Small Wars Journal

The War of New Words

Sat, 11/07/2009 - 10:48am
The War of New Words - William F. Owen, Armed Forces Journal.

War isn't just transforming - it's ushering in a whole new language to describe conflict, and this language is used in a way that pays little attention to logic or military history. Thus the forces we used to call guerrillas are now "hybrid threats." Insurgencies are now "complex" and require "complex and adaptive" solutions. Jungles and cities are now "complex terrain." Put simply, the discussion about future conflict is being conducted using buzzwords and bumper stickers.

The evidence that the threats of the 21st century are going to be that much different from the threats of the 20th is lacking. Likewise, there is no evidence that a "new way of war" is evolving or that we somehow had a previously flawed understanding. In fact, the use of the new words strongly indicates that those using them do not wish to be encumbered by a generally useful and coherent set of terms that military history had previously used. As war and warfare are not changing in ways that demand new words, it is odd that people keep inventing them.

Hybrid threats have always existed, but previously we called them "irregulars" or "guerrillas"; both words, in this context, are more than 180 years old. The definition of hybrid threats as "a combination of traditional warfare mixed with terrorism and insurgency" accurately describes irregulars and guerrillas, both of which can be part of either an insurgency or a wider conflict. Yes, guerrillas have changed over time. So have regular forces. Armies of 1825 looked very different from those of 1925 or 1975, yet all were regular forces. Do we need a new word for regular or "conventional" forces? "Hermaphrodite" perhaps?

The most common attempt to redefine the activities of irregular forces and guerrillas has been the using the word "asymmetric," predicated on trying to describe a dissimilar employment of ways and means that was apparently new. Yet history does not support this thesis, nor does it usefully inform thinking about the future...

More at Armed Forces Journal.



Fri, 11/13/2009 - 11:49am


Since I have basically a grunt's point of view poisoned by the requirement to read way too much of this fancy "new" doctrine, I couldn't agree with you more.

Bullets on OERs and the requirements to publish for publishing's sake.

I have often thought that the OER would be the destruction of the US military. Whatever happened to "if it works, don't fix it".

Seems nowadays if it works and you are new to the billet, you better change something or your OER support form says you did nothing.

How about training the troops and leave the words alone.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 11/13/2009 - 7:59am

Funny, Gian. Glad you're around to include these gems.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 11/12/2009 - 9:45am


Actually according to its members CNAS should be referred to as "the little think tank that could."


Greyhawk (not verified)

Wed, 11/11/2009 - 4:36pm

"Don't be coy. Say what you mean and mean what you say.... Define X."

I was actually making a generic observation.

For an extreme example, how about "combat" - as in "U.S. Combat Troops Will Leave Iraq by August 2010". In preparation for that we've been deploying Advise and Assist Brigades for several months now.

oldpapajoe (not verified)

Mon, 11/09/2009 - 2:39pm

I think it would be foolish not to accurately try and describe the character of the war one is currently fighting. To banish adjectives outright from the discussion of contemporary warfare is not a wise course of action. As we know, there are certain facets of war and warfare (the two words are not synonymous) that do not change. But, the character of a war or of the conduct or fighting of a particular war must be clarified (you know that old line from that German guy, Karl...what's his name, about knowing the kind of war one is going to fight and not to mistake it for something it is not). Jungle warfare, mountain warfare, naval warfare, are examples of useful terms that helped to explain the character of a particular situation. Having said that, the use of buzz words that one can't define or prefer not to define, is the fault we must attack. While hybrid wafare may seem unnecessary at first blush, it may be useful if for no other reason than to highlight the need to look serioulsy at the manner in which opponents may fight us now and in the future. The real issue, at least for me, is to see if the term is really useful. If it helps to clarify a situation, then the "new" term is good. if it does not help to bring clarity, then it is useless. Trendy words that can not be defined or explained simply should be dropped like a bad habit. By the way, I predict the term irregular warfare will eventually fall out, much as the term "operations other than war" and "low intensity combat" fell out of use. For now, the term is apparently useful in helping the DoD think through the character of the war we are fighting.

Bill Moore (not verified)

Sun, 11/08/2009 - 11:59pm


Thanks for a great article, but as we have discussed and debated before the real issue isn't the new buzz word lexicon, but rather as you have wrote there is a historical basis for this type of conflict, YET we failed to prepare adequately for it at both the politically and militarily.

What good is history when history is ignored? Our senior officers were educated in the philosophy of Clausewitz and Sun Tsu, and required to read a fair amount of military history, yet here we are today unprepared for this type of conflict? The new buzz words came after our rough start, so they are not the cause of our problems, but I agree they prolong the confusion.

I suspect the root cause of poor performance is that we rejected irregular warfare after the Vietnam War and replaced it with the so-called Powell Doctrine, which was politically acceptable, but hardly adequate for the real world. Furthermore the military became fascinated with technology (the essence of EBO was see all, know all, blind the enemy, then surgical kill select nodes and go home victorious, this myth was supported by fighting the fool Saddam in 1991). Too many seriously believed that technology would change the nature of warfare, that it would no longer be a human affair, but the future would be robotic war. They couldn't have been more wrong. It is no wonder that we think we're dealing with something new, for the last 15-20 years we have all been drinking from the transformation cup of illusions.


Sun, 11/08/2009 - 1:53pm

It also strikes me as unfortunate that the U.S. national security community appears to have developed no deeper understanding of the nature and dynamics and insurgency and counterinsurgency than it had in 1972.

Jeremy Kotkin (not verified)

Sun, 11/08/2009 - 12:16am


Also agree; great essay. I tried to point out these same wasted efforts in a paper I did at the war college. We waste too much time and energy trying to define and then counter 'new' threats and 'new' ways of war. Examples I used were the French in the Franco-Prussian war (who organized and deployed franc-tireurs) and even stretching it to include Moltke himself (who used the railroad, thereby using Hoffman's definition of 'irregular formations' to define hybrid war). Needless to say, I didn't get a gold star on that paper when I called Moltke a hybrid warrior but the main thrust was the same as yours - understanding military history and getting back to the basics (CvC, Mao, Sun Tzu) can still be relevant for us today.
But since CNAS has become the DoD's golden-child think tank of late (isn't the new OSD-P all over hybrid war?), I doubt we'll see that notion put to bed anytime soon.

- Jeremy

Here, Here Wilf. A call for plain English and the study of military history. How I wish it could come true. If somebody took it up as a cause though, they would probably want to repackage your message into an innovative, interactive power point presentation with edgy graphics and contemporary sound effects in order to maximize the impact on the target demographic. Then we would be right back where we started.

I've never understood the reluctance of some to refer to military history. It's just guys telling stories about what they or others have done in the past to win or lose. Seems quite useful.


"But if something called "X" doesn't work or is simply not popular then it can no longer be called "X"."

Don't be coy. Say what you mean and mean what you say. There is no practisioner or thinker on this site that is trying to win a popularity contest. We seek truth.

Define X.

1. Is it a hyperadaptation of insurgents that must be defined as reconciliables or irreconcialbies in a transnational world that is intertwined and inter-connected ebbing and flowing between terrorism, hybrid-war, and unrestricted warfare?

OR simply

2. guerillas and irregulars?

Back to your question of popularity. Has the popular crowd of pundits, think tanks, and others ever read the history of the hundreds of thousands of men that gave their life trying to define small wars?

If you think about it, the world was flat and intertwined during the Alexander's Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire.


Greyhawk (not verified)

Sat, 11/07/2009 - 8:18pm

But if something called "X" doesn't work or is simply not popular then it can no longer be called "X".

Andrew (not verified)

Sat, 11/07/2009 - 1:52pm

Mr. Owen,
I agree with your keep it simple philosophy.
From a grunt's point of view, any time we hear a new 20 dollar word the assumption is somebody needed a good bullet on their OER.

The fancy new word is meant to distract from the lack of progress and make the inventor look more intelligent.

Our leaders need to get back to demanding results, not just sounding good during a briefing.


Wilf. Well done. Your essay along with COL Hammes recent essay needed to be said. We need to get back to the basics.

Imagine if I moved into a new neighborhood and went to meet my neighbors, and I stated that I was here to examine the human terrain of my area of responsibility. I don't think they'd ever invite me over for a beer.

It's people, stupid!

However, I will suggest that you went a bit over the top with the hermaphrodite suggestion.


Dave Maxwell (not verified)

Sat, 11/07/2009 - 11:30am

I think we should heed this article and stop making up new terms and trying to decide whether we are "conducting IW" (or SFA or FID or COIN or CT) and lets get on with proper campaign planning to support a national strategy. We spend more intellectual time and energy trying to reinvent the wheel and come up with fancy new terms and concepts and we neglect campaign planning and strategy development.

Two good quotes from the essay:

"But despite the large amount that has been written about counterinsurgency, very little, if any of it, contains new insights or thinking that was not already part of the vast collection of English-language counterinsurgency writing. For whatever reason, the new words frame obvious and enduring observations about insurgency in a new light, creating an aura of discovery rather than simple relearning. The riposte that every insurgency is unique and requires unique solutions is true, but this is generally true for every war and every form of warfare."

"The only thing that can obscure that obvious truth is the application of new words and altered meanings to bend the problem to fit the writers purpose -- or to pretend that military history is less useful than the insights of those incapable of expressing themselves in plain English."