July 1, 2006  

New thinking

Old hands take a fresh look at irregular warfare

Insurgency. Indigenous forces. Irregular warfare. It’s the modern military version of being able to sketch a lifelike Bambi, which used to be the minimum qualification for admission to art school. If you can use these words in a sentence that makes sense, you can have a career — and probably a long and successful one, if recent trends continue — as a “strategist.”

The sheer volume of reports, monographs, essays and quickie books on these subjects is of tsunami-sized proportions with, it seems, several new studies available each day. Simply keeping up with the flow, let alone separating the freshwater ideas from those that are salty or sour, is a full-time job. At the same time, and at least for the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, the need to reacquaint themselves with both the classics of irregular warfare and to capture the practical but naturally fleeting lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan has helped to open the intellectual floodgates. The crabbed and inward-looking professional literature of the 1990s has given way to what looks to be a renaissance of serious thinking about the art of war.

The challenges of a new war also have inspired older essayists to think anew. James S. Corum is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, a reservist who served in Iraq in 2004 and now is a professor at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., — now there’s the mark of a revival of the institution. But he is probably best known for his superb book “The Roots of Blitzkrieg,” published in 1992 and a seminal reference work for those enthusiasts and analysts of the “Revolution in Military Affairs.”

Thus, it’s a bit surprising that someone who satisfied the Army’s seemingly unending appetite for myths of the Wehrmacht could or would make the switch from the most regular kind of war to its polar opposite, but such is the measure of Corum the historian. His March monograph “Training Indigenous Forces in Counterinsurgency: A Tale of Two Insurgencies,” published by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, presents two British cases studies. Interestingly, Corum focuses primarily on the British attempts to reform indigenous police forces, arguably a more decisive but also a trickier task of counterinsurgency warfare.

The first case study of the Malayan “Emergency” from 1948 to 1960, an example of a successful counterinsurgency campaign, but also one of the bloodiest conflicts fought by the British army after World War II until now. Corum tells a complex story crisply — he is a superb narrative historian as well as an insightful analyst — and takes care to point out where the British failed as well as where they succeeded. British strategy was balanced between building presence through the regular Malayan Police and army and by improving intelligence through the Special Branch and its school. Over time, the communist insurgents, mostly ethnic Chinese rather than Malay, were both penetrated and reconstructed into the larger society. By contrast, the British in Cyprus in the late 1950s made all the mistakes made by the U.S. in Iraq. Corum’s summary:

“[Field Marshall Sir John] Harding’s strong-arm tactics, combined with a policy of throwing large numbers of poorly-led and poorly-trained police at the insurgency, had been a spectacular failure?.[T]he end of British rule was?fueled by [the insurgents’] effective use of the media?.[Their] long-term strategy — to simply stay in the field and harass the British with small attacks — failed to inflict any serious damage on the British forces, but was successful in keeping the attention of the international media focused on Cyprus.”

Another SSI monograph worth spending some time with comes from another great graybeard strategist: Colin Gray, whose writings on American and Soviet strategic culture were some of the most powerful and influential of the 1980s. Again, it would be a mistake to think that this grand Cold Warrior has little to offer today. His analysis in “Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt?,” also published in March, is cold comfort, particularly for the Army — and by extension the Marine Corps — who, he writes, “cannot be indifferent to the fact that, in conflict after conflict, their effort and sacrifice do not have the strategic effect that was desired and expected.” The U.S., Gray argues, suffers from a “strategy deficit,” made all the more painful in that it may well be a self-inflicted wound, a consequence of “the American Way of War” that no amount of technological transformation can redress — and which might even make matters worse.

Online resources

The monographs discussed in this article can be downloaded at no cost from the Web site of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/year.cfm.