Observations on Timeliness from the Small Wars Manual

BY Herschel Smith
17 years, 5 months ago

Remaining highly recommended is the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (large PDF document).  The war in Afghanistan is more than 4.5 years old, and the war in Iraq is about 3.5 years old.  The SWM has something to way about timeliness that will edify and enrich our understanding of the various blunders that have been made in these wars so far.  By way of editorial note, I would comment that there seems to be an undercurrent among supporters of the war(s) that is unhealthy and unproductive for the prospective of evolution in our doctrine, strategy and tactics based on our mistakes.  Analysis, assessment and constructive criticism are generally taken to be opposition to the war or to our warriors.  To be seen as patriotic and supportive of our troops, one almost has to be jingoistic.  This is not a mature attitude, but more importantly, it is not supportive of the necessary changes that will mark the future of warfare and thus the warriors who will be participating in those wars.  Proceeding now to the SWJ and what we may learn about timeliness (italics and bold are mine):

” … when forced to resort to arms to carry out the object of the intervention, the operation must be pursued energetically and expeditiously in order to overcome the resistance as quickly as possible.  The campaign plan and strategy must be adapted to the character of the people encountered.  National Policy and the precepts of civilized procedure demand that our dealings with other peoples be maintained on a high moral plan (sic).  However, the military strategy of the campaign and the tactics employed by the commander in the field must be adapted to the situation in order to accomplish the mission without delay.” (Page 34)

“The force must be of sufficient strength and so proportioned that it can accomplish its mission in the minimum time and with minimum losses.” (Page 113)

From the modern days of Blitzkrieg forward, speed and surprise were useful as a strategy to prevent the enemy from implementing a coherent defense.  Leaving behind the issue of conventional war versus COIN, rural operations versus MOUT, and all of the other issues that can cloud simple evaluations and make the lessons poignant for us, allowing a protracted period of time for [a] al Qaeda to recruit and train more foreign fighters to enter the fray, [b] al Sadr’s militia to strengthen from Iranian funding, and [c] the Baathist diehards to wreak havoc unimpeded, has caused the U.S. strategy to become muddled and weakened.  It has also added to the perception of the U.S. as an occupying force rather than a liberator.

No matter what tactics were employed, if the strategy had included defeat of the known enemy with dispatch, the U.S. forces could have focused more on COIN operations for smaller groups of poorly-trained and poorly-led insurgents.  The current U.S. mission in Iraq is not apparently one of defeating the enemy.  Rather, it is training proxy fighters to defeat the enemy.  This is strategically smart only to the degree that it is successful, useful, helpful and effective to accomplishing the final goals.  Altruism (i.e., in this case, nation-building) is not particually useful as a military strategy.


  1. On October 2, 2006 at 4:33 pm, Chris said:

    Really great post. RAND has a boatload of counterinsurgency papers available (large .pdfs) for free. I have not had a chance to read them yet, but I have read some of their shorter summaries.

  2. On October 3, 2006 at 1:36 pm, Ernest said:

    Your conclusions are spot on again.

    As everyone knows, both the Army and the Marines have units in Iraq whose jobs consists largely of convincing insurgents that “Americans are people, too.” These are the words of one such young man from the Army, interviewed by talk show host Chris Core on WMAL 630AM in DC several weeks ago. The young gent, whose name escapes me, actually stated that the only chance of American success in Iraq would stem from an effective US program of “winning hearts and minds.” Now, there’s a phrase with some dismal history! (Of which the soldier seemed blissfully unaware.)

    The interviewee then called for the American public to tone down what he called inflammatory rhetoric about Islam. (Never mind that the tone in most public discourse is actually quite respectful.) His implication was that if AM talk radio hosts would stop pointing out a connection between radical Islam and violence, the insurgents in Iraq might stop using IEDs, and American lives would be saved. He then went on to mention that many insurgents were really nice guys, and so on.

    I’m not sure how many “hearts and minds” this man and his colleagues have been able to change. What’s pretty clear is that his own heart and mind had been won over by the charming (and prevaricating) insurgents with whom he had spent so much time smoking on the corner.

    Psy-ops, or whatever they’re called now, are certainly important…but mainly to the extent that they scare the enemy witless, not seduce him into compliance.

    The fact that we are sucking up to insurgent leaders rather than taking them out bespeaks how far we’ve waded into some dangerous quicksand. There is one sort of conflict where it not only pays to have the local population on your side, but where its actually worthwhile to invest some capital on winning them over: a civil war. Mao knew it, and it helped him win mainland China. But the US cannot, by definition, be party to a civil war in Iraq. We could choose sides, but whose do we choose? We will end up, altruistically, just trying to quell the fighting, smothering the powder keg with American bodies.

    Altruism, if I may paraphrase you, Herschel, is about the worst military strategy around.

    I only hope that more than altruism is involved here; that we’re biding time in Iraq to keep our resources poised for another looming fight.

  3. On October 3, 2006 at 10:39 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    Send me the link to the papers to which you refer. I’d like to read them. Thanks.

    Ernest, yes, deep issues, and interesting response you made. Yes … yes … “seduce him into compliance.” I have recently read the letter to Zarqawi; seduction into compliance. An al Qaeda tactic.

    Yes … “dangerous quicksand.” Picturesque description.

    Yes … yessigh … “poised for another looming fight.” I am afraid so.  Another fight is coming, but is that why we are there?  Are we thinking that clearly?

  4. On October 7, 2006 at 12:09 pm, Richard M. Cavagnol said:

    I would like to share some observations with you on the counterinsurgency doctrine that is to be formally published. It appears to me that the focus of creating effective learning materials that are crisp, concise, bulleted, and easy to read must have changed in the 40 years since I was an Marine officer training and leading men in combat in Vietnam. I have read a draft of the “new doctrine entitled “Tentative Manual for Countering Irregular Threats: An Updated Approach to Counterinsurgency Operations”, and frankly, it has the appearance of a 150-pages literature survey that is part of someone’s Master’s Thesis. The Marine Corps spent a year putting this togther and it is reassuring to know that they were able to draw on the expertise of knowledgeable warriors such as Lt. Col. Nagl who wrote “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” (a phrase from T.E. Lawrence’s 1920 report on how to create an insurgent force). Having read more than 50 books on counterinsurgency, combined with my own experience, the authors would have done well extracting the critical elements from Capt. Davis Galula’s 500 pages of notes, “Pacification in Algeria: 1956-1956” or his small but very well organized book “Counterinsurgency Warfare”, adding the Marine Corps relevancy and examples, and formatting the materials into topics, lessons, and modules, with learning objectives and salient points.

    I feel that H. John Poole, who has written some very good books that could serve as the basis for a more readable doctrine. Among his good ones are “Tactics of the Crescent Moon”, “Militant Tricks”, and “Phantom Soldier” could have made a significant contribution since his books are very readable, formatted for quick assimilation of the material, and illustrated to reinforce critical points. I guess it was felt that battalion commanders, the target audience of this publication, don’t relate well to illustrations and graphics to help visualize the concepts. The authors would have done well to have used a good part of the book “The Army in Vietnam” by my good friend Andy Krepinevich, as the basis for negative examples to reinforce the positive concepts that they attempted to put forth in this work.

    The other publication, “Small Unit Leader’s Guide to Counterinsurgency” is less lofty and esoteric, and covers the topics a little better but I wonder about the reading level of the material if this is targeted to lieutenants and sergeants. One of the more useful pieces is the chapter “The Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” by David Kilcullen. Another good piece that would have provided more insight into the role of civil affairs in a counterinsurgency is the “handbook for Military Support of Pacification” publish by MACV in 1968. Other good references include “U S Army Special Warfare School MATA Handbook for Vietnam” January 1966, FM 31-73 “Advisor Handbook for Counterinsurgency” (a lot of information on engineering and construction), the “U S Army Special Warfare School Helpful Hints for Advisors (RVN)”, the series of Marine Corps Bulletin 3480 “Professional Knowledge Gained from Operational Experience in the Republic of Vietnam”.

    Both publications need work and additional input from those of us who were advisors and CAP members in Vietnam, as well as other counterinsurgencies. to put a more practical and useable face on these tomes. The authors should reread the original Small Wars Manual (I have a copy and will be happy to lend it to the authors) for readability, format, layout, and practicality.

  5. On October 7, 2006 at 12:13 pm, Richard M. Cavagnol said:

    As an adviser to the Vietnamese Marines on my second of three tours in Vietnam, and having a son who recently returned from his first tour as a Navy trauma surgeon in Fallujah, I can relate very closely to this story.

    The Vietnam Experience Provides Lessons for Iraq
    Nguoi Viet, News Analysis, Quang X. Pham, Apr 02, 2006
    The first Americans I met were military advisers, much like the ones who are training security forces in Iraq. That year, 1970, the United States was in the process of Vietnamization, turning the war over to the South Vietnamese as U.S. troops simultaneously departed.

    I remember as a boy visiting my father’s South Vietnamese Air Force squadron and shaking hands with U.S. pilots who wore reassuring smiles, green flight suits and pistols.

    Today, three years into the war in Iraq, memories of Vietnamization come back when I hear President Bush talk about his eventual plans to withdraw U.S. troops. “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down,

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Iraq,Small Wars and was published October 2nd, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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