A Commentary upon the program presented by General Stanley A. McChrystal (ret.), and Kristina Talbert-Slagle
General McChrystal and Dr. Talbert-Slagle gave an interesting presentation December 19 at The Brookings Institution on “Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body.” The concept they presented, that the process of fighting an infection like HIV/AIDS in the human body offered parallels and insights into fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in a nation-state, is not new but neither was their presentation a waste of time. The metaphor imagining a nation or society as a human body or biological organism dates back to the Renaissance. As recently as the 1950s, officials spoke of fighting off the infection of communism in the USA and abroad. Nevertheless, it may be that by the power of PowerPoint they presented this notion more effectively and thoughtfully than it has been in the past.
Right at the beginning of their presentation I really appreciated Dr. Talbert-Slagle’s comment that the body is a system of systems, an important concept for understanding both the human body and the body politic. What the metaphor also offers is a clearer picture of the two-pronged approach that is the basis of counterinsurgency – one line of effort confronts the infection itself while the second line of effort addresses the challenge of maintaining and increasing the body’s strength to better fight off the infection. This translates into a military effort against the insurgent combat arm and another line of effort to strengthen the current political/social/governmental institutions.
Their presentation included many references to Afghanistan and a lesser degree to Iraq, although I personally saw an even better match with Ireland from 1916 to 1923, a focus of my own recent research. Ireland in this period is an excellent model which also highlights several additional and useful elements of the infection/insurgency metaphor.
For example, one reason the British authorities were not more alarmed over a possible rising during 1914, 1915, and into early 1916 was the proliferation of armed marching groups in Ireland that had been active over these years. The British authorities were aware of the Ulster Volunteers, MP John Redmond’s Irish National Volunteers, MacNeil and Pearse’s Irish Volunteers, James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians Rifles. Of these, the most dangerous were actually the smallest – Pearse’s Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army. These would actually turn out for the Easter 1916 Rising. Within the infection metaphor, each of the marching groups represented a separate infection. This multiplicity of active “infections” served to mask the activities of the others making it harder for the government to make a timely diagnosis of which was the real threat requiring treatment.
Another critically important parallel between COIN and fighting infection is the need for the active participation of the patient. Both geopolitical and medical experience suggest that it is critically important in counterinsurgency for the population and their leadership (in government and otherwise) to buy in to the COIN effort, just as the medical patient must take an active role alongside his or her doctor in deciding upon an effective course of treatment.
One questioner interjected an interesting issue when he noted that the earliest cases of HIV/AIDS occurred among gay men and that the associated stigma delayed serious action by the medical world, politicians, and society at large for several years. While this point was acknowledged but not elaborated on during the presentation, I believe that a similar problem of stigma can be identified in connection with a state confronted by an insurgency. Insurgencies almost always emerge in failing or failed states seriously troubled by corruption and poverty and related increases in violence and criminal activity, among other factors. These and other signs of the breakdown of the state stigmatize that state and reduce the willingness of other governments and their electorates to be associated with the regime now targeted by an insurgency. The troubled nation and its population have become “the other” – distinct and separate from the “us” of the US and the Western world.
The association of the metaphor and the already noted situation in Ireland gave rise to another thought as I pondered the implications of the metaphor. Following the defeat of the Easter 1916 Rising, the British quarantined the infection by executing 16 people they identified as ringleaders and imprisoned almost 1,500 others identified as participants. Although the situation in Ireland did not then worsen, it also did not return to the pre-Rising “normal”. About a year later, Britain began releasing its prisoners and allowing them to return to Ireland.
These returning prisoners were in fact even more determined to win Ireland’s independence after their year in prison. They returned with greater cohesion, unity, and purpose than before. In effect, Britain now faced a super-bug in Ireland, resistant to the treatments used in the past. Ireland suffered a relapse as a new, more violent, prolonged conflict now broke out. Finally, in 1922, Britain and Ireland signed a treaty ending British rule in Ireland. Medically, what had happened over the period 1914-1922 was that the patient and physician had disagreed upon the proper course of treatment and neither really anticipated the dangers of reinfection by a new stronger (more virulent?) form of the ‘virus’.
What the two speakers have presented to us is not a solution to the challenges of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare. They have revived and improved a metaphor that will help many people better understand the issues and challenges of counterinsurgency. The better both patient and physician understand the challenges and each other, the more likely they will successfully treat the disease.