Just in Case You Weren’t Sure: Counterinsurgency Isn’t “Progressive”

Matt Yglesias finds it necessary to point out, of all things, that counterinsurgency warfare isn’t really as progressive as it’s cracked up to be.    He confessed to “a sort of nagging concern that counterinsurgency advocates have sold the public—or at least a certain swathe of left-of-center elites—on a prettied-up version of what their brand of warfare means. Like it’s really development work and human rights, except the people will carry guns.”   But he quotes Michael Cohen  (“The Myth of a Kindler, Gentler War”),  to the effect that all those counterinsurgency success stories “don’t actually look like a kinder, gentler form of war.”  Cohen points, specifically, to the case of the counterinsurgency in Malaysia, which–like pretty much all counterinsurgencies–relied mainly on “separating the ethnic Chinese population from the insurgents, by force.”  The “compelling list of indignities visited upon this group” included  “mass arrests, the death penalty for carrying weapons, food control systems, burning down of the homes of Communist sympathizers, curfews and fines against communities as forms of collective punishment for individual offenses, detention without trial.”

“Which is just to say,” Yglesias concludes, “that people shouldn’t kid themselves about what’s involved in a war, even a counterinsurgency war.”

“Even”?  “EVEN”?!!

That it should even be necessary to point out that counterinsurgency is not a kindler and gentler form of warfare utterly astounds me.

The U.S. operation in South Vietnam–Operation Phoenix, strategic hamlets, free fire zones, and all the rest of it–was a counterinsurgency. Ditto the Soviet operation in Afghanistan, the Brits in the Boer republics, the Spanish in Cuba, the American suppression of the Moros in the Philippines, the Japanese counterinsurgency in Manchuria, the Belgians in the Congo, and all the rest of it.  All these operations aimed at the same general objective:  preventing an occupied population from supporting an insurgency it sympathized with.  And they all followed the same rulebook:  herd the civilian population into glorified prison camps where they could be controlled, shooting everything that moved outside, and if necessary resorting to terror when support for the insurgency continued.

Unfortunately, the specter of Kennedy liberalism still haunts the Democratic Party fifty years after a vigorous, charismatic young President packaged it as some kind of “progressive” venture (“bear any burden, pay any price,” etc.) to send Green Berets to Saigon.  You may recall that spirit was symbolized by James T. Kirk, Kennedy’s alter ego, who generally said  “we come in peace” about a nanosecond before “set phasers to kill.”

That Yglesias even finds it necessary to debunk the idea that counterinsurgency is “progressive” or “idealistic” should demonstrate beyond question that the influence of George McGovern on the Democratic Party mainstream is long dead.  “Progressivism” may mix a bit of New Left cultural leaven in with the old-style liberal lump, but in the mainstream Democratic establishment—and that means Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and all those people who talk about Afghanistan as the “good war”—the heart of Cold War Liberalism is still beating strongly.

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