Small Wars Journal

Irregular Warfare: New Challenges for Civil-Military Relations

Via e-mail (not yet posted to National Defense University's Institute for National Security Studies website) -- Strategic Forum Number 234 - Irregular Warfare: New Challenges for Civil-Military Relations by Patrick M. Cronin.

Key Points:

Success in the highly political and ambiguous conflicts likely to dominate the global security environment in the coming decades will require a framework that balances the relationships between civilian and military leaders and makes the most effective use of their different strengths. These challenges are expected to require better integrated, whole-of-government approaches, the cooperation of host governments and allies, and strategic patience.

Irregular warfare introduces new complications to what Eliot Cohen has called an "unequal dialogue" between civilian and military leaders in which civilian leaders hold the true power but must modulate their intervention into "military" affairs as a matter of prudence rather than principle. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that irregular warfare - which is profoundly political, intensely local, and protracted—breaks from the traditional understanding of how military and civilian leaders should contribute to the overall effort.

One of the key challenges rising from irregular warfare is how to measure progress. While there is disagreement about the feasibility or utility of developing metrics, the political pressure for marking progress is unrelenting. Most data collection efforts focus on the number of different types of kinetic events, major political milestones such as elections, and resource inputs such as personnel, money, and materiel. None of these data points serves easily in discerning what is most needed - namely, outputs or results.

A second major challenge centers on choosing leaders for irregular warfare and stability and reconstruction operations. How to produce civilian leaders capable of asking the right and most difficult questions is not easily addressed. Meanwhile, there has been a general erosion of the traditional Soldier's Code whereby a military member can express dissent, based on legitimate facts, in private to one's superiors up to the point that a decision has been made. Many see the need to shore up this longstanding tradition among both the leadership and the ranks.

A third significant challenge is how to forge integrated strategies and approaches. Professional relationships, not organizational fixes, are vital to succeeding in irregular war. In this sense, the push for new doctrine for the military and civilian leadership is a step in the right direction to clarifying the conflated lanes of authority.

Irregular Warfare: New Challenges for Civil-Military Relations (Full PDF Article)



Thank you for your counter-post. I will be paying more attention in the near term, as I am working on a new book on Irregular Warfare. I am *very* concerned by the signs that DoD is going to screw this up in a big way and waste the next ten years which is all we have left.

Reflecting on your comment, I can see that my perspective is a very personal one, and not that of someone who spent 30 years on active duty and certainly not in military combat where truth matters more. I can also see, going over my response in an earnest effort to make it useful, that it wanders. I connect your observation and my earlier comment to environments outside the active duty Marine Corps where your observations should outweigh mine, but see below.

We agree on the importance of moral courage.
I am an outcast in many quarters (less Army Strategic Studies Institute, God Bless them) because I have it and have refused to back down since I first got General Al Gray in 1988 to agree that we needed to accept narcotics as a type threat, not a distraction, and we needed to shift from secret obsessions to open sources in a big way. [His article "Intelligence Challenges of the 1990's" can be found easily online. The most important reference in there is to "peaceful preventive measures."] I am acutely conscious of the fact that it is easy enough to pin the "ass" on the donkey if you do not agree with someone and write them off--I was declared a "non person" by LtGen Page for persisting in trying to get C4I to take OSINT seriously in the 1990's after I had to resign my civil service job in order to pursue the Holy Grain (USMC lawyers gave me permission for the first conference, then withdrew it when it was not a failure, saying--I am NOT making this up--that because it was successful, it would be assumed it was successful because I was an "insider." Thus began my two decades of wandering in the wilderness.)

As I reflect on your most recent posting, I have to reiterate that the stories on General Crist exiling officers were second hand, but from more than one source. And with respect to your observation about firing officers, I completely agree, except for four stars who are CINCs and can "reassign" them locally. And as we saw with JCS and Colin Powell, even when the flags know they are dealing with a lunatic or a nakely amoral war criminal, the tendency is to "go along" and not make waves even if this means a three trillion dollar war that helps break the bank, 70,000 plus lifetime disabled, and close to 4,000 suicides (I am told the number could be higher and is one of our darkest secrets from Gulf II) and so on. I ask myself every single day, how could General Shinseki let Paul Wolfowitz demean his hard-won knowledge in front of Congress, and not throw his stars on the table and then throw Wolfowitz down the steps of the Capitol? Allowing the neo-cons and neophytes to lie to Congress, the UN, and the public is going to be the eternal disgrace of our flag officers then serving, and I suspect that it is this more recent "craven silence" that added angst to my impulsive response to your posting.

Even the recent financial meltdown is a case study in failed leadership. John McCain should have known better than to let the House Republicans get rolled. Every single person with brains that was not bought off by Wall Street knew that what we should have done was temporarily capped interest, put a moratorium on the 10,000 foreclosures a day, insured all loans to individuals and small businesses, and deferred the legislative solution to immediately after the election with a non-partisan open forum and all documentation online for public scrutiny. McCain lost his compass on that one and he is losing this election because he refuses to address the substance of governance (free book at, the first chapter is governance 101, neither McCain nor Obama get it). To give Paulson, an honest man with a very narrow unrealistic view of the world, no better than Rubin (who bailed Wall Street out on its bad loans to Mexico, not Mexico), a $700B blank check is the final demonstration of both the failure of leadership at the national level, and the degree of ignorance among those leaders, regardless of party--both parties are two sides of the same corrupt coin.

It is also--and I apologize for the round-about way I am responding to your inquirty, but I feel it is the best I can do--a demonstration of the total castration of the media, the public, and the civil service. OMB and GAO both knew it was nuts to do this, and not a single one of them resigned on principle or went public. Warren Buffet is out for Warren Buffet, he is NOT some kind of savior. He knows how to play the down market, especially when he helps create it--same same George Soros.

My perspective is primarily that of an intelligence officer, and we tend to suffer the one rank down problem across the board--the 3 is an O-6, the 2 is at best an O-5 and maybe an O-3. In the CIA, the problem is more one of disconnect, with those delivering the intelligence pandering to the politicians while those who actually know stuff are locked away from the client.

From that perspective, I have seen and heard countless examples of the 2 being steam-rolled by the 3, including in Iraq (Gulf I).

What I have experienced over the past 30 years, both within the Marine Corps and within the U.S. Intelligence Community, is too much concern over those above and too little concern over those below. I have had exactly five great bosses in all that time: Col Walt Breede III and Col Forest Lucy at MCIA, Jack Devine (DDO) and Boyd Sutton (DDI) at CIA, and Charles Bednar way back when I was cutting my teeth as an analyst and thinker in the 1970's. Everyone else, and this is the kindest way I can think of to say this, was simply not memorable.

I am not happy with the above response to your important rejoinder. It is inadequate. However, and here I note with interest your association with Joint Forces Quarterly and NDU, I believe it is time for us to have a national conference on Leadership in the 21st Century. I am not fully satisfied with the McCormick Tribute Foundation work on "Irregular Warfare Leadership in the 21st Century" (book out of a conference 2-3 May 2007) for the same reason I am not happy with the way DoD is going with Irregular Warfare: if we are not moral in our behavior and spending across all ten threats (terrorism is #9) and across all 12 core policies, then no amount of PSYOP is going to make it right.

We are spending close to a trillion a year waging war. Three separate authorities have calculated the cost for resolving all ten threats to humanity--clean water and enough to eat and security for all--at under $230 billion a year. Our leadership, our process, our spending, and thinking--all nuts.

In a nutshell, military leaders have to have the guts to refuse to engage in wars that are unjust, that are based on lies, and that do not provide the full funding for the transitions to and from war. Charlie Wilson had it right in Afghanistan, and Congress would not fund the schools and roads. Route 9 in Haiti still has not been completed. We consort with 42 of the 44 dictators on the planet under the false flag of GWOT and then wonder why it is so easy for terrorists to recruit and collect funding in those 42 countries.

If anyone reading this decides to host a conference that includes all eight tribes (government, military, law enforcement, academia, business, NGO, media, and civil society including labor unions) I think it would be a very good thing. Right now Irregular Warfare is taking off and folks are fighting for billets, dollars, and technology. They do so in a very precarious context. I am reminded of the National Research Council, which asked me to comment on the Army's multibillion dollar communications archiecture for the future. My first slide, an allusion to a famous menu for rabbit stew, said, "First catch your rabbit." I pointed out they were about to sanction a plan that was going to spend tens of billions of dollars on the untested assumption that every bit and byte would be internally generated, with all external information being provided via channels from the J-2 in the case of intelligence. They completely ignored my earnest effort to assist them in avoiding the present catastrophic over-investment in secret unilateral channels. CENTCOM has 12 ops, with a J-6 able to handle two at best. Duh.

As we now know, courtesy of General Tony Zinni, we are spending $60-75 billion on the 4% of his command knowledge that we can steal, and next to nothing on the other 96% in 183 languages we cannot speak. DLA is recruiting "ethnics." Oh boy. Worthless. What we SHOULD be doing in recruiting indigenous scout companies.

Arg. Your intelligence intervention caught me in an angst moment. As best I can see it, all our leaders suck, not because they are bad in the narrow context of their office, but because they are completely isolated from the larger reality that makes their goodness in situ irrelevant if not dangerous.

Please forgive the inherent incoherence of the above. The chain of command is broken, in my humble opinion.

Semper Fi,


Sat, 10/04/2008 - 11:37am

Dear Robert,

&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; I want to follow your logic. Are you asserting that the majority (or even a large percentage) of officers fail to express dissent behind closed doors because they have been <B><i>frightened</I></B> by senior officers who have cashiered others? How do you know this?

&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; When my staff officers advise an alternate COA that I choose not to follow, the rank and file have no idea that they disagreed with me in my office/tent because the staff takes my <B><I>suboptimal</B></I> decision and tries to implement it as best they can. Outside the inner circle, you might infer that my staff is full of "yes men" when in fact they strenuously disagreed behind closed doors.

&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; Look at it as well from the other side of the chain of command. If you had a subordinate commander who was serially firing officers, wouldn't you look into it to determine whether the problem was the officer doing the firing? Firing officers is not as easy as you seem to infer. At the very least, it precipitates a performance evaluation, a reassignment, and a replacement which require <I>at minimum</I> one reviewing senior's evaluation (all this can't escape the notice of the staff at higher HQ, which is often a pool of potential replacements). It may in fact be that the firings you observed were the peacetime winnowing that you imagine is confined to war (although you seem to insinuate that General Crist's actions were capricious, leading me to ask once again, <I>how do you know?</I>).

&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; In the final analysis, you and I are each speaking from our personal experiences and I cannot gainsay yours. All I can offer is that appearances are frequently misleading and loyal opposition is a critical leadership skill that is not obvious to every member of a command. File me as a bad leader, because my officers and staff NCOs have been disagreeing with me with astonishing frequency for 28 years--and this moral courage was critical to our success.

Very Respectfully,

With all dues respect, Col Gurney, what planet have you been serving on? When I was a frequent flier to Tampa, we used to joke about the building on the far end of the airstrip where every O-6 fired by General Crist, USMC was sent into exile. More recently, from PACOM to CENTCOM, we have similar stories. Carry on with the platitudes--they have very little to do with what the rest of us experience in 80% of the real world.

It takes a real war two years (five years for slow learners) to filter out the dead meat that rose on beauty marks instead of merit, and this is especially true in the acquisitions and joint development arena. We are just now starting to see the true band of brothers--the ones NOT willing to be a doormat for a lunatic Secretary of Defense--come to the fore, not least because we now have a SecDef with a brain even if he is not an innovator.

Semper Fi,
Robert Steele


Tue, 09/23/2008 - 5:13pm

I have been reading comments like this from various academics who speak to civil-military relations and I can't fathom where this view comes from:

<I><B>Meanwhile, there has been a general erosion of the traditional Soldiers Code whereby a military member can express dissent, based on legitimate facts, in private to ones superiors up to the point that a decision has been made.</I></B>

Yesterday I mentioned this passage to Major General Mike Lehnert, USMC, and he replied: "I have fired people who failed to express dissent in private, to withhold it is disloyal."

If the above passage from the first page of this paper is aimed at military personnel who fail to express dissent to civilian superiors in private, I can only ask, "are military officers truly so careerist?" My opinion is that they are not, and that outsiders have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. Any officer who fails the test of loyal opposition behind closed doors should be cashiered and any superior who doesn't demand it should be shown the door as well. The stakes are too high for anything less.

David H. Gurney
Colonel, USMC (Ret.)