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Is Cultural Heritage Protection Another Form of Nation-Building? A Review of “The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency” by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones

June 21, 2016

M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 262 pp.

The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the academic study of insurgencies, producing a voluminous amount of publications whose consensus has been distilled into the United States Army Field Manual 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies as well as the British Army Field Manual Vol. 1, Part 10: Countering Insurgency. Military officers such as David Petraeus, David Kilcullen, and H.R. McMaster became academic and media stars. The United States military deployed dozens of anthropologists to Afghanistan and moved counterinsurgency to the forefront of military doctrine as it reconfigured its forces to fight insurgencies.

BookCoverThis thoughtful albeit sometimes polemical work by M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones seeks to deconstruct some of the unacknowledged assumptions supporting contemporary counterinsurgency (COIN) theory. They begin by questioning whether “insurgency” is even a useful category for analysis. Many definitions of insurgency focus on an asymmetrical relationship between the combatants, but the authors point out that all wars involve unequal combatants and that trying to match one’s own strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses is basic military strategy. Others define an insurgency as an attempt to challenge a government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which would mean that all governments are constantly in a state of counterinsurgency whenever they enforce their own laws.

Imprecise definitions lead to very different conflicts being lumped together under the category of “insurgency,” grouping campaigns such as the French war in Indochina which were essentially made up of set piece battles between standing armies alongside more diffuse conflicts in Malaya or Northern Ireland as well as international terrorist campaigns like that waged by Al-Qaida. (p. 3-33)

According to Smith and Jones, by downplaying the essential differences between various conflicts COIN theorists seek to describe a general theory of insurgency and then develop a set of best practices which can then be applied to defeat any insurgency, anywhere. The problem is that wars are products of very specific circumstances, and one-size-fits-all theories tend to miss vital details. The authors spend an entire chapter debunking supposed “British expertise” in counterinsurgency, arguing that British victories in Malaya, Palestine, Kenya, South Africa, Northern Ireland and elsewhere were achieved through the common colonial method of finding a local faction opposed to the insurgents, giving them a lot of guns, and letting them do the dirty work. (p. 35-44, 86-87, 123-148)

While the authors’ own presuppositions lead them to contend that “skepticism should be practiced towards all grand social science theorizing in general,” (p. 184-185) their most trenchant observations concern the nature of COIN itself. COIN, they argue, pretends to be an apolitical set of “best practices” for defeating an enemy but is actually a deeply ideological enterprise rooted in American Cold War era modernization theory.

Originating in the age of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations’ “best and brightest,” Cold War modernizers “assumed that a rationalist, technocratic state could solve all social and economic ills.” All societies moved from superstition to reformation to enlightenment. Pluralist democracy in its mid-twentieth century American form could be universalized. Modernization meant industrialization, rationalization, secularization, bureaucratization, and a quest for efficiency which saw non-Western traditional social systems as obstacles to be overcome. (p. 57-92)

This infamous PowerPoint slide illustrated the impenetrable and incomprehensible complexity of contemporary counterinsurgency theory.

This infamous PowerPoint slide became a symbol of the impenetrable and incomprehensible complexity of contemporary counterinsurgency theory when it surfaced in 2009.

The underlying assumption was that modernity has civilizing, democratizing and secularizing effects which can be brought about through economic and technological modernization. Democratic peace theory, “Golden Arches” peace theory, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and most The World is Flat-style globalization theory all spring from this line of thinking. So, according to the authors, does COIN. The goal of COIN is to create and strengthen a legitimate government which effectively provides services and security to its people, thereby cutting off support for the insurgency. To this end the United States Army spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan on infrastructure projects, schools and economic development. “Buried within Western counterinsurgency thinking,” the authors have asserted elsewhere, “was an ideology that successful nation building would conduce to a liberal democratic end of history.”

The problem is that COIN is preaching the virtues of modernization to people who have already considered and rejected it. Militant Islamist ideology developed as a result of contacts between the Islamic world and modernity since the nineteenth century. Its major thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb spent significant time living and studying the West. Its followers have already taken a long look at what the modern West has to offer and decided that they want none of it. And because COIN unconsciously reflects ethnocentric Western value judgements which rank economic and material concerns above spiritual and religious ones, it is doomed to fail. (p. 57-103)

Is Heritage Preservation an Exercise in Nation Building?

While Smith and Jones limit their criticism to COIN theory, it is worth considering how closely the assumptions made by the cultural heritage enterprise align with the assumptions underlying contemporary COIN theory. Is current dialogue about antiquities preservation, replete with calls for greater education and normative claims about the value of cultural heritage, rooted in the same sort of assumptions about modernity and the end of history?

For example, UNESCO director Irina Bokova stated in June 2013 that “protecting the heritage of the world’s cultures concerns us all” because “cultural heritage can serve as a powerful tool to reinforce mutual understanding, social cohesion and ultimately, world peace.” In December 2014 she said there was “no purely military solution” to the war in Syria but that “to fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defense against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”

Or consider the remarks made in September 2013 by Anne C. Richard of the U.S. State Department on the importance of Syria’s cultural heritage for nation-building:

When we help protect heritage sites or preserve cultural objects throughout the world, we also support a nation’s efforts to restore its national identity. Citizens of all ethnicities, faiths, backgrounds, and economic stations can feel the pride and sense of national unity that comes with that.

We are also supporting the potential rebirth of an economy which, at one time, accounted for 12 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year. In fact, 11 percent of the workforce was employed as conservation professionals, teachers, tour guides, museum curators, hotel owners and employees, travel agents, bus and coach drivers, and shopkeepers.

It is not new to point out the colonialist origins of the field of ancient Near East scholarship (Bahrani 1998); the use of the ancient past as a tool for building the modern state (Baram 1991; Hamilakis 2007); how the concept of “universal heritage” actually empowers the state at the expense of local interests (de Cesari 2010; Meskell 2005); nor is it new to promote the use of cultural heritage as a tool for economic development (Hassan, de Trafford & Youssef 2008).

What may be overlooked, however, is that some of these ideas of universal heritage may be rooted in the same assumptions as counterinsurgency theory. Strengthening national capabilities to ensure a desired outcome for the protection of cultural heritage. Using heritage as a tool for economic modernization, which in turn is hoped to bring about social and political modernization. An assumption that all normal people value heritage in the same way that Westerners do and thereby heritage should be preserved by establishing national museums and government ministries as duplicates of those in the West. An assumption that all cultures will develop in this general direction. These assumptions may not all be faulty, but they should be examined.

One of the largest unexamined assumptions relates to the nature of ISIS itself. Jobs and education alone are not the solution to the ideology of an organization which counts in its ranks tens of thousands of people who left life in the west to join the Islamic State. ISIS is not made up of undeveloped primitives, it is made up of people who took a long look at modernity and decided they preferred a modern mythological version of a seventh-century caliphate.

All of this is meant as a caution, not a prohibition. A reminder that whenever we hear another UN official talking about the self-evident need to protect “the universal heritage we all share” or promoting pictures of government officials all over the world holding #Unite4Heritage signs, it may serve us well to be cautious about assuming that these values are quite as universal as the international organizational class claims, or that other people will prioritize them as highly as educated people in the West.

Special thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a review copy of this book.

Further Reading:

Bahrani, Zainab. “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and World Past.” 159-174 in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Baram, Amatzia. Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-1989. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

De Cesari, Chiara. “World Heritage and Mosaic Universalism: A View from Palestine.” Journal of Social Archaeology 10, No. 3 (2010): 299-324.

Hamilakis, Yannis. The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hassan, Fekri, Aloisia de Trafford and Mohsen Youssef, eds. Cultural Heritage and Development in the Arab World. Alexandria, Egypt: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2008.

Meskell, Lynn. “Sites of Violence: Terrorism, Tourism and Heritage in the Archaeological Present.” 123-146 in Embedding Ethics. Oxford: Berg, 2005.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2016 7:06 AM

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. Ihsan Fethi permalink
    June 21, 2016 9:01 AM

    cwjones posted: “M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles and Paradoxes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 262 pp.

    The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the academic st”

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