A Vision So Noble


War sucks. Get over it.

continued from part 1

            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.

[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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5c3yMy-llA [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]. Available: http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/QDR20060203.pdf [accessed 15.03.2009]

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