“For me music is like a center, it’s something that binds people together through centuries through millennium. Its undefinable, and nobody is ever going to have the answer to it, but it’s great fun exploring.”

-Keith Richards, Under the Influence documentary, 2015

There is nothing fun about war, certainly not “great fun” But, I think Keith Richards is onto something here, and if you listened to him utter this thought with eyes closed, you would have sworn it was being said by an infamous British general speaking in a low mumble. Just like music, so many soldiers and armchair critics are often trying to define war and claim to have the answers to how it should be conducted. They do not, and neither do I; but let’s explore a bit.

If only war was a great symphony with four known movements

I think Richards is spot-on here: all music is exploration. It has some rough rules, but they change with humanity. It should have a catchy chorus, but it isn’t required. The notes should be written down meticulously so anyone can play the tune, but it often isn’t and not just anyone can re-play a song exactly. Music shifts like war does over the ages; it speeds up and it slows down. War can be simple (or seem simple) or it can be complex. Music is sometimes very hard to write; artists spend years on one song that they just can’t seem to get from their mind to their instrument. Warfighting, too, seems so easy and clear in one’s mind, but when you try to lay out your vision of it for your team, its jumbled, incomplete, and often cannot be conducted as you thought.

Is all war COIN?

So why the controversial article title? Is all war COIN? No, that is just as wrong as saying there is “real” war and “small” wars. The definition of size and the realness of war is often of little concern to the unfortunate people caught in the middle of one. I have watched lieutenants, scholars, generals and politicians argue about what kind of war they want to fight, and how they will do it. One of the most popular pipe-dreams is that the “best” war to fight is a large scale “traditional one”, whatever that is. One of the least popular refrains is that insurgencies can be defeated. There has of course, been every claim in between.

But as I’ve studied war and peace, soldiering and reconciliation over the last 29 years, I have found that most experts are dead wrong in their claims about warfare. I started studying war shortly after my 17th birthday when my recruiter signed me up for the airborne infantry and handed me a 1980 Field Manual 7-8, titled the Infantry Platoon and Squad. I noted something in that first of my military library books; that even the most basic of plans, the troop leading procedures (TLPs) came with a caveat. It stated that the “procedure is not rigid” and that it can be “changed to fit the situation.”

This is the thing that so many “experts” on war miss time and again, and Richards nailed it. War is a deadly exploration, and no known answer or set of answers will get you through successfully. I don’t mean to say that counterinsurgency is some magical checklist about how to win a war. In fact, generals Amos and Petraeus said just the opposite when they published the 2006 COIN manual.

Counterinsurgency “requires leaders at all levels to adjust their approach constantly.”

If all war, like music, is an undefinable question to which no one ever has the right answer, isn’t it best that we approach war with a theory that tells us to be flexible leaders? A theory that advises us to be prepared to conduct “a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations.”  That is how a counterinsurgency campaign is described by the COIN guidelines we all know so well.

As I look back on other wars and operations, from WWII to Hurricane Andrew, and from Iron Falcon to Enduring Freedom, I see leader after leader following COIN advice that has existed through millennia. We can see that soldiers and Marines had “to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies.” That military members were required to be ready to shake hands or exchange gunshots as they moved from location to location and mission to mission.

At various stages during WWII and the reconciliation decades that followed, soldiers had to be nation builders and warriors, and excelled at both with the help of civilians from inside and outside the government. In most wars, military units have helped build local security forces and conducted vital and sometimes long-term engineering to rebuild or build infrastructure. Militaries can conduct rule of law in their own military courts, and they often help set up courts in nations they are stationed. Some soldiers have experience as mayors and city officials and they have used that expertise to help bring peace after a war, and stability during it.

Leaders in the military, through the ages, have been expected to interact with local governments, to deal with humanitarians, to adjust to religious rules in their area of operations, and to understand international norms and abide by them.

Successful leaders in history have been flexible, agile, well-informed, and culturally astute. You can get by without those skills but it usually requires a greater loss of life in your force and causes more deaths for the civilians around you.

No matter what kind of war you think you want to fight, don’t forget the enemy gets a say about its duration, complexity, and technique. Also, no matter how you want to fight a war, you can rest assured the modern rules of humanity that you will find yourself under always dictate how you can fight them. Imagine trying to bomb a major city today like our air forces did in WWII Germany. If you aren’t picturing an international war crimes tribunal after that bombing run, you aren’t paying attention.

So, take Keith Richards’ advice: you do not have the answers; you are just exploring an undefinable concept. The best you can do for yourself and your team, is to stop worrying about what kind of war you want to fight and start preparing your junior leaders and troopers to be flexible. If they can turn on and off their offensive capabilities like their ancestors did, they will be fine. If they know when to start a conversation with a local elder and when to start a call for fire mission, they will succeed. War like music is always changing, your best bet is to spend all your time practicing for all the known possibilities and to dream about the problems no one has encountered yet. Those problems are out there and an adaptive and well-educated leader can get his team through them.

So, let’s stop trying to throw the concepts of counterinsurgency in the dumpster of history every time we get tired of fighting a war, and start realizing what the manual actually asks leaders to do.

Observe wisely, Think of the best technique, and then Act accordingly!

A truly talented military organization recently changed its motto to “Whatever our nation needs us to be.”  That is a good place to be mentally when thinking through war, and maybe Keith Richards will use that line in his next song.


*Quotes other than Mr. Richards are from LTG David Petraeus and LtGen James Amos, 2006, US Army FM 3-24 and USMC MCWP 3-33.5

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He serves on the Board of Directors for 2 non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.