too, need a Lansdale. They need a whole army of Lansdales.”

When viewed through the COIN lens, America’s cities looked remarkably like the insurgent-infested hamlets of South Vietnam. Fortunately, the U.S. government never waged domestic counterinsurgency. But some civilian policymakers, military officers and academic specialists contemplated it. COIN provided the mental apparatus that enabled them to view rioting fellow citizens as part of a global threat stretching from Southeast Asia to Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark.

The mid-1960s were a period of intense and protracted political violence—the most severe since the Civil War. Between 1964 and 1968, 329 major riots took place in 257 cities, according to one estimate. In the perfervid political atmosphere of the time, some on the extreme political left championed ghetto unrest as black resistance to white “occupation” and internal colonialism. But the belief that these “uprisings” were revolutionary insurrections was hardly confined to radicals.

Apocalyptic visions of black, urban-based revolution also circulated among mainstream policy experts. Abetted by social science, it was possible to see fighters in dripping Asian jungles, rebellious students tearing up French paving blocks, and Molotov-cocktail throwing Newark agitators as part of a seamless whole. Prominent theorists who had developed tools for predicting and containing violent revolution in the global South increasingly turned their attention to domestic U.S. instability. RAND’s Guy Pauker warned in 1969 that African-American veterans returning from Southeast Asia to life in U.S. ghettos could form the “military trained cadres of a black terrorist movement.” A “systems approach” to COIN in Vietnam was equally applicable to urban disorders and growing campus unrest, according to Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf, Jr., also at RAND.

The notion that violent revolution was unfolding at home gained currency among influential law-enforcement and military officers. Predictably, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover detected the subversive influence of U.S. communists and what the bureau termed “representatives of unfriendly or hostile countries.” Daryl Gates, who went on to serve as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, wrote in his memoirs that the 1965 Watts riots led him to conclude that “the streets of America had become a foreign country.” Following Watts, Gates became a keen student of counterinsurgency in Vietnam and sought operational advice from Marines at a nearby base.

In an article for U.S. News & World Report, a retired U.S. army colonel claimed that the dangers within American ghettos were greater than threats emanating from abroad. “Urban guerrillas of the future,” he warned, “can be organized to such a degree that their defeat would require the direct application of military power.” At the Pentagon, some senior army officers were increasingly alarmed by domestic turmoil. Major General William P. Yarborough, the army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence, reportedly told subordinates during the 1968 Detroit riot to “get out your counterinsurgency manuals. We have an insurgency on our hands.” Under Yarborough’s direction, the army stepped up its surveillance of ghetto residents, sending more than one thousand plainclothes agents deep into the nation’s cities to identify agitators, collaborators and hotspots.

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