Irregular warfare practitioners have played a major role in nearly every war over the past 250 years, according to the guests on this episode. The masters of irregular warfare carry distinct characteristics that have allowed them to achieve strategic effects, even while losing tactical level engagements.
This episode explores the capabilities that irregular warfare practitioners bring to bear. Our guests discuss how irregular warfare integrates into—and often plays a pivotal supporting role in—broader conventional conflict. The conversation ends with recommendations for how to prepare and employ irregular warfare capabilities to address the major threats to US national security, to include great power rivals, rogue regional powers, and violent nonstate actors.
Dr. John Arquilla is Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School. In addition to publishing multiple books and articles on warfare, he has extensive experience advising military practitioners and policymakers, ranging from special operations teams during field problems to senior Department of Defense policymakers in Washington, DC. Today’s conversation is motivated by his book, Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare have Shaped Our World.
Major General John Brennan is the commander of the US Army’s 1st Special Forces Command. Maj. Gen. Brennan has deployed and commanded units at every echelon between detachment and task force level in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Inherent Resolve, and Freedom’s Sentinel over the course of thirty-one years of service. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University, the Air Command and Staff College, and the Army War College fellows program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is produced by the Irregular Warfare Initiative, a collaboration between the Modern War Institute and Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. You can listen to the full episode below, and you can find it and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app. And be sure to follow the Irregular Warfare Initiative on Twitter!
Join the conversation! We are looking for written commentaries based on practical experience or scholarly research relevant to the irregular warfare professional community. If you have an idea or argument to share, send a note to the editorial team at Kyle.Atwell@irregularwarfare.org.
That is an interesting choice of photograph to headline this article – as it depicts Imperial British meddling in the Middle East. Does our military really think it appropriate to adopt that as guide and to push what is fundamentally foreign policy within the scope of the Pentagon? If you want to run foreign policy, you belong at State, not Defense.
The world has always been full of conflicts – that does not make every one relevant to the expenditure of American blood and treasure. We as a nation have become intolerably sloppy at exercising our proper function of government, starting with Congress being the one to decide when we are at war. Degrading constitutional responsibility is no way to defend the Constitution that every soldier is sworn to uphold. Either we need to change the Constitution to allow the adventuring that was routine to Imperial Britain, or we need to realize that gray zone conflict is not a game we have to play in.
The idea of how small wars fit into big ones; this, I suggest, must be seen from the perspective of one's (and one's opponents') political objectives, for example,
a. As described by Hans Morgenthau below and, this, for example,
b. As relates to the Old Cold War of yesterday:
"The United States and the Soviet Union face each other not only as two great powers which in the traditional ways compete for advantage. They also face each other as the fountain heads of two hostile and incompatible ideologies, systems of government and ways of life, each trying to expand the reach of its respective political values and institutions and to prevent the expansion of the other. Thus the cold was has not only been a conflict between two world powers but also a context between two secular religions. And, like the religious wars of the seventeenth century, the war between communism and democracy does not respect national boundaries. It finds enemies and allies in all countries, opposing the one and supporting the other regardless of the niceties of international law. Here is the dynamic force which has led the two superpowers to intervene all over the global, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes openly, sometimes with the accepted methods of domestic pressure and propaganda, sometimes with the frowned-upon instruments of covert subversion and open force.
(See Hans Morgenthau's — 1967 — "To Intervene or Not to Intervene.")
The problem with using this exact model — to describe our "conflict environment" of today — this is problematic. This, because:
a. Since the end of the Old Cold War,
b. There has only been ONE great power — the U.S. — who has met the "secularist religion" expansionist model described by Morgenthau above:
In this regard consider, for example, these excerpts from the — 2017 — Foreign Affairs article "Asia's Other Revisionist Power: Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China" by Dr. Jennifer Lind:
"Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued a strategy aimed at overturning the status quo by spreading liberalism, free markets, and U.S. influence around the globe. … the United States' posture stokes fear in Beijing and beyond."
"But at its heart, U.S. grand strategy seeks to spread liberalism and U.S. influence. The goal, in other words, is not preservation but transformation."
"The United States has pursued this transformational grand strategy all over the world."
"In each of these regions (Europe, the Middle East, East Asia), U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military policies are aimed not at preserving but at transforming the status quo.
"China, unlike the Soviet Union, does not have a revolutionary ideology. Beijing has not tried to export an ideology around the world. Washington (however) has. In attempting to transform anarchy into liberal order, the United States has pursued an idealistic, visionary, and in many way laudable goal. Yet its audacity terrifies those on the outside. The United States and its partners need not necessarily defer to that fear — but they must understand it." (Items in parenthesis here are mine.)
As LTG (ret.) Charles T. Cleveland appears to note in his — 2020 — Rand paper "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir" (see Page xvi of his beginning "Summary" therein):
a. The political goal of the U.S., post-the Cold War, REMAINS transforming the outlying states and societies of the world more along modern western political, economic, social and values. And, indeed,
b. The irregular warfare methods being used today to achieve these such political goals, these, also it would seem, REMAIN as they were in Old Cold War days:
"Core to this American way of irregular war is the ability to influence our allies, adversaries, and their populations. It requires us to world with and through local partners throughout the world — sometimes with those who do not fully share our values — to influence them and their societies. It is about the judicious application of force, when necessary, but also about creating mutual understanding and sharing the great opportunities that our great democracy has provided us. It requires a deep-enough understanding of populations to identify the right types of outcomes and the strategic patience necessary to achieve them."
What of opponents China and Russia today? These folks, it would seem, and from the premise and information that I have provided above, (a) are not doing "secular religion" expansion today but (b) are doing "secular religion" containment today.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Want to know "how small wars fit into big one's" — yesterday in the Old Cold War and today in our New Cold War also?
Possibly by reviewing the information from Hans Morgenthau, and LTG (ret.) Charles Cleveland, that I provide above?
That transformational approach to foreign policy reminds me of the woke transformation that the Social Justice community would inflict on every single one of us. There is no room or respect for differences – all must be made to conform (to a fluid dogma intended to keep a person perpetually off balance and subservient).
Small wars have been a part of larger wars since war fighting began. Exactly how small wars will fit into modern larger wars is an interesting discussion. The trend over the past fifty years has been to avoid the "larger" war. With the ever expanding lethality of war and the astronomical costs of war, small wars are the only viable option. Small nations can't fight large wars and large nations can't afford them either. So maybe the better question isn't how small wars fit into larger ones but have small wars made large wars unnecessary. Globalization and spiraling costs make "industrialized warfare" too costly.