First fireside of the new year!
For this week’s musing, I’m in a mind to talk about the tension between preparing for different kinds of war, in particular between counter-insurgency (COIN) and large-scale combat operations (LSCO), in part because that tension is animating a lot of security discourse in the United States, with the US military largely pivoting away from the COIN-emphasis of c. 2004-2016 to focus on LSCO, and in part because I am polishing my syllabi and teaching the Global History of Warfare survey again this semester which means thinking about where that course should end. When I’ve taught the course in the past, my last lecture focused on terrorism and insurgency as strategies to convert a military contest from a contest of arms the weaker party cannot win to a contest of wills that it can.
This year, it seems fitting to cap the course off with a discussion of the LSCO/COIN dichotomy. Although guerilla warfare, insurgency and thus COIN are often thought about or presented as ‘new’ (something I try to fight in my course structure, but not with as much success as I’d like), as today’s book recommendation, The Other Face of Battle (see below!) shows, for the American military, this is a problem that has always existed. Indeed, one could go further than that to note that as long as states have had militaries, those militaries seem to have been fundamentally torn between several missions: confronting peer militaries (LSCO), controlling populations (COIN) and also a third category of confronting external societies (often non-state) with militaries organized and fighting often on quite different principles.
That split mission is hardly new. Roman armies in the first century, for instance, found themselves engaging in what we might call ‘police actions’ (essentially COIN, waged with characteristic Roman bloody-mindedness) in provinces like Judaea, along with ‘asymmetric’ border warfare on the Rhine and Danube all while still preparing for potential confrontations with Parthia, a peer adversary ready to engage in conventional sieges-and-battles territorial warfare. None of these sorts of war are new, but at the same time the Roman experience speaks to how preparing for each involves difficult tradeoffs. Dispersed forces can engage in COIN more effectively, but armies need to be concentrated rapidly for LSCO. In the ancient world, cavalry was ideal for handling border raiding, but the Roman system for large conventional operations demanded a lot of heavy infantry (which in turn often struggled to respond to rapid moving raids). Indeed, as we’ve just discussed, even the fortification strategy changes as the threat profile shifts from primarily COIN, movement control and small-scale raiding to peer or near-peer adversaries. Much like with many modern armies, there was a strong cultural preference for symmetrical confrontations, but they didn’t make the asymmetrical challenges go away.
So why does COIN feel new? Well, as David Fitzgerald shows in Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (2013), the United States military has generally responded to each period of anything but LSCO by deciding, whether it was successful or not, that it didn’t much like that form of warfare and didn’t want to wage it again, leading to renewed emphasis on LSCO that led to the lessons learned in previous conflicts to be forgotten. Nadia Schadlow, in War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory (2017), makes much the same point focused on the ‘controlling a populace’ part of COIN and the degree to which the perceived low prestige of such operations as compared to LSCO makes it difficult for their lessons to be carried forward.
Yet at the same time, the pivot to LSCO makes a degree of sense. Potential peer adversaries do loom larger now than they did in the last couple of decades (though I find myself wondering frequently if the focus on LSCO by the army isn’t perhaps misplaced for conflicts that are perhaps more likely to be fought at sea, in space or in cyberspace). And there is a degree to which the choice between COIN and LSCO is a question of tradeoffs; weapons, training and doctrine that are ideal for one are often poorly suited for the other. I have to admit, the LSCO pivot is good for me, personally: I study a period (the Third and Second Centuries BCE in the Mediterranean) of large-scale combat operations between great powers engaged in strategic competition. The LSCO/GPC (Great Power Competition) pivot makes it a lot easier to explain the relevance of the sort of research I do in the larger military history/national security space.
At the same time, those other two missions – population control and facing asymmetric enemies – are not going away and yet I see too many signs that the pivot to LSCO is being taken in much of the US and broader NATO security establishment as a welcome break from the disagreeable task of COIN, another instance of “I’m glad we’re not doing that again.” But we almost certainly will be doing ‘that’ again, doubtless sooner than we think (or we’d like). Yet once again we seem to be ‘learning to forget.’
On to recommendations:
Over at War on the Rocks, the Net Assessment podcast did an episode on American naval global posture (plus a bit on the marines) which was quite interesting. While the podcast is focused heavily on the question of ‘presence,’ the discussion of force structure and posture is wide ranging and gives a good sense of many of the issues which motivate these sorts of discussions. This is an aspect of military affairs that doesn’t often seep into popular culture: the peacetime decisions which then shape the options available in a conflict. In particular, the dichotomy between the position that resources should shape posture (‘do what you have the money for’) and the position that requirements and strategy should shape spending (‘figure out what you need and then fund it’) is an important one. It puts me in mind of how the pre-WWI Royal Navy was forced to adopt both ships and force structure predicated on maintaining a global empire – forced, in essence, to work within mission constraints – whereas the contemporary German Kaiserliche Marine, lacking those requirements, could focus entirely on a single contest with the Royal Navy in the North Sea (albeit they lost that contest, in the event, regardless).
Picking right up on that theme, over on YouTube, Drachinifel has a great video on the modernization of interwar dreadnoughts. Once again what I really like here is how Drach first lays out the general concerns – what can you modernize and why are you looking to do so – and then discusses how each navy’s modernization programs fit within that framework. He gives a solid sense of the way that these efforts were shaped by treaties, by the other ships in the fleet, and by the expected role of the modernized ships. Once again, for post-industrial militaries, these sorts of acquisition decisions in peacetime often have a huge impact in shaping the zone of the possible during a conflict, but rarely get discussed in a public-facing way.
Meanwhile, because apparently we’re just doing a lot of national security themed stuff, I mentioned this recent Texas National Security Review article in last week’s Fortification post, but I wanted to bring it back here: Timbie and Ellis, “A Large Number of Small Things: A Porcupine Strategy for Taiwan.” The idea that Taiwan needs to ‘porcupine up’ is now a fairly common one in national security discussions, but what I think is really valuable about this piece is that Timbie and Ellis go into a good level of detail explaining what that looks like, including discussions of individual weapon-systems and capabilities which do and do not fit into the ‘porcupine’ framework. While the intent here is thus to advocate within the policy community for specific programs, I think the article serves very well as a primer for regular folks who want just a bit more detail about what a ‘porcupine’ strategy entails.
This week’s book recommendation, as mentioned is W.E. Lee, A.E. Carlson, D.L. Preston and D. Silbey, The Other Face of Battle: America’s Forgotten Wars and the Experience of Combat (2021). The title here lays many of the book’s cards on the table, in that this book is framed as part response, part expansion of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976), a classic of military historical writing. Much like Keegan, the authors here take an in-depth look at three battles fairly widely seperated by time; whereas Keegan looked at three ‘British’ battles (Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme), The Other Face of Battle chooses three American battles, Monongahela (1755), Manila (1899) and Makuan (2010) which the authors insist were not all chosen because they begin with the letter ‘m’ and I almost believe them.
But where Keegan chose three symmetrical battles between armies in the same ‘cultural sphere,’ The Other Face of Battle is concerned with battles across systems of warfare and substantial cultural divides. The first battle, Monongahela, serves as a good reminder that not all ‘asymmetric’ warfare is COIN, featuring an army of mixed British regulars and colonials defeated in a pitched battle (albeit an ambush) by an enemy army composed primarily of Native Americans waging a different kind of war. In all three studies, the book makes a good point of showing “there is no universal soldier whose sensory system connects to the brain in the same way in all times and places,” a point on which I quite clearly agree.
Another useful innovation from Keegan’s model are the two short ‘interlude’ chapters, which provide brief institutional histories of America’s army between the battles. These both help the reader bridge the considerable chronological gaps between the case studies, but also serve to set up for the book’s conclusions in its final chapter, “The Other Face of Battle: Preparing for the Wrong War.” Noting the cultural preference for enemies that fight ‘traditionally’ (which is to say, symmetrically), the final chapter contends that Americans (and one assumes this could be extended to the armies of many other states) tend to under estimate the ‘other’ in warfare, that American reliance on local allies has been a near constant in warfare despite this, that America has tended to try to find success in technical and materiel superiority which does not always translate into battlefield results and that finally the United States, as it shifts to LSCO, may once again be preparing for the wrong war, with institutions like the Command and General Staff College pivoting decisively away from teaching and training COIN, even standing down the Asymmetric Warfare Group in 2020.
This book is going to be immensely valuable for both the specialist and also the lay-reader who wants to understand the ‘small wars’ that sit, often forgotten, between the ‘big wars’ that grab the popular imagination but which nevertheless make up quite a lot of what America’s army has been expected to do over the last two centuries. The book is accessibly priced, but more importantly accessibility written for a general reader. Each major chapter has good solid maps that orient someone unfamiliar with the terrain and also offers background on the battles for those unfamiliar with the history. Its a good read and a valuable corrective to the notion that the American military will just get to focus on its preferred, symmetrical mission from now on; the need to face asymmetrical opponents isn’t new and it isn’t going away.
80 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: January 7, 2022”
I can see the value of America gearing up for a couple land battles in eastern europe or in India considering China and russia’s territorial ambitions.
*sigh* sometimes it’s easy to forget how depressingly American this blog (and the English-speaking internet in general) are.
As someone from central / south eastern Europe, I’m more scared by the US hegemonic and territorial ambitions than anything Russia or China may do.
On the other hand, I do understand that someone from Taiwan, Poland or Lithuania might feel differently.
I, for one, wish for less hubris and more fairness, in ALL potential conflict fault lines. But it seems that ideologies like Manifest Destiny or Imperial Russia are too entrenched, in minds if not officially, for that to happen.
Well I think Russia is probably going to continue with Ukraine and probably try to reconquer all the former satellite states. And China already had a couple violent clashes with India over the Himalayas.
Regarding Russia, the future will show who’s right. I personally don’t think so. If they wanted to, they had the perfect opportunity during the Trump administration which was the least likely US administration since, well, probably James Monroe. Nor did they directly intervene in the latest Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict.
In lieu of keeping the discussion civil, I won’t share my opinion on this “Russia trying to reconquer former satellite states” view. But realistically, I only see the possibility of limited Russian intervention in two cases: in Belarus, if Lukashenko is violently deposed, and in east Ukraine, if the Ukrainian military tries to overrun the separatist-held territories.
Regarding China and the Himalayas, all I know is that the Sino-Indian border conflict goes back a good part of a century. Similar, incidentally, to the Indian-Pakistan conflict, yet no-one is talking about Indian territorial ambitions. Maybe because it’s not India who is threatening to “usurp” the US’s economical and political global primacy.
I found it very illuminating when I was paging through a book of US political cartoons from the late 1800s that depicted Russia as an “evil empire” and “strategic competitor”… under the Tsars. Some things are just constants.
That said, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to equate India and China. Yes, the Kashmir is a constant source of tensions–three-way tensions really–but regardless of how much Modi sucks, India is a multi-ethnic, reasonably democratic state with diverse internal politics and ideologies, and respectful/non-domineering relations with the rest of the world. (And Chinese-Indian tensions in the Himalayas go back to Mao and the “Five Fingers of Tibet” policy, with China explicitly claiming Indian–as well as Nepalese and Bhutanese–territory, on no particularly well-founded grounds.) By contrast, China is currently engaged in active genocide in Xinjiang; has largely completed its political repression/genocidal cleansing campaign in Tibet; is actively stamping out what freedom of expression/pluralistic civil society existed in the designated less-repression zones (Hong Kong); has strong-armed most of the world into de-recognizing its neighboring state (Taiwan); heavily censors available news internally; and is even actively engaged in attempts to police reporting and free expression in other states (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/26/chinese-censorship-enes-kanter-celtics-browder-is-going-global/).
I won’t defend the US against similar charges–my line for years has been that every time an article is published in the US press about the newest repressive thing China’s doing, American politicians are taking notes–but India-China is a false equivalency, and there *are* reasons to be wary of China aside from its threat to American hegemony.
@Tiercelet (response here b/c for some reason I cannot respond directly to the post below)
I agree and it was not my intention to make a direct comparison between China and India (and I do realize now that part of my post was somewhat more polemic than I intended). My point was: it is an old boundary dispute in the place of the world littered with boundary disputes, so it’s a little bit too convenient to bring it out as evidence for CURRENT territorial ambitions. It would be not unlike starting to scream about current US territorial ambitions in Cuba because of Guantanamo Bay.
Taiwan is of course a different thing completely, and I do recognize that PRC is getting a bit too aggressive towards what is essentially an independent and sovereign state, no argument there. That said, I struggle to assess the actual probability of an invasion. And, to put it very bluntly, ever since Saddam’s WMD’s, I don’t believe a single word of western media and politicians in that respect.
Other than that, as for China being a threat…most of what you write is evidence of China being a threat *for its own population*, which, as bad as it is, I doubt is something that should concern us. Even more so because any attempts to solve those problems (as in, an LSCO engagement) would cause more suffering than it solves.
As for Russia, well, Russia is and was a strategic competitor for the US (and Western European powers) and being wary of it and its ambitions is completely understandable. What I have the problem with is labelling this conflict as a good-vs-evil struggle, when it is in fact a conflict between rival great powers. As a neutral, I would like them BOTH to back down.
What “U.S. territorial ambitions”? Tiny areas disputed with Canada?
Snarky asides to the side; the “American Territorial Ambitions” are “we’d prefer it if nobody redraws any more borders, mmkay?” In (no particular order) the Middle East and Southeast Asia most recently.
“we’d prefer it if nobody redraws any more borders, mmkay?”
Add “except where it would suit us”. The US had no problems with supporting redrawing borders in the Balkans, and would likely have even less problems with redrawing borders IN Russia or China (eg, independent Tibet or Chechnya) if that was in any way achievable.
As for Johan’s comment – I was very careful to write “hegemonic and territorial ambitions”, and would appreciate if same care is taken when reading my posts. The US do things differently, instead of outright conquering military bases are made and compliant regimes are installed. Which is of course not the same as conquering, no dispute on that…but it’s not THAT much different either.
I apologize for not clearly indicating I did not wish to dispute “hegemonic” – by all means, I will agree that the US has hegemonic ambitions (with a caveat that they are somewhat different than previous would-be Empires Of The Known World, to the point that while I would agree that they are hegemonic ambitions, I will argue that they are not imperial ambitions. But I won’t defend the point unyieldingly).
Specifically to the examples of territorial ambitions pointed out, the self-evaluation of US policy is that we are not “re-drawing” those borders but “returning them to status quo ante” (in a supremely arrogant fashion). There is no answer to the question of “which borders are the proper borders?” Which doesn’t stop America and Americans from proclaiming an answer to suit our current worldview. Territorially Ambitious, but not in the sense of “we want more territory” per se, but stemming from our (weird) hegemonic ambitions. We want to be the arbiters of the map, not the owners of the territory. (With a deliberate nod to “the map is not the territory”)
@ianargent: No need to apologize, I was actually referring to JohanL’s post, I (mostly) agree with you! 🙂 In particular that the US “territorial ambitions” are of a different nature than what one normally understands under territorial ambitions. I have no problem admitting that.
I would say that these ambitions, in my view, go beyond the “control of the map”. The US do usually have a vested interest to control the territory, and usually do so, just in a different way – not by a direct occupation, but by influencing the decision makers, essentially, making a form of “puppet states”.
I will say though that it is also quite possible to argue that the people under such US “hegemony” are better off than they would be under most of the “old regimes”. I’m personally not particularly convinced, but I do have a slight anti-US bias, so my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt here.
For smaller NATO members refocusing on large scale conflict is a welcome and much needed change after decades of strategically misguided COIN operations.
Regarding naval matters and how things are shaped between wars, I ran across an interesting study of the development of aircraft carriers between WWI and WWII and how it was shaped by war gaming: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/publications/publications-by-subject/winning-a-future-war.html
The price is right; already paid for by taxes. 😀
Interesting. Downloaded. On a similar subject, I always quite liked Power at Sea by Lisle Rose. Unfortunately, that is not so conveniently priced. https://www.amazon.com/Power-At-Sea-Boxed-Set/dp/B000PSS70M But I do think it is well worth reading, and it covers a long period too, starting with the leadup to WW1 and ending in the early cold war.
I suspect leaving Afghanistan had something to do with it.
This is an interesting site on the history of debate between armored and unarmored carriers and how theater of operations shaped design.
I’ve been working on some force design stuff recently, too. https://www.navalgazing.net/The-Two-Power-Standard-Today
“whereas the contemporary German Kaiserliche Marine, lacking those requirements, could focus entirely on a single contest with the Royal Navy in the North Sea (albeit they lost that contest, in the event, regardless).”
I think that this is a significant overstatement of the degree of strategic thought going into the KM. Britain had started doing actual force design in the late 1870s, and enshrined it in policy with the Naval Defence Act of 1889. But they were the first to do that in any sort of rigorous manner, and I don’t think either Germany or Japan started doing it until after WWII. The Kaiserliche Marine in particular was justified essentially because Wilhelm II had read Mahan and Tirpitz wanted to build a navy for bureaucratic reasons. Yes, I know about Risk Theory, but that seems to have been a retroactive justification. The IJN started off saying “we should prepare to fight the USN” essentially to justify the big navy they wanted, and ended up with “we should fight the USN”, which obviously didn’t work out great.
In case of war with other modern Superpowers; does it even make sense to invest much in LSCO, given that nuclear weapons can make armies and fleets basically obsolete? A war between the US and China or Russia would certainly run a high risk of turning into a nuclear exchange and at that point, battleships and tanks are just toys.
Otherwise most enemies the US may fight (Iran, Cuba, Bolivia) would just be pummelled simply by the sheer superiority in ressources and manpower which the US enjoys. Such a conflict would be relatively likely to end in another decades long COIN operation.
If the US is mainly interested in holding its Empire long term, would it not make more sense to invest in good allies, sound COIN procedures and long range nuclear capacity to scare off other superpowers?
I’d go even further : it may very well be that in a few decade the US/NATO coalition find themselves very likely to lose a major scale war against China. With this aspect in mind, it may be time to invest seriously in COIN procedures from the other side – the side of the weaker power fighting the big empire. A well prepared guerrilla in Taiwan could make a military occupation very costly for China while preserving a considerable amount of Taiwanese, American and Chinese lives compared to a full scale war.
A guerrilla war in Taiwan, however well prepared, would almost certainly cost an enormous number of Taiwanese lives. And fail, because a China that has occupied Taiwan could certainly cut any guerrillas off from support from elsewhere.
There is no “sanctuary on the border” for Taiwanese guerrillas. Even supplying them in conventional war will be tricky, because of the central spinal range and the lack of east coast ports
I think that nations are unwilling to rely solely on nuclear weapons as a defense against large-scale invasions, because it makes your response very binary: Are you willing to risk ending the world or not? Are you willing to end the world when Russia invades Ukraine? When they invade Germany? When they control all of Europe? Etc. Nobody wants to bet their sovereignty on knowing the answer to “when will we actually push the red button?”
This is especially important for a superpower that has distant territories or allies that they might be willing to go to war to defend but not willing to launch nukes over. A conventional force gives you a sort of middle ground where you can say “We’re serious about defending this place and we have the big army to prove it,” with the nukes held back until the big army fails.
(I guess it’s sort of like how fortifications serve the dual purpose of repelling attacks and giving you a better negotiating position by demonstrating how costly it would be to storm the fort.)
Actually that’s a really good point. I’m asking because I live in Germany, and here the wardrums are already being beaten in case Russia invades Ukraine. Seeing how it went the last time Germany declared war on Russia, I’d hope we can stay at home this time. No one wants a nuclear exchange, but only idiots want war with Russia.
A Ukraine (maybe baltics) war is more like the crimean war than full on WW2. Germany would be part of a big alliance, fighting over a small set of territory, rather than a full on invasion.
As another German, I feel obliged to comment that I am not hearing any wardrums whatsoever.
But lately I am reading a lot of Internet posts from “Germans” commenting about the warmongering of their own country against the poor innocent Russia. It’s really obvious guys, please put a little bit more effort in your hybrid warfare.
Chickpea has claimed that the Chernobyl incident would have destroyed Europe had it not been for the Soviets’ speedy crisis response.
I suspect he or she is a true believer.
As another German-speaking person, I feel obliged to comment that, while nowadays the wardrums might have calmed down in the German media, they were quite deafening in and around 2014. So deafening, in fact, that the Programme Committee of the German public broadcasting service ARD heavily criticized the ARD for anti-Russian reporting (source in German: https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/tv/ard-streit-um-ukraine-berichterstattung-a-993304.html).
It might’ve gotten better in the meantime. I wouldn’t know though, I stopped reading German media back then for this exact warmongering.
Given that the last time you declared war on Russia you were also trying to hold down Western Europe and Poland, and in this case you would have Poland, Western Europe, and the US on your side, the force balance would be rather against Moscow.
> but only idiots want war with Russia
The problem is that Russian government is evil and concerned with itself and they will happily do things that are harmful to Russia, Russians and other people.
See: invasion of Ukraine
And for Germany fighting in Ukraine (or more likely: delivering weapons that may be profitable as a bonus) is preferable to Russia invading NATO members.
Or having a land border with USSR 2.0.
In short: only idiots want war with Russia, appeasement of an aggressive empire that keeps more escalating is even more idiotic.
And that assumes that you are lucky and Russia cannot just attack you (direct military action is unlikely but cyber attacks and so on are easy).
You reminded me of something from Yes (Prime) Minister https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o861Ka9TtT4
And the scary thing is, from the neutral perspective, you can easily replace West Berlin with a lot of places nowadays. Sevastopol, Tskhinvali…Kiev…Prishtina, Tripoli, Baghdad…
While no one has relied entirely upon nuclear weapons, the First Offset Strategy of the US during the Cold War was based primarily upon the use of nuclear weapons using more conventional forces as a tripwire force and essentially as security for nuclear artillery and the like (https://thediplomat.com/2014/11/a-tale-of-two-offset-strategies/).
There’s a few problems with this. For one thing, the Soviet approach to nuclear parity resulted in a situation in which nuclear weapons use by the US was likely to result in a strategic nuclear exchange, which was considered broadly unpalatable. In addition, it provides limited responses for more subtle actions by the adversary. For instance, even a limited nuclear war with ‘only’ tactical use of nuclear weapons would destroy a lot of terrain. So, for instance, seizing a small area of one of the Baltic States without the option for a conventional response would confront that state with either invoking Article 5 of the NAT and seeing itself destroyed or not doing so and losing its territory.
I can only guess at how delighted Europe, Taiwan, et al. must be to see themselves as battleground pawns to be destroyed by foreign armies duking it out to see who gets to claim regional hegemony.
Not at all. What would you propose they do about it?
That’s kinda just how small states (relatively speaking) gotta role. We’ve been doing it for centuries more or less successfully. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesen’t.
I think that was part of the consideration behind NATO Nuclear Sharing with Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey, to provide some degree of local nuclear deterrence to avoid the temptation of those countries developing their own nuclear weapons.
While at the same time disabusing the USSR of the notion that taking those countries would be a fait accompli it would suffer no retaliation for.
‘Yes, Prime Minister’ on the nuclear deterrent:
Not sure if this would interest anyone but this is news of historical gunpowder research from my alma mater.
‘Small War’: Battles were less common than is often supposed…
(Also known as Chevauchée)
The video is only 10 minutes long if you discount the sponsor advertisement, but it contains plenty of references to modern historians.
I wonder how much of the institutional distaste for COIN capability maintenance comes from the national distaste for traditional empire-building, and how much comes from a view that LSCO forces are Bad And Inefficient for COIN, COIN forces are All But Useless for LSCO.
Regarding COIN and America’s small wars, the subject few people want to touch upon is massacre: solving a rebel problem either by denying rebel forces aid and comfort, by holding the families of the rebels hostage, or ending the conflict demographically by genocide. I.E. what Devereaux termed “characteristic Roman bloody-mindedness”. Certainly guerilla forces have usually not been squeamish about using terror tactics to weed out collaborators and cow the populace into supporting the guerillas, and responding in kind has historically been the usual counter-insurgency strategy. The USA unabashedly did this to suppress Filipino insurrection and to a lesser extent in the “Banana Wars” in the Caribbean and central America of the early 20th century.
It’s a bit old, but I would recommend this paper by Jason Lyall and Isaiah Wilson. https://www.jasonlyall.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Rage_Final.pdf
Among numerous other variables tracked, the political structure of states facing insurgencies was noted. Brutal authoritarian regimes don’t actually have any better of a track record against insurgencies than liberal democracies, despite being much more willing to engage in massacres. Sometimes that degree of repressiveness works, other times it doesn’t.
An interesting read. I was especially intrigued by the story starting on page 95, about the different success rates of the 101st Airborne Division vs. the 4th Infantry Division in combatting insurgents in Iraq. What stuck out to me was that the 101st Airborne seemed to have the greater success with their “walking beats” approach, but also the most casualties.
I’d been wondering about the massacre approach, and I wonder if it’s better for an army to eat its losses the way the 101st did here, or hold the citizens of occupied towns accountable for what happens there. Like from this example: https://ethicsalarms.com/2019/05/19/ethics-quiz-pardons-for-war-criminals/
One episode from his experience, which he wrote about in his memoirs, involved his unit
taking a town that had formally surrendered, white flags and all. The town’s mayor pronounced
the town joyful that it had been liberated; the German soldiers were all captured and accounted
for, all seemed to be well, and then several GIs were killed by gunfire from houses. The non-
uniformed residents all swore that “soldiers” had done the shooting, not them.
My father’s commanding officer lined up a group of townspeople and had them executed. Then
he told the mayor that if one more American was shot by “soldiers,” he would be next, and the
rest of the town, man, woman and child, along with him.
“That was [a] war crime,” my father said. “And at the time, I–all of us—thought it was
The catch, of course, is that when asking questions like the one Gamereg asks, one invites the question “why did we decide to fight this war, knowing and intending that it would end in the massacre of civilians in the target country as “punishment” for the “bad behavior” of continuing to resist our army longer than we think is justified?”
If your benchmark for all future wars is “we are invading Nazi Germany in 1945,” this question is erased- everyone knew why the Allies were advancing into Germany, and the crimes committed by the Nazis and the German military were so great that the all-overriding urge to never let them do that again took over all other considerations in the minds of the warring powers.
But most wars aren’t an invasion of Nazi Germany; there aren’t always Auschwitzes to liberate and retroactively make you right to have fought even though you kept shooting hostages.
Brutal authoritarian regimes have a pretty good track record of suppressing journalism, which can limit the number of problems that go public. Naturally something as big as an insurgency is nearly impossible to hide. The country I live in currently has a lite authoritarian regime, but also a centuries old tradition of denial. You can rewrite the past if you produce a chilling effect and people start self censoring.
Our pedantic host has covered this in previous posts about the Spartans and Fremen Mirage. It’s often assumed that we civilised folk just aren’t hard enough to do COIN properly, unlike those bad-ass Spartans / Romans / Fremen / whoever.
Nope, brutality didn’t work for the Romans and it hasn’t worked since. I like the historical example of WW2 where Nazi Germany couldn’t suppress insurgencies in the Soviet Union and the Balkans, despite sending in SS divisions against people they regarded as sub-human.
If literally genocidal Nazis aren’t ruthless enough, nobody can.
The Romans conquered the Mediterranean basin and ruled an empire for centuries. I’m not sure I would say that brutality “didn’t work”. But willingness to be “brutal” is not the be-all and end-all of strategy.
Agreed. The Roman tactic appeared to be carrot and stick. Ruthless response to insurgency, substantial benefit to becoming a law-abiding Roman citizen. Not sure where I fall on the scale though, considering that ‘ruthless response’ sounds incredibly distasteful.
The Nazis simply didn’t get enough time, and they were fighting the conventional armies of the Soviet Union at the same time. Also, brutality for brutality’s sake is too stupid and unfocused to be an efficient strategy; say rather ruthlessness: the unflinching willingness to kill as many helpless civilians as it takes to end the guerilla problem one way or another. It doesn’t even require an army of sociopathic murderers like the Einsatzgruppen either- just regular soldiers who’ve gotten really sick of ambushes and assassinations by guerillas that they KNOW the civilians are aiding and abetting.
The Nazis had two things working against them:
A. All they had was sticks, they had no carrots.
B. Everyone thought there was a chance they could be beaten.
Brutality and ruthlessness can work (for a given value of work) if you can demonstrate that not resisting will bring benefits AND if it’s obvious that you’re not going to leave any time soon.
Also, it was quite clear that things are not going to be better in future if German occupation will continue. (at least to some people who were taking active part in resistance)
Not sure how common was knowledge of plans like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generalplan_Ost but general trajectory seemed quite clear (though written memories could be full of hindsight bias).
In general “more oppression” is not something that guarantee lower resistance. Especially when it is humiliating, stupid, extreme, genocidal, escalating oppression.
I do note (there is a set of Toozegraphs somewhere on the internet) that the soviets were remarkably more brutal in Afghanistan than the US, and had little more success.
The regime the Soviets left lasted another three years, and only fell to opponents massively supplied by the US and Pakistan. The regime the US left lasted weeks, and fell to a bunch with very little external support.
Success in COIN or LSCO requires the killing or capture of at least 30% of the combat effectives. I think that was the reason for the success of WW2.
I’ve never been completely persuaded by Prof. Devereux’s animadversions against the Universal Soldier meme, but perhaps it should be narrowed down. Is there a Universal LSCO Soldier experience or emotion? Someone mentioned a while back how Tolkien, in the trenches, analogized his experience to that of Homer’s subjects, so he apparently thought so.
At it’s most raw form, I’d saw that the masculine desires to prove one’s self, not not let one’s comrades down, and the general survival instinct would be emotions common to any battle scenario in any age. I agree with Prof. Devereux’s assessment that once you get beyond those basic emotions, there’s less overlap across times and cultures.
Agreed, in general. I think Kagan’s seminal book discusses how the medieval soldier of Agincourt’s time and the conscripted civilian-soldier of 1916 came from entirely different cultures and backgrounds and how this affected the experience of war for the participants. That is to say, the medieval man-at-arms or mercenary was much more accustomed to a life of outdoor labor and bloodshed and brutality and hard living in general than a tradesman from Dorset who found himself in a trenchline on the Somme facing machine guns and massive artillery shelling.
Especially in WW1 you had the virtually unprecedented situation where 90+% of the time “the enemy” wasn’t even other soldiers: it was a metal hail of shells and bullets as impersonal and merciless as an avalanche.
That was CS Lewis, not Tolkien.
Right you are. My mistake.
I suspect that part of the reason why militaries tend to favor focusing on LSCO over COIN is that LSCO-based conflicts are far more likely to pose an existential threat to the state the military serves than COIN-based conflicts are. No one is really worried about Tito’s partisans possibly taking Berlin; everyone is worried about the Red Army.
Also note Arreguin-Toft’s work on strategic asymmetry and the tendency of much stronger actors to attempt to win quickly, resulting in a loss (there also tends to be an interest asymmetry as well). https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/how-weak-win-wars-theory-asymmetric-conflict
I also think there is an “military interest” thing here, the military establishment tend to gain more in prestige and accolades from LSCO than COIN.
The Army’s 31+4 modernization priorities are all aimed at LSCO and not COIN. The pivot is definitely to the Pacific and the focus is China. At sea we can still overmatch them. However you need to take and control land to win. I have sat through a couple scenarios about having troops stuck behind the 9 Dash Line and how can they fight and resupply themselves.
I don’t think you neccessarily need to take and hold land to win, that depends almost entirely on the scenario and what your win conditions are. Simply preventing an enemy from reaching their objective and stalling out until they no longer want to fight is a perfectly valid historical strategy after all.
Maybe when on the defense but I think with any LSCO type war land will have to be taken
With regards to China, the cost of a protracted conflict both in terms of economic disruption and lives, might lead the US to desire the ability to successfully conduct land operations in China. Not a full scale invasion, of course, but demonstrating the ability to beat the Chinese army either in Taiwan or the on the mainland could do more to bring the Chinese government to the table than any amount of success at sea or in the air.
It would also be appealing since trying to shock and awe the Chinese into surrender would mean terrible civilian casualties. Not to mention trying to bomb the enemy into submission doesn’t have the best track record. And telling the Army and the Marines that they have to sit out of what would hopefully be the war of the century would also do bad things for inter-service relations.
The only catch is that it’s difficult to imagine situations in which such large scale conflict with a rival superpower wouldn’t go sharply nuclear, or at any rate where the risks of courting nuclear war are justified for either side by the reward of fighting.
We know from experience that the US seems largely incapable of keeping itself out of COIN-type wars for long periods of time. Over and over for the past 120 years, US forces have gone back, over and over, to occupy some place where they’ve been violently unwelcome.
We do not know whether the US Army will ever again fight a pitched conventional battle against a peer competitor, because anyone capable of building up a force that peer-competes with the US Army is also perfectly capable of building a nuclear arsenal.
I think that’s understating it. Given that only the Russian military was in the same class as the US when they built their nukes, it’s clearly vastly easier to build nukes than it is to build a military that would have a reasonable chance of standing up the US. Once you have them, they’re also easier to maintain since I don’t think the Russians would do too well in a straight up fight these days.
“The LSCO/GPC (Great Power Competition) pivot makes it a lot easier to explain the relevance of the sort of research I do in the larger military history/national security space.”
How do you explain the link between GPC between 3rd/2nd century BC mediterranean powers and contemporary great powers? The economics of the countries, the scale of the militaries, the weapon systems, and the information available are very different. What new knowledge can the study of the roman empire give you, that the study of the US and USSR cold war cannot give you? I don’t mean this to put you down or anything like that, I’m genuinely curious.
Thanks for the recommendation! We really appreciate it. The maps for Other Face of Battle, by the way, were done by Matilde Grimaldi, who is great. https://www.matildegrimaldi.com
If your country doesn’t have an expansionist bent, the main job of LSCO forces is to convince other states that they are not going to be winning a war, and refrain from starting one. I don’t see many large-scale wars these days, so they are doing their job well in the last few decades.
How could a country maintain a military establishment that was maximally effective in both LSCO and COIN operations? Would maintaining two parallel military establishments work? Maybe the rivalry between them would make the situation untenable?
If it can’t be done, then clearly LSCO must take priority. Losing in Afghanistan is embarrassing, losing in the Taiwan Straits will be intolerable.
The US military does run two parallel (ground combat) military establishments, the Army and the Marine Corps.
For historical reasons most of the US COIN capability is part of the Army today, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Good point. Maybe the Marines should be reconfigured as a COIN force? That hasn’t been their function since the 30s, though I agree it once was. It also doesn’t seem to be the way they are going: they seem to be shaping themselves more as an insurgency (not counterinsurgency) force in East Asia.
The USMC is (allegedly) getting out of the Heavy Combat business, divesting their Abrams, moving to a lighter and nimbler artillery train, etc. OTOH, this is supposedly in prep to do island warfare in the China Seas…
A smaller force of more specially trained soldiers able to spend time on long tours makes a lot of sense for COIN operations.
I understood why the USMC got into the heavy combat business in the first place. (Vietnam)
I never understood why the USMC thought that was a good idea.
For another example of LSCO/COIN tensions:
Internal discourse in Israel (specifically in the IDF and “military correspondents” with access to its internal discussions) generally blames poor performance in the relatively-large-scale Second Lebanon War (2006) on the years of laser focus on COIN in the West Bank. This is one of many reasons the army has become relatively left wing on the Palestinian issue: the post-2006 low Israeli force commitment to the West Bank is based on Palestinian Authority cooperation, and that makes the IDF professional officer corps very sensitive to the Palestinian perception of the “diplomatic horizon” (in the words of a then-serving commander of the West Bank garrison). See, for example, the current Minister of Defense and old professional officer (Gantz) getting in fights with the right-wing elements of the coalition because of his close relationship with the head of the PA, and a relatively hard line against settlement expansion even when it’s politically inconvenient (i.e. after a recent Palestinian attack on civilian settlers).
This ties in to your earlier talk about auxiliary forces – reducing COIN commitment often requires good relations with local allies/auxiliaries, who then impose policy constraints and can throw real friction into civil-military relations.