Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Contest for Political Legitimacy
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Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Contest for Political Legitimacy


Vietnam is important enough to U.S. diplomatic and military history to warrant a second post. Boiled down to its essence, insurgency and counterinsurgency is a contest for political legitimacy — a bareknuckles struggle for the acquiescence, the affections, and ultimately the allegiance of the populace. Popular approval cements the winner's rule.

Scholar Timothy Lomperis posits a three-layered model of legitimacy. A regime earns "interest"-level legitimacy by hoisting an umbrella under which people can fulfill their everyday needs. This is a transaction. The government supplies the basics — security, infrastructure, what have you — and the people assent to its rule. If the government stops holding up its end of the bargain, the people may stop holding up theirs. They may withdraw their support. And if the insurgent offers a better alternative, many will take the deal. Interest-based legitimacy is necessary but far from sufficient to perpetuate a regime for the long run.

The next level up is "opportunity." The regime that commands opportunity-based legitimacy makes stakeholders out of passive supporters. It makes land available to a broad swathe of the populace, opens civil-service jobs to all qualified comers, you name it. The regime entrenches itself through giving a critical mass of the people a stake in its success. If it falls, the fortunes of the people collapse with it.

Atop Lomperis's hierarchy perches "belief"-level legitimacy. The people affirm that such a regime rules by right, not just by delivering the goods. Belief-level legitimacy manifests itself in tokens such as the divine right of kings, the Mandate of Heaven, or the American Declaration of Independence. Convictions reinforce interest and opportunity, helping sustain the regime for the long haul. But legitimacy takes upkeep. The danger for rulers who enjoy belief-level legitimacy is apathy toward workaday functions — hey, if you rule by divine sanction, why bother with the peasants? — combined with some event that shatters the belief. Such a regime can lose its popular standing almost instantly.

Here's the point behind this excursion into political theory. In a sense the insurgent and the incumbent government follow different tracks to victory. Think about it. Admiral J. C. Wylie classifies campaigns as sequential or cumulative. As the term implies, sequential campaigns unfold in stepwise fashion. Each tactical engagement leads to the next. Oftentimes you can plot such a campaign on the map using lines and arrows. In a cumulative campaign — not just insurgent but submarine or aerial combat — tactical engagements are unrelated to one another. Individual events look like pinpricks on the map. Rather than pound away at him in linear fashion, the aggregate effects wear out the loser over time.

In people's wars the counterinsurgent typically starts out sequential and moves toward the cumulative approach. Insurgent forces will often offer conventional battle at the outset in hopes of scoring a quick, decisive victory. If so, they generally lose. That's what happened to Aguinaldo's Philippine army following the Spanish-American War, and to the Vietnamese communists at Ia Drang in 1965. Sequential victory goes to the counterinsurgent, who deploys overpowering material advantages. At that point the regime must turn to cumulative tasks like clearing and holding territory and rebuilding a legitimate society and state. The basics — the functions on Lomperis's interest level — come first. Security, sanitation, and public health take priority.

The insurgent does just the opposite. After losing on the battlefield (or if he refuses battle) he has to start cumulative — waging guerrilla warfare while recruiting manpower, building a regular army, and erecting a shadow regime — and proceed toward the sequential. If successful, the insurgents prevail by unleashing a conventional counteroffensive. That's Maoist theory to a T. The patterns differ sharply, imposing different demands on each belligerent. Having fought cumulatively for a long time, regime forces may well succumb when the campaign reverts to its sequential character.

Ultimately, of course, whoever wins has to do the cumulative thing to consolidate its rule. Wylie confines his writing to wartime military strategy, but his sequential/cumulative paradigm applies equally to peacetime functions of government. Routine law enforcement, fire safety, and all the chores unextricable from constructing and maintaining a working state and society are cumulative in nature. They're also open-ended. Common crime and fire hazards never end. Sustaining legitimacy is different from, arguably trickier than, and demands more patience than overturning an incumbent regime.

This helps explain why many successful revolutionaries make execrable founders and statesmen. After promising the world to win the sympathies of the people, the victor must deliver. Few do. George Washingtons — soldier-statesmen whose gifts span wartime and peacetime pursuits — are rare in history. Few would portray insurgent chieftains like Ho Chi Minh (and his successors) or Mao Zedong as praiseworthy state-builders. Lomperis and Wylie open a window into conflicts that rage where politics intersects with warfare, linear with nonlinear endeavors. Check 'em out.

January 31, 2013 at 22:06

Does this mean you won't consider a tenured position at the Naval War College?
Aren't you willing to at least participate in some sort of speaking event there? 
In your capacity as an average Zhou of mainland China, you can hold forth on the current zeitgeist of today's China – spritely land of mirth and social ease.

January 31, 2013 at 13:45

@frank convenient5ly forgort the cases of Hong Kong and Macau. When did the Biritsh give HK up again? Maybe 50 years after Indias independence.

John Chan
January 31, 2013 at 12:44

If your universe is so superior and morally sound then what do you worry about some dissenting voices? Are you saying that the American is the final form of civilization so the democracy is no longer tolerated? And freedom of expression is detrimental to the American Exceptionalism?

January 31, 2013 at 08:41

Isn’t he wonderful? Could the Naval War College perhaps grant John some sort of tenure? We need to preserve and protect these precious relics from the hermetically sealed alternate universe that is today’s Mainland China lest they go extinct like the dodo.

January 31, 2013 at 01:30

Please read before comments. What you mentioned happened in the 60s and later.

John Chan
January 30, 2013 at 23:12

@Dan Pendleton,
Don’t be a pest; the famine, malnutrition and the death in the 1950’s under Mao are the lingering bad consequence of the ravages caused by the West imperialism and Japanese Fascist militarism in China. Meanwhile the industrial scale famine, malnutrition, massacre, holocaust, and all kind of the atrocities in WWI and WWII in the West are all self-inflected, along the way they destroyed all the wealth they robbed from the world.
The destruction the West caused to the humanity made Mao’s bad behaviour a child play. The moron, redneck, hubris, … of the West is beyond the words can expressed.

January 30, 2013 at 08:03

“If successful, the insurgents prevail by unleashing a conventional counteroffensive. That’s Maoist theory to a T.”

Most insurgents don’t have the Comintern to blindly follow, nor the assistance of the Soviet Red Army to capture and hand over Japanese heavy artillery.

Maoist theory is apparently to do what uncle Joe demands, then kick out the advisors once the assistance is no longer needed.

Dan Pendleton
January 30, 2013 at 05:27

Amazing "progress" in the 1950's under Mao? Are you referring to the famine, malnutrition and executions? If so, yes, I consider the figures amazing. Deng Xiaoping was the first premier to admit and realize the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward & 5 Year/10 Year Plans were total failures and that China needed to embrace capitalism in order to survive.

January 30, 2013 at 00:54

India was ahead of China when English masters ruled.

January 30, 2013 at 00:06

India is at #9

January 29, 2013 at 01:29

Mao is NOT a nation builder. The person who built China died 2200 years ago.
Mao took over a country that was on the bottom of the barrel even behind India. Now that country ranked #2 in the world. Yes. There were set backs because of his old age. However, China made amazing progress in 1950s under him.

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