Adam Curtis always has penetrating insights and excellent research pieces on thoughtful topics. His latest piece on the history of counterinsurgency is superb, threading together American counterinsurgency in the war on terror with the French theorist that created it.
I wanted to draw attention to one aspect of the piece that I would have loved to see drawn out.
Curtis explains how traditional economic theories of rational actors began to be applied to the public at large in war torn countries as a method of understanding informants and non-traditional insurgent hierarchies.
The new theory was called:
“The Cost/Benefit-Coercion theory of Counterinsurgency“
It still believed in Galula’s theory of putting the local population into protected villages and making them feel safe. But it gave up on worrying about what was in the villagers heads and treated them instead as self-interested “rational actors” who would respond in more or less predictable ways to incentives – and to disincentives.
The theory was picked up by the Executive branch and put into practice. Curtis goes on to explain that this method of counterinsurgency is often seen by proponents as war by another means: people are dying already, so does it really matter if there are fewer battles and more targeted assassinations? Vietnam became the proving ground for this American counterinsurgency theory, a discipline still in its infancy. This was the Phoenix Programme:
The aim of the protected villages and all the incentives was to separate the population from the insurgents. The next objective was to destroy the insurgents – and to do this the CIA set up what they called The Phoenix Programme.
But the documentary goes on to show how the Phoenix programme created something much worse – which it was powerless both to understand or to stop.
The Rational Peasant approach looked at Vietnam as a society of millions of self-seeking rational individuals. In reality, Vietnamese society was far more complicated. Extended families had tangled and intricate histories of relationships – some were friendly but many were driven by rivalries and hatreds.
As the film makes clear this had created a powerful tradition of violent retribution in Vietnamese society – and it goes on to show how some of the militias that the Americans had created used the free rein their masters gave them, to kill and torture not communists, but other, innocent civilians against whom they had long-standing grudges or hatreds.
After such experiences in Vietnam the whole idea of Counterinsurgency in the American military was discredited. It was buried away and forgotten.
Vietnam today is a different place, emerging from a war that plunged the entire region into darkness. What interests me are the cultural artifacts of such a conflict: what remains after an imperial presence that fosters a culture of assassination leaves? I suppose I need to brush up on my Vietnamese to answer that question.
The most troubling aspect of his Curtis’ piece is that we are ready to repeat the same mistakes.