Incident at Muc Wa

War sucks. Get over it.

(The set question: "‘Hybrid war’ is a novel concept that captures a real change in the character of warfare. Discuss.")

War amongst the people: ‘The Third of May 1808’,
by Francisco Goya[1]

by Daniel Ford (Short Essay, March 2009)

I was prepared to embrace the concept of hybrid war until I read the essays favouring it. Pointing to America’s misadventure in Somalia, Russia’s in Chechnya, and Israel’s in Lebanon, and to the continuing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jonas Nilsson argued that such conflicts ‘represent a new generation of war, hybrid warfare’. Its essential element, he thought, was the insurgent’s goal ‘to render the opponent’s efforts useless by out-combining him’.[2] As to what that combination might include, Stefan Parry phrased it nicely: ‘what is “new” [in hybrid warfare] is that all of these components … conventional and unconventional warfare, the media, criminality, terrorism etc will be more routinely used by the same forces, in the same battlespace, as part of a reasoned and coherent plan—to achieve a specific strategic effect.' [3]

Stefan’s is pretty much the definition adopted by the US Marine Corps. To the Marines, hybrid war ‘include[s] conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder ... directed and coordinated within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects’[4] But really, what is new about any of that? The Irish Republican Army were robbing banks, murdering judges, ambushing army columns, and proselytising in the United States—in 1920!—and the Viet Cong were doing much the same in 1960.[5] 

It’s the coordination I suppose that is supposed to make ‘hybrid war’ different. But is this really new, or just an inevitable add-on, given the changes in communications over the past hundred years? I suspect that the concept mostly reflects the intellectuals’ need to have something fresh to write about. ‘For more than two decades,’ confesses Frank Hoffman, ‘most of us overlooked these trends’.[6] Indeed! Academics and public intellectuals had other catch-phrases to occupy them, such as the End of History, the Clash of Civilizations, and the American Century or its end. In the current issue of Parameters, the ever-elegant Colin Gray has this to say on the subject of terminology (though not ‘hybrid’ specifically): ‘New-sounding terms and phrases, advanced by highly persuasive people with apparently solid credentials, can usually find a ready audience.’[7]

How could Mr. Hoffman have been surprised that war took a nasty turn? By his own account, the ‘trend line’ of the hybrid variety goes back to Beirut in 1983, though it actually began much earlier—before the bombing of the US Marine barrack in Beirut, before the ‘Viet Cong infested Mekong River Delta’, and even before the ‘troubles’ in the County Cork. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is often regarded as the father of attritional warfare as practised in the bloody hundred years from 1850 to 1950. Yet he stresses in his very first chapter that war is ‘always  … an instrument of policy’. In consequence,  he warns, wars ‘must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them’. War is a chameleon, in his term, altering its color to suit the circumstances, but more than that, war is swayed by ‘a remarkable trinity’ of raw violence, blind chance, and dutiful subordination to policy—attributes that he associates respectively with the people, the army, and the government.[8] Only from a mid-20th-century mindset must this trinity be the exclusive property of states represented in the UN General Assembly. Osama bin Laden, no less than Barack Obama, can fairly be said to represent a people (the Ummah[9]), an army (al Qaeda), and a government (himself and Ayman al-Zawahiri).

Clausewitz devotes a meagre five pages of On War to ‘The People in Arms’, and even there tends to disparage the fighting qualities of ‘the militia’: ‘a national uprising’, he believes, ‘cannot maintain itself where the atmosphere is too full of danger’.[10] Yet Napoleon, whose campaigns provided much of the raw material for On War, was mired in Spain for six years, and more than three-quarters of his troops were chasing guerrilleros and pacifying the Spanish population instead of fighting the Anglo-Portuguese army under the Duke of Wellington.[11] The Wikipedia editors write of the French, in words that could equally have been applied to the US Army in Vietnam: ‘often victorious in battle, their communications and supplies were severely tested and their units frequently cut off, harassed, or overwhelmed by partisans.’[12] It’s true that guerrilleros did not have CNN to popularise their cause worldwide, but they did have Francisco Goya.

The poster conflict for the ‘hybrid’ theory is Israel’s 2006 misadventure in Lebanon, where Hassan Nasrallah had warned: ‘We are not a regular army. We will not fight like a regular army’[13]—then he did precisely deploy his forces much like a regular army, defending rocket sites and other geography of value. ‘Hezbollah’s position on the guerrilla–conventional continuum in 2006’, write Stephen Biddle and Jeffrey Friedman, ‘was much closer to the conventional end of the scale than nonstate actors are normally expected to be.’[14] But again, why did this come as a surprise, either to the Israelis or to the intellectual community? Twenty-two years before Nasrallah, the Beirut-based Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadhlullah had written: ‘Civilization does not mean that you face a rocket with a stick or a jet-fighter with a kite…. One must face force with equal or superior force. If it is legitimate to defend self and land and destiny, then all means of self-defense are legitimate.’[15] By all means, surely the Ayatollah did not mean that Hezbollah would feel obligated to use only tactics familiar to the Israeli Defence Force. ‘For once at war’, as Rupert Smith reminds us, ‘… the adversaries do not have to play by the same rules.’[16]

I draw a rather different lesson from the IDF’s failure in Lebanon: it had simply become too good at counterinsurgency, and in the process had lost its former edge in ‘run and gun’ operations. Something like this, I fear, may be the fate of the US Army (though perhaps not the more resilient US Marines) as a result of its current love affair with Field Manual 3-24. The American military theorist John Boyd warned against this trap, when he delivered his ‘Conceptual Spiral’ briefing to the Center for Strategy and Technology at the Air War College in October 1992. Doctrine is all very well, Boyd says in a video of the discussion afterward, but only if you study a variety of them. A one-off doctrine, like FM 3-24, can only end by capturing its audience. ‘It’s doctrine on day one, and every day after it becomes dogma’.[17]

We should dump the notion of hybrid wars. Rather than trying to categorize each new bout of violence, then to write a field manual to fit it, better we heeded John Waghelstein, who warned us some time ago that ‘each insurgency is unique and defies accepting those solutions that worked elsewhere’[18] 

David Kilcullen takes much the same view; he happens to be writing about ‘disaggregation’, his own favored paradigm for dealing with the global Islamist insurgency, but his point applies equally to any theory of counterinsurgency:

‘In practical terms, disaggregation does not provide a template of universally applicable counterinsurgency measures. Indeed, such a [universal] template probably does not exist and, if it did, the proven adaptiveness of our jihadist enemy would render it rapidly obsolete. Instead, much like containment during the Cold War, a strategy of disaggregation means different things at different times or in different theaters, but provides a unifying strategic conception for a protracted global confrontation.’[19]

In short, as the children say, war sucks. What works for us today will not work for us tomorrow. As the children also say: get over it.

[2] Nilsson 2009

[3] Parry 2009

[4] U.S. Department of Defense 2006, p.41

[5] Karnow 1983, p. 238, says that assassinations reached 4000 a year in 1961. Given the paucity of banks in the countryside, however, the VC probably didn’t rob many, but they were very active on the Saigon black market.

[6] Hoffman 2007, p.12

[7] Gray 2008

[8] Clausewitz 1976, pp. 88-89 (emphasis in the original)

[9] Camp Darulehsan (accessed 24.03.09 - no longer available)

[10] Clausewitz 1976, p. 482

[11] Smith 2008, p.160

[13] From Robin Wright, Dreams and Shadows (2008), quoted on the VLE

[14] Biddle & Friedman 2008, p. 73

[15] From his Arabic-language book, The Logic of Force (1984), quoted in Pollock 2009 (who may also have done the translation)

[16] Smith 2008, p. 245

[17] Boyd 1992

[18] Waghelstein 1995

[19] Kilcullen 2005


Biddle, Stephen, & Jeffrey Friedman (2008), The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy (Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College)

Boyd, John (1992), ‘Colonel John Boyd Part 2’, video of a presentation at the Air War College [online]. Available: [accessed 14.03.2008]

Clausewitz, Carl von (1976), in Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ed. & tr, On War (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press)

Hoffman, Frank (2007), Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars (Arlington VA: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies)

Gray, Colin (2008), ‘The 21st Century Security Environment and the Future of War’, in Parameters, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 14-26

Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam: A History (New York NY: Viking Press)

Kilcullen, David (2005), ‘Countering Global Insurgency’, in Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4, pages 597 - 617

Nilsson, Jonas (2009), ‘A Cold Warrior’s Nightmare’, posted to the King’s College London Virtual Learning Environment, 03.12.2009

Parry, Stefan (2009), ‘Hybrid Warfare - seen it, done it?’, posted to the King’s College London Virtual Learning Environment, 03.14.2009

Pollock, Robert (2009), ‘A Dialogue With Lebanon’s Ayatollah’, in Wall Street Journal, 03.14.2009, p.A7

Smith, Rupert (2008), The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York NY: Vintage Books), reprint of the 2005 edition

U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report [online]. [accessed 15.03.2009; no longer available]

Waghelstein, John (1995), ‘Ruminations of a Pachyderm, or, What I Learned in the Counterinsurgency Business’, in Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol.5, No.3, pp.360–378

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Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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