Dec 1, 2007

Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters

The new issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly includes a fine article by Dr. Colin S. Gray, Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters (23-page pdf).

Insurgency, or irregular war, and warfare are global phenomena, and they always have been. I am providing an Anglo-American perspective because that is what I am and know best. This can appear to bias an analysis because it cannot avoid implying that COIN and counterterrorism (CT), and especially some pathologies in trying to deal with them, are unique to us. They are not.

When Ralph Peters urges a bloody, attritional approach on one of his more colorful days, he is talking the language of Roman generalship under Vespasian and his son Titus in their brutal suppression of the Jewish Revolt in Palestine in AD 66–77. Irregular warfare is an old, old story, and so are the methods applied to wage it, on both sides. Today’s motives for irregular warfare—supposedly so modern, even postmodern—lead some commentators to speculate about “new wars” as contrasted with “old wars.” If you are strongly of that persuasion, the best I can do is to suggest that you ponder long and hard on Thucydides and his famous and overquoted triptych of “fear, honor, and interest” as comprising the primary motives for political behavior, including war. Irregular warfare, of necessity in common with its Thucydidean motives, is about political power: who gets it, and as a rather secondary matter, what to do with it. That may seem a banal point, but really it is not. COIN is about the control of people and territory, not the remaking of civilizations, or even cultures. Crusaders make bad policy makers; they tend to be disinterested in strategy.

Also, speaking as a strategist, I have a professional dislike for impossible missions. Even if I do the wrong thing, I like to think that I can succeed. We strategists are pragmatic people, and we don’t like accepting long, adverse odds in pursuit of benefits of highly dubious worth.


[B]ecause politicians, officials, and at least some strategists—not usually the more academic ones—are professional problem solvers, they are always in the market for answers. The revolution in military affairs (RMA) project has suffered from providing very expensive answers to an unknown question, at least to a question that was hugely underexamined. But now, with COIN and the irregular challenge, the defense community again has a challenge it believes it can get its teeth into. The problem is that some challenges are much more taxing than others. To excel at COIN, for Americans, is infinitely more difficult than to excel at regular conventional warfare. However, the American is an optimistic public culture, and its military cultures have a host of all but genetically programmed “can-do” agents, so COIN is the flavor of the decade. I might add the ancient reminder that “to the person who doesn’t have to do it, nothing is impossible.”


In Britain, we tend to use quarter measures when half measures are called for. In the United States, the error lies in the opposite direction. In the troubling words of that distinguished American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard, writing in the Weinberger-Powell era of the mid-1980s: “The United States is a big country, and we should fight wars in a big way. One of our great advantages is our mass; we should not hesitate to use it. . . . Bigness, not brains, is our advantage, and we should exploit it. If we have to intervene, we should intervene with overwhelming force."

This just goes to show that a chair at Harvard carries no guarantee of wisdom, or does it? Huntington reflected the ethos of the mid-1980s, but also—the reason I quote him—he does suggest a reason why the United States has had a hard time with COIN. When policy demands effectiveness in COIN, the government––the military in particular, naturally–– blows dust off its ancient manuals if it can find them; unearths “classic writings” by Charles E. Callwell, the US Marine Corps, David Galula, Robert Taber, Mao Tse-tung, Robert Trinquier, Frank Kitson, and T. E. Lawrence; and rediscovers what previous generations knew, even if they didn’t always practice it well. Of course, the contexts have changed, and every work of theory, founded on the experience of the life and times of its author, is stuffed full of inappropriate as well as much good advice. No matter, when COIN—or whatever is the challenge of the hour -- is king, whatever is to hand is rushed to the front to serve. Every piece of fashionable jargon, every execrable acronym, every dodgy idea is hijacked for the bandwagon. The bandwagon now is COIN. To cite but a few of the lightweight notions that are pretending to be heavy metal: so-called fourth-generation warfare, network-centric warfare, effects-based operations, culture, and a totally integrated approach. The defense community has made the remarkable discovery that what in Britain we call grand strategy -- in the United States, national security strategy -- is a good idea. It always was.


Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Great piece. Posted it over at SWJ.

Meatball One said...

Thanks. I'll have quiche and Earl Grey ready for all that drop by the shack of skank. I'll send the bill to you.

Anonymous said...

I've found that those that don't have the creativity, desire, or means to adjust to evolving conditions, usually resort to the canard of "eternal truths" to hide their weakness. This is certainly true of the Brits when it comes to strategic theory and warfare.

Meatball One said...

Have you ever had to deal with their plumbing? What's that all about?!

steve said...

Speaking of operations, have you seen this?

It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow.

Meatball One said...

Hi Steve.

Yes,in fact I just read about that a day ago. We've been dismal at posting about what we once coined as Operation Hugo; IOs in Venezuela.

theBhc said...

Hi Lads,

In a somewhat unrelated note, I thought SMC would find Dahr Jamail's article about Pentagon's Iraq perception management to be right up the ol' SMC alley.

Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians

Meatball One said...

Thanks thebhc, I subscribe to Dahr's news letters and have done so from scratch. He was about the only source of independent info on Fallujah back in the white phosphorous day.

theBhc said...

I got to see Dahr speak, along with some of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, and he spoke extensively about Fallujah. It was quite a different story than what had a been conveyed in the main. You probably have it, but do get his book if you have not done so already.

Meatball One said...

I do believe Dahr was the only journalist filling me in on Fallujah. Yepp, just him. Otherwise....lock down.

I do believe as well that he's been on my list of blogs/media I've supported with my plastic fantastic cards.

Perhaps I'll gift his book to a friend.