by Phil Smith
“Arms of Little Value: The Challenge of Insurgency and Global Instability in the Twenty First Century.”
By G.L. Lamborn
Casemate Publishers, Havertown PA, 2012.
“If the agony we experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan-due to our inability to grasp the nature and scope of those wars-has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us to pay attention to the aspiration of the local people and thereby avoid inflicting pain on ourselves and others”
Written on the eve of Iraq and Afghanistan Arms of Little Value warns both civilian and military professionals that failure to internalize lessons of small wars, particularly those from countering insurgencies, will guarantee unpreparedness. Conventional wisdom and strategic ideas do not fit the challenges faced by an America in the 21st Century. The American society, along with civilian and military leaders remain unprepared to deal with the complexities of insurgencies and small wars.
Echoing the admonishment of Colin Gray[i] that The American Way of War could adapt with great difficulty to irregular warfare, Lamborn, a Vietnam Veteran with a 42 year defense career to include 26 years with the CIA, is a small wars historian who uses his command of American and third world history to capture the essence of why it is difficult to adapt. Lamborn convinces us, that even while we have been engaged in many small wars we have yet to institutionalize, or commit to philosophy and organizational memory the national, strategic and tactical lessons.
Lamborn trumps Gray by suggesting that, even with more experience in small wars than conventional, Americans remain in a strategic funk regarding the complexities of Small Wars and Insurgency. Uneducated, Americans place blind trust in elected officials who are ignorant themselves of America’s history, its role in the world, its geography, and the impact of cultures both within and outside CONUS, hopelessly ignoring and often unwilling to understand that the will of the people will always remain victorious over armed force.
Lamborn illustrates the consequences of such limited understanding by telling three cautionary tales that reinforce what now has to become a principle of war; namely, that no conventionally armed force can defeat hostile public opinion. He convincingly, and briefly, takes the reader on a historic ride highlighting the failures of both British and French military and civilian leaders in employing conventional forces that ignore the will of the people in the American colonies, (Cornwallis and Green in 1780-1781), Mexico (Gen Bazaine and Juarez in 1861-1867) and French Indo China (Navarre vs Ho Chi Minh in the late 1940s).
In recounting the lessons learned from America’s role in the small wars in the Philippines, China, Korea, French Indo China, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, he hammers home the confirmation that small wars, and specifically insurgency are social wars at the graduate level. He identifies and adddresses the dilemmas and conundrums faced by conventional thinkers who become engaged in small wars. The counterinsurgent faces multiple dilemmas; some are counterintuitive to the western thinker and operator that actually present advantages to the insurgent. The western counterinsurgent has a blind spot that may not ‘see’ the efficacy of political warfare, the consequence to which is a counterproductive application of military force, often creating more resistance. To be adequately prepared for these dilemmas and avoid the trap of overreacting by doubling down on mass and incurring exponential financial costs, civilian and military leaders must understand that they will be much more effective when they attempt to influence people, including the insurgent, using military strength sparingly and selectively.
Lamborn demonstrates that the US and its military suffer from a myopia influenced by our European legacy and ignorance of our own history, as well as, the history of the ‘third world.’ We quote Jomini who literally ignores the size of the fight in the dog and who quite frankly should receive no mention in a contemporary graduate course on war. We are impressed and become faithfully engrossed in numbers, almost religiously, and erroneously, believing that God is on the side of the larger battalions.
Lamborn peppers his book with poignant questions, in a manner expected in a seminar, framed to educate through cognitive dissonance. What is our response to the overwhelming historic fact that conventional forces have usually outnumbered irregular forces 30-40 times but rarely ‘defeat’ the insurgents politically or strategically? Where in our PME for leaders and planners is the dedicated study to small wars? Why do so many of our leaders still think that firepower, massive force and high technology are keys to winning in small wars? Which of our adversaries present an existential technological or conventional threat to the USA?
Lamborn offers an alternative to the small wars and insurgency dilemma that relies heavily on conventional thinking and forces. According to Lamborn, we should invest our national interest where success is to be found, in the character and courage of people, not gold or guns. Civilian leadership is admonished to educate themselves on small wars history suggesting that ignorance does not serve our national security interests. Wise counsel at home is possible, however, Lamborn reinforces implications that many red-blooded Americans have grudgingly, painstakingly become acutely aware, yet stubbornly resist, namely, “The American people must face the challenges of instability… together we cannot afford to be divided against ourselves.”
Preempt, reform, anticipate, mitigate and yes, it may mean nation building. Develop policies focused on select regions and then design strategic civilian-military strategy that accomplishes that policy that demonstrates a basic understanding of the will of the people in the target country. This calls into question any old age thinking about the utility of unit deployment programs and security cooperation programs whose purpose is more personnel and unit management than selective strategic focus and regional expertise. We should refuse to work with any government who won’t reform or work with its constituents. We should understand that military intervention without popular support is futile. Promote career officer and enlisted advisers, RAOs and FAOs. Identify those critical skills resident in civilian and military forces in government, advising, teaching, training, cultural knowledge, language and track those personnel, requiring that they obtain extreme knowledge of their region; then keep them in the region. Design personnel assignment policies to capitalize on regional skills and expertise. Create organizations that take advantage of regional skills and experience. A task organizational construct that requires commanders to absorb augments and ‘enablers’ in his command who are unfamiliar with his command and the region prevents cohesion, inhibits flexibility and is not responsive to the will of the people.
Every civilian and military leader must read and then internalize the implications of this book. The Armed Forces will do well to add Arms of Little Value to their professional reading list. Arms of Little Value is a must read for the Army, Marine, and Joint Staff writing team that is rewriting the COIN manuals to ensure lessons unlearned are applied. Capability developers must read and discuss the implications on training and education of leaders, equipment and technology requirements for small wars. It is not historically, nor strategically balanced to rely on heavy, conventional thinking and stuff and pivot our thinking back to our comfort zone.
If we are honest about what the lessons of small wars imply, we might recognize that a myopic focus on the occasional conventional war ensures we will not be ready for the multiple irregular wars, which will certainly occur. Perhaps the lesson is that preparedness for small wars, in which we will be engaged, will actually prove to be the best preparation for and reduce the penchant for conventional wars that we might conduct. In the process of this professional education we should come to realize as Lamborn advises and history portends that even “professionalism alone cannot equal the strength of motivation that comes from deep emotional commitment to a desired goal of a people” so armed.
[i] Colin Gray, Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy; Can the American Way of War Adapt? Strategic Studies Institute, 2006.