Small Wars Journal

What is a Small War?

Sun, 07/06/2008 - 12:37pm
Part I of selected excerpts from Small Wars II, an unpublished U.S. Marine Corps document written in 2003. Noel Williams is the primary author.

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking.


On October 23, 1983 the world turned upside down for the U.S. Marine Corps. The deaths of 241 sailors, soldiers, and Marines in a concrete slab building in Beirut, Lebanon at the hands of a suicide bomber marked the beginning of the end of an era - an era where the enemy was a Soviet motorized rifle regiment and where Marines stood guard duty without magazines inserted because the United States was not "at war." In retrospect, the Beirut bombing was a seminal event, heavily influencing subsequent Marine Corps organization and culture and ushering in the kind of profound change that seldom takes place in large organizations without the stimulus of a significant emotional event.

Orders were quick to follow: All Marines will walk post armed; Marines will not starch their utilities; Marines will not spit shine their combat boots; Marines will read professionally. These changes did not occur overnight, but looking back from today's vantage point, it is hard not to marvel at the profound changes that have transformed the Corps.

If there can be a silver lining to a tragedy as great as Beirut, it is that the Marine Corps began a great awakening to a new way of warfare fully two decades before her sister Services. There was recognition that Marines must prepare differently, both physically and mentally, for the new challenges posed by terrorism, transnational threats, and the more dynamic security requirements of the post-Cold War world. In attempting to discern the nature of this changing security environment and to develop appropriate courses of action, some were quick to say, harkening back to the Corps' small wars legacy, "been there, done that."

But is it just a question of back to the future? Or, is conflict in the new millennium fundamentally different? The short answer is yes to both. Meaning, while many small wars fundamentals remain unchanged, there are significant threats and challenges that are without precedent. It is the intent of this work to examine these emerging threats and convert the challenges they present into opportunities for improving our capabilities to provide for the national defense.

This "yes to both" answer also means that the Small Wars Manual of 1940 remains a relevant work worthy of our attention. Thus, this volume does not supercede the original, but builds upon its solid foundation to examine those important new characteristics arising from the historically unprecedented threats of the 21st century.

Small Wars Defined

We must start by defining our terms. What is war and its derivative - small war? In its most elemental form, Clausewitz defined war as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." (1) Clausewitz further elaborates this simple formulation by explaining that compelling an adversary to do one's will is thus the object of war, while the means used to accomplish this object is physical force. (2) In small wars, just as in large-scale conventional wars, the object remains compelling the adversary to do one's will. Unlike conventional wars, however, in small wars the means available to compel ones adversary into compliance varies across a broader range of means from pure diplomacy reinforced by the credible threat of force, to large-scale conventional combat operations. In Clausewitz's lexicon, "the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose." (3) It is because war is an extension of politics by other means that this political objective is always paramount.

The corollary to this proposition is that the military provides the violent physical means necessary to prosecute the war and thereby extend politics by other means. However, a fundamental shift has taken place that requires expansion of this corollary. Military forces of the 21st century provide a wider range of policy options than Armies and Navies of Clausewitz's day, being capable of a broad spectrum of actions to include engagement activities, information operations, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and conventional combat operations (see Appendix A "Types of Small War Operations"). Small wars are thus an extension of warfare by additional means, providing political leaders with a range of military options beyond just physical violence with which to further political objectives. One need only review a sample of major operations of the 1990s to appreciate this increased range of operations: domestic support for the Los Angeles riots, western firefighting, and response to numerous natural disasters; peace operations in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo; counter-drug operations in Latin America and along the U.S. - Mexican border; national assistance for humanitarian de-mining operations in Cambodia and Laos; and humanitarian assistance in areas as diverse as Somalia, Bangladesh, and Rwanda; all these missions bracketed by major combat operations against Iraq in 1990 and 2003. This range and frequency of military operations is unprecedented in our history.

Small wars are most often waged between asymmetrically empowered adversaries -- one larger and more capable, one smaller and less capable when measured in traditional geostrategic or conventional military terms. This is not to say that small wars necessarily involve limited resources and small units. For example, Vietnam was a small war, a conflict in no way "small" in the conventional sense of the term. Paradoxically, small wars can be quite big when measured in terms of size of formations employed, numbers of personnel involved, numbers of casualties sustained, or amounts of resources expended. It is thus the political/diplomatic context in which the war is fought that determines whether it is a "small war" and not the size and scope of resources expended, or the specific tactics employed. Additionally, the political/diplomatic context in which the small war is set determines the conflict's characteristics far more than the theoretical or actual military capabilities possessed by the participants.

Conventional wars can transition to small wars, and small wars can escalate into full-scale conventional wars when the strategic/diplomatic context changes. This distinction has practical implications and is not just an exercise in academic labeling and classification. If such a hybrid war was anticipated and planned for, military planners might choose to consider the initial conventional combat phase as the shaping phase, rather than the decisive phase. In such a case, the stability phase might then be planned as the decisive phase. In short, if our political objectives can only be accomplished after a successful stability phase, then the stability phase is, de facto, the decisive phase. Recognizing the potential for such radical phase changes from conventional war to small wars would enable planners to better anticipate force requirements and to construct more agile strategic plans. A seamless transition from one phase to the other should be the goal, regardless of whether this can always be realized in the field.

In small wars, survival interests of the greater power are not immediately at stake, although it is certainly possible that a small war unsuccessfully prosecuted could lead to a more serious situation where survival interests do become involved. Thus, small wars must not be viewed as somehow less important than big wars. Any activity that entails the use or credible threat of force must be handled with the utmost seriousness of purpose and resolve.

Significantly, because of the asymmetry between the opponents, the "lesser" power will of necessity adapt to ensure the conflict is not conducted in a manner where mass, scale, and superior economic output can easily defeat it. Adversaries will avoid fighting on terms that would allow them to be attrited into submission by overwhelming force - the prototypical American way of fighting conventional wars - or by the transitory effects of a rapid precision strike campaign. Thus, small wars are potentially long wars, making pre-determined exit strategies and rigid timetables unrealistic and counterproductive.

In contrast to typical large-scale conventional wars, diplomatic and political imperatives maintain a clearly ascendant role over the military, thus demanding especially close coordination amongst all relevant governmental agencies -- especially between the State Department and the Department of Defense.

Small wars may be protracted because diplomacy remains operative, necessarily circumscribing the level of violence and destruction. The objective is often a coming to terms - an agreement - rather than complete collapse or unconditional surrender, making a more modulated approach essential. The increased likelihood of protracted operations in small wars contrasts sharply with warfighting concepts that anticipate smaller, lighter, technologically empowered forces conducting rapid and decisive operations. Persistence may very well be more important than speed in small wars, where resolve and the tangible commitment of boots on the ground are more important commodities than raw firepower. This politically constrained application of force is the primary reason for the term "small" war.

Small wars typically do not involve a declaration of war.

Small wars are more common than state-on-state conventional wars. While the United States was involved in four big wars in the last century, it participated in well over 60 small wars and lesser contingencies. (4)

While every small war is unique, in important respects significant to the military planner, there are common attributes that justify categorization under the collective term -- small wars. These common attributes dictate that small wars must be prepared for, planned for, and conducted differently than large-scale conventional wars.


(1) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans., Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 75.

(2) Ibid., 75.

(3) Ibid., 87.

(4) John Collins, America's Small Wars (New York: Brasssey's, 1991), 13.