Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Considering the Soul of Armies

Considering the Soul of Armies

Austin Long’s newest book, The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the US and UK, advances our theoretical understanding of counterinsurgency, military doctrine, and the behavior of military organizations. It also has important policy implications. Long correctly points out that policymakers need to have an accurate understanding of the cultures that permeate the military organizations they have at their disposal, so as to gain a firmer grasp of what those organizations can and cannot do. The book also raises further questions that are worth exploring.

Long begins by noting that despite similarities between U.S. and UK counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, and the high degree of continuity in both countries’ COIN doctrines over the decades, their militaries have responded differently to the COIN challenge, and the outcome of their COIN campaigns has varied. He identifies two central questions. First, is the doctrine embodied in past and current field manuals actually the right way to fight counterinsurgency? Answering this question requires examining whether the mixed record is the result of the doctrine itself or of the way doctrine was applied. Second, given that organizations respond differently to the challenge of counterinsurgency, are some better suited to it than others?

Long argues that culture has been a more important determinant of U.S. and UK conduct of COIN operations than doctrine. His answer to the second question is a qualified yes, but he also adds that “success has much more to do with local conditions than with military doctrine and operations.” Consequently, “the agency of outsiders is limited.”

Building on Elizabeth Kier’s Imagining War, Long argues “that organizational culture is a critical intervening variable between the environment (domestic and international) and doctrine.” He skillfully navigates the murky waters surrounding culture as an analytical concept and offers a definition of military culture as a clearly identified set of values and ideas about war. Focusing on the formative “first war” and the process of professionalization, Long traces the evolution of U.S. and UK military culture until the early Cold War period. The dominant U.S. Army culture was shaped by the Civil War, and the organization “prepared officers to lead large conscript forces armed lavishly with industrial firepower.” In contrast to this culture, Army Special Forces developed their own subculture, which was more conducive to COIN operations. Within the Marine Corps, two subcultures coexisted: one focused on “small wars” (or COIN), and one emphasized amphibious operations.

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