Wow! I just got back from Marine Corps University’s event “Counterinsurgency Leadership in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Beyond.” While I don’t have time to fully relate the awesome experience as I have to finish The Ugly American, write on Roman philosophy, and prepare for a Naval Weapon Systems exam, I wanted to leave readers with one question. Is a good counterinsurgency leader also automatically a good conventional war leader? This is the claim asserted by Mark Moyar, author of Question of Command. It seems a little too sweeping to me.; then again, COIN leaders are expected to have all the same competencies with the addition of flexibility as well as political and social skills.

Is there a problem with defining “good” COIN officers as super soldiers or is this level of proficency (in nearly everything) just the reality of counterinsurgency operations ?

Also, there were several USNI blog readers in attendance. It was great to meet you all in person!

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Books, Marine Corps, Tactics

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  • Chap

    I wonder if the Small Wars Journal has anything on this yet. Perhaps your question is slightly related to the FAO skill set. DoD recognizes the need to split out the specialty even though conventional officers can sometimes do the job when thrown into it. Also, the dude at the tip of the spear has to do the thing no matter what the training pipeline is–he’ll get good or sink, but where do you put the guy the next three tours, and how do you grow all the skills the guy needs?

    COINistas aren’t necessarily good at conventional warfare. Some people are good enough to do it all; some ain’t. McMaster succeeded in several environments to include COIN, but others did not. Some officers do great at one level of control but fail at another, as well–leadership isn’t monolithic.

    Another interesting question is how a COINista does inside his own organization. If COIN makes the leader, how come that skill set and mindset disappears for decades at a time? Why is it that the good people at those skills don’t usually show up at the top of the organization as a recognized COINista?

    Moyar, if I’m reading the reviews at the link correctly, is arguing for outstanding leadership. Outstanding leaders tend to be good at lots of things. Conversely, a good leader too inflexible to ‘get’ a novel way of seeing or executing warfare isn’t being a good leader, so you need a COIN leader for COIN.

    Finally, a point about COIN as a fad. I can also read “all good COINistas are super soldiers” as expression of a flavor-of-the-year. COIN is of course useful and should have been grokked years earlier, but all waves of thought have their undertow. It will be interesting to see in the future how COIN gets overapplied, slapped onto other forms of planning to fit the current style, and undergone a backlash after a failure requiring mainly other skills.

  • Abe

    I was there as well, and I wish I would’ve stopped by – I tend to think so, but (As was emphasized yesterday) so much depends on the context of what is happening. The one element making me say yes is the education level and processes creative thinking which CI leadership is encouraged to follow. The current crop of officers rising through the ranks is becoming better educated and more creative in looking for solutions, and these abilities would translate well to high intensity ops.

  • LAG

    “Is a good counterinsurgency leader also automatically a good conventional war leader?” — Try this thought experiment that I think will answer your question:

    “Is a good business leader also automatically a good political leader? (or vice versa) Or, “Is a good political leader also automatically a good conventional war leader? (this was the rule in the Civil War. How’d that work out?)

    Restatement as a declarative shows how ridiculous this really is: “A good ____ is automatically a good ____.”

    It may be true in special, strictly individual, cases, but never automatically. To believe otherwise is to under-rate the value of expertise. Anti-intellectual is a fine American tradition that I sympathize with, but sometimes a specialty really is special and requires a such arcane information in such depth that no shift comes easily.

    If you’re a FA-18 pilot, just try to convince a sub CO you can make the shift to engineering watch officer without trouble.

  • Anathema

    LAG – all red herrings. More comparable is “can a good SWO who has always served in AEGIS ships command an amphib well?” Or vice versa. Yes, they can.

    Or, even better, can a great artist be a good bureaucrat? Sure.

    Can a great bureaucrat be good artist? Less likely.