Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot (FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 2006)


Comparative literature has mostly disregarded the weaponization of culture under the counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) crafted for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, released as Army Field Manual 3-24 and published simultaneously by the University of Chicago Press.[1] However, COIN has not ignored comparative literature. During the “counterinsurgency decade” (General David Petraeus’s words), comparative literature was (like everything else) entangled in the contest between insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Although Petraeus and his COIN co-authors may be unlikely theorists of comparative literature, we are unlikely to dismiss basic premises of counterinsurgency— “[t]he central mechanism through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed is the narrative. . . . Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly . . . collective identity . . . . Stories . . . provide models of how actions and consequences are linked” (FM 3-24, 1-76). We might not be so empiricist as to believe that a “culture’s belief systems can be decoded by observing and analyzing its cultural forms” (3-49), but we often defend comparative literature in similar Herderian terms. Moreover, we produce knowledge about “secondary cultures” (3-21) for the counterinsurgency, “open-source intelligence” that includes “books, magazines, encyclopedias, . . . journal articles and university professors” (3-11).

Perhaps “counterinsurgency” seems retrograde, recalling earlier “small wars” in Algeria and Indochina, Northern Ireland, and Central America. But, the revival of once circumspect concepts seems to characterize the neo-liberal ethos of the early 2000s, in comparative literature as in geopolitics. Under the name of World Literature, we reactivate center-periphery models of cultural dependency largely discredited by economists and postcolonial theorists in the 1980s, and an emerging global modernist studies “discovers” for itself world texts that were already well read in their original domestic contexts and internationally during the Cold War. Such projects seem to be mainstreaming postcolonial, ethnic, and Third-World literatures and ideas from another time under new institutional names. Likewise, COIN revives theoretical paradigms refined in the jungles of El Salvador during the Reagan years.

Today, we might describe the 1980s culture wars as a clash of anti-canonical insurgencies and canonical counterinsurgency, when it seemed ethically and institutionally responsible to side with the insurgency—with insurrectionary testimonios like that of Rigoberta Menchú, or with women’s and gender studies, African-American and Latino/a studies, postcolonial, and queer studies. Now it often seems as difficult to resist affiliation with the counterinsurgency as it appears unreasonable not to want world literature, or global modernism, or any Atlantean project carrying the name of world or globe. But comparative literature, like counterinsurgency, can be messy business. Through soft power, COIN sought to “reconcile with as many insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of reconcilables” through cultural/narrative conversion; “irreconcilables” were to be eliminated by other means.[2] Counterinsurgents must know (just) enough about local narratives and societies to reconcile them to global counterinsurgency culture.

There are numerous other reasons why comparative literature should take note of counterinsurgency; chief among them is that COIN has taken careful note of developments in comparative literature and related disciplines; or, rather, it took notes without making note of what it took. The parts of FM 3-24 I’ve quoted were all plagiarized from well-known critical theorists: Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White, Pierre Bourdieu, William Labov, Donald Polkinghorne.[3] Along with work by sociologists and anthropologists, the writings of narrative theorists have already been enlisted to weaponize comparative literature and cultural studies.

The forces of insurgency and counterinsurgency constitute some of the factors and conditions under which contemporary literature is produced, circulated – and practiced – in the world today. Disentangled from counterinsurgency, comparative literature would be the name of a resistant discipline whose practices and goals are not directed to maximizing the number of reconcilables or eliminating irreconcilability in the world.


[1] Headquarters Department of the Army. Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24). Washington, DC, 2006; United States Department of the Army. Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

[2] Octavian Manea. “Reflections on the ‘Counterinsurgency Decade’: Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus.” Small Wars Jounal. September 1, 2013. (“Reflections on the Counerinsurgency”).

[3] See David Price’s chapter in The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual by The Network of Concerned Anthropologists (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009) and “COIN draft excerpt” leaked at