“WHY THE U.S. LOSES SMALL WARS”

HNN has a great review of the history of Small Wars thought by Larry Kahaner, author of AK-47:The Weapon that Changed The Face of War. An excerpt that will sound a familiar refrain to many readers:

“The other, and much bigger obstacle to winning small wars, brings a moral dilemma. According to Callwell, to win small wars, mere victory isn’t enough, the enemy must be thoroughly and utterly destroyed to the last man, woman, and child – which means enormous civilian casualties. For citizens of most modern democracies, this is an unacceptable stance. The level of violence and barbarism it would take to beat an insurgent force — torture, wholesale executions, leveling of towns — is a place where most democracies refuse to go. This keeps victory out of reach.

….If Callwell got military scholars to think more clearly about small wars, a group of Marine Corps officers in the 1930s took it to the next level with production of the Small Wars Manual based on US experiences in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. While building on Callwell’s work, this landmark book published in 1940, points to what some say is one of the most important aspects of winning small wars – understanding the role of indigenous religion, ideology and tribal relationships. The manual not only talks about the military aspects of winning small wars – and yes, they can be brutal – but of more importance is a deep understanding of a society’s language, culture, religion, history, economic structures and mores. The manual is a hot seller from a much-clicked website, The Small Wars Center of Excellence, run by the Marine Corps, which advocates the use of simpler weapons and more complex soldiers in small wars – the opposite of current conventional wisdom. This is not the only take-away message from the manual, but it is a vital one.”

Read the whole thing here.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Curtis Gale Weeks:

    I wonder if I’m the only one thinking that this is just more of the same and not very new thinking…?

    I went into a lot of the detail from an OODA perspective, concluding at one point that,

    “Although to some degree we can anticipate very similar reactions for most people in response to large-scale devastation — we are all human — the limitations on devastation imposed by modern warfare strategies and the general so-called “laws of war” severely limit our ability to affect large numbers of people successfully. So much that is common between people that would give us a better understanding of reactions to operations also becomes a barrier to what we may do to a people. The Golden Rule has limited EBO warfare.”

    If I were to pick out a new direction from the rehash, I’d suggest that 5GW may help us win small wars in one of three ways:

    1. By building homeland support of extremely brutal measures;

    2. By circumventing the need for extremely brutal measures by playing the enemy’s OODA process through our indepth “understanding of a society’s language, culture, religion, history, economic structures and mores” and “the role of indigenous religion, ideology and tribal relationships”;

    3. By getting vile and hated proxies to do the very dirty work for us, thus circumventing the need for doing #1 and #2 with respect to the target in question while perhaps doing #1 with respect to that vile and hated proxy;

    But this is just brainstorming. I thought I’d throw up a comment to spur further comment. In fact, I suppose 5GW could do all of these, more or less: #4.

  2. mark:

    Rehash for you or me C. but not for the average HNN reader. For them it is an introduction to these ideas as most history departments have so marginalized military( and to a lesser extent diplomatic, economic and even political) history in the last generation. For many ppl it was an eye opener.

  3. Daniel Nexon:

    I read the manual in college. IIRC, it calls for a great many humane considerations when fighting insurgencies.

  4. mark:

    ” read the manual in college”

    Heh. In all fairness,Dr. Dan, your alma mater might have been regarded as slightly above average in academic quality. ;o)

    “it calls for a great many humane considerations when fighting insurgencies.”

    Yep.

    One example, Hitler sent the dreaded SS #2 ” Hangman” Heydrich to quell underground resistance among the Czechs. And Heydrich did -not by the usual SS mass atrocities but by generally raising living standards and conditions for Czech workers. So successfully that the alarmed British engineered Heydrich’s assassination