Small Wars

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 11 months ago

Global Guerrillas has a very interesting piece up entitled “Playing with War.”  In it John Robb argues that:

The western way of war in the 21st century is a pale shadow of the warfare it waged in the 20th. The reason is simple: for western societies war is no longer existential. Instead, it’s increasingly about smoothing market flows and tertiary moral concerns/threats. As a result of this diminishment of motivation, western warfare is now afflicted with the following: 

John continues with a complete description of what I will include as an outline listing (for editorial and space reasons):

  • Operations of low lethality
  • Marginal placement within national priorities
  • Muddled objectives

The upshot according to John is that wars will become increasingly difficult to win, because:

  • Asymmetric motivation (of the enemy)
  • New methods of warfare
  • Proliferation of opposition

Finally, the following points are outlined as a summary for learning to live within the constraints imposed by this new breed of warfare (I will quote completely).  We should learn to avoid:

  • Nation-building as a global social policy. Historically, counter-insurgency against an established enemy has almost never worked (and when it has, it usually involves bloody exterminations). Any attempt to build a nation will likely, particularly in the current environment of globalization, yield an opponent that will be impossible to defeat through limited means. Further, the durations of these conflicts will exceed the capacity of the western states to maintain a cohesive set of objectives — they will shift with opinion polls and political winds.
  • Collapsing rogue states. In almost all instances, despite how easy it is to collapse a weak state with modern weapons, those wars launched to collapse rogue states will not yield positive results. The collapse will necessitate calls for revival (see item one). Unless states are willing to live with partial collapse without resolution, they should not undertake the action in the first place.
  • Escalation of tension. Given an inability to resolve conflicts through nation-building and state collapse, western states should endeavor to deescalate conflicts rather than ignite them. Escalation is a false God that promises a return of the motivational clarity found in the wars of the 20th Century. It cannot deliver this. The only thing it provides is a widening and deepening of the conflict through the proliferation of opposition. 

Mr. Robb probably knows about one thousand times as much about the current subject as I do.  So it is with all due respect that I say that I think that his characterization of the problem(s) is incomplete.

Having a son in the Marines, I study everything I can get my hands on pertaining to his training, the history of the Marines, the nature of the current conflict, and what he will likely be doing in several months.

One of the more interesting things that I have learned is the concept of “small wars.”  I highly recommend reading the Small Wars Manual, and I especially recommend visiting the Marine Corps Small Wars web site and another site called Small Wars Journal.  I make a daily visit to these sites (and sometimes more).

What Mr. Robb describes has already been described in detail in the Small Wars Manual.  In fact, the Marines have known this not since the publication of the manual in the early ’40s, but essentially since the birthday of the Marines, 10 November 1775.

Since their birthday, the Marines have been engaged in small, low intensity conflicts at the behest of the President, oftentimes without the support of the public, without a declaration of war, and without clear goals or orders, while battling both regular forces and insurgencies and while also having to deal with more pedestrian issues such as electrical power and the restoration of government.  Such engagements have often relied upon rapid, mobile and robust force projection.

The above paragraph is not an advertisement.  The Small Wars Manual is as salient today as it was when it was first published.  It is an admonition for the Army to consider its future.  The Marines have had to adapt, modify, adjust and make-do based on the changing conditions of the over three hundred low intensity engagements in its history.  The Army will do the same, or it will become irrelevant to the twenty first century.

If this type of warfare is not new, then what has changed?  My contention is that politics has changed.

Politics and failure to act decisively allowed Bin Laden and many in Al Qaida leadership to escape Tora Bora.  Politics failed to execute a warrant for al Sadr’s arrest during Paul Bremer’s watch in Iraq (I recently saw an interview with Bremer on FNC in which he attributed this failure to a military decision, saying that he was in favor of al Sad’r arrest.  I know nothing of the decision making or line of authority concerning this matter, but if the military made this decision, then the one who actually approved of letting al Sadr escape arrest should be on the receiving end of a courts martial).  Politics has caused us to cease hostilities on Ramadan.  Politics has caused us to refuse to fire upon Mosques (until very recently).  Politics has caused problems for Gitmo.  Politics has dragged generals in front of congressional inquiries to be battered by those seeking to stake out a position for the upcoming elections in November.

There is a deep division in America, with one side being not just anti-military, but rather, socialistic and anti-American to a large extent, and this is a failure of American society, not American military strategy or might.  Even though the Marines have engaged in conflicts before in which the public was unsupportive (or unaware), the difference now seems to be politics in the highest ranks of the military brass.  The military establishment seems less willing to insulate the decision-makers from politics, and potentially risky decisions are avoided due to their being seen as potentially career-ending decisions.  To summarize, my contention is that the main difference today is the deference being paid to politics by the military brass (and senior leadership, including the Secretary or Defense and even the President).

When properly posed, I believe the question to be “do we have the political will to win?”  The tactics, strategy, manpower, know-how, equipment and patriotism are already in place.

It is not a question of warfare.  It is a question of politics.


Postscript: Even if I am right, this post doesn’t address the other issues raised in the GG post such as nation-building.  I will post on this at a later time.

You are currently reading "Small Wars", entry #245 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Politics,Small Wars,War & Warfare and was published August 28th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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