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This article was published in the April 2005 volume of the SWJ Magazine.

Why Study Small Wars?


With the massive advances in technology and the incredible success of U.S. conventional forces in the last decade, one might ask why you should be interested in small wars. There are a huge number of interesting and vital subjects out there.  Why should I spend my limited time studying small wars that have been around for millennium?  Even some leading historians are arguing that there is nothing new here.  For cripes sake, Alexander the Great fought insurgents!   Warfare is changing.  Why should I look back thousands of  years to figure out what I will face tomorrow?

You need to study Small Wars for the same reason our enemies do – they work.   Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States has continued to pursue high technology as the holy grail of warfighting.  This is a natural outgrowth of America’s fascination with and prowess in the development, production and fielding of extraordinary high tech weapons systems. Even our European allies admit they cannot match U.S. capabilities.  Pursuing this course has led to total dominance of the conventional battlefield by U.S. forces. It has even led some to believe America is so dominant on the battlefield that none would dare challenge us.

Unfortunately, this deep trust in high technology has developed independently of what has actually been happening in the world.  Rather than focusing on high technology, our enemies have looked to history, modern science and common sense to develop a form of war that has allowed military weak powers to consistently defeat much greater military and economic powers. 


Guerrilla tactics have been around for over 2000 years – and in use almost continuously throughout that time.  Yet it is only in the last sixty of those two thousand years that insurgency has become the dominant form of war.   From the times of Alexander and Dairus, guerrillas have fought around the world.  But for the most part, they were using guerrilla tactics as a last result.  They did not become guerrillas because they thought it was the best way to fight.  They became guerrillas because they had been defeated using conventional war.  The practitioners of guerrilla war through history saw it as their only remaining option in a military contest that had seen their conventional defeat. 

That has changed in the last sixty years.  Mao started the change by writing a simple, short manual that told insurgents how they could use superior political will to defeat much greater military and economic power.  His view was different than previous guerrillas.  He did not see insurgency as an action taken when defeated conventionally but rather as a three phased strategic approach to winning a war.  Insurgency was not a last resort but a first choice for a war winning strategy.  Mao admitted the insurgent would start out weaker militarily and economically than the government.  To compensate for this weakness, he designated Phase I specifically to build the political strength of his organization.  He understood that political will was the insurgents’ most powerful weapon.  Only when he was satisfied he had reached sufficient political strength should the insurgent proceed to Phase II.  Phase II was the guerrilla phase to “change the correlation of forces” between the government and the insurgent.  While he stated all insurgencies must end with a conventional campaign, he was also adamant that such a struggle could only be successful if the guerrillas used Phase II wisely to insure the enemy’s political will was already broken before the conventional campaign started.

Since Mao’s victory in 1949, insurgency has steadily evolved to become the dominant form of war in the modern world.  While the high technology gurus continue to champion concepts like Transformation and Net Centric Warfare, the fact is they cannot point to specific examples where this approach to war has resulted in a major success. 

Since World War II, wars have been a mixture of conventional and unconventional. Conventional wars — Korea, the Israeli-Arab wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973, the Falklands, the Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War — have ended with a return to the strategic status quo. While territory changed hands and, in some cases, regimes changed, each state came out of the war with largely the same political, economic and social structure with which it entered.

In sharp contrast, unconventional wars — the Communist revolution in China, the First and Second Indochina Wars, the Algerian War of Independence, the Sandinista struggle in Nicaragua, the Iranian revolution, the Afghan-Soviet war of the 1980s, the Soviet-Chechen war of the 1990s, the first Intifada and the Hezbollah campaign in South Lebanon — each ended with major changes in the political, economic and social structure of the territories involved. While the changes may not have been for the better, they were distinct. The consistent defeat of major powers by much weaker fourth-generation opponents has made it the preferred form of war for our enemies. 

In short, our opponents have studied the outcomes of wars against the west and have found that only insurgency gives them a chance to win. The history of our success in conventional wars means we must study Small Wars.

Modern Science

The second area that tells us we will be fighting highly complex human network is modern science.  Specifically, three new areas of study – complexity, network theory and emergence – reinforce the historical evidence that networked, politically organized insurgent can defeat a much greater military power.

While we have tried very hard to develop a system of war (JV2020, Network Centric War, Transformation) that eliminates uncertainty, the new science of complexity seems to prove we can’t.  Complexity shows that very minor changes in initial inputs can cause massive changes in system output.  It has been popularly expressed as the Butterfly Concept in that if a butterfly unexpectedly flaps its wings in China, New York’s weather can change from sunny to a storm several days later. The problem is no matter how many sensors we have available,  there will be more variables to measure – and an infinite number of paths forward from those initial conditions.  And even if we could find enough sensors to monitor every single input, how do we determine when do measure initial conditions?  Were initial conditions for Midway set upon the sortie of the Japanese fleet, when the famous message about water status on the island or earlier with Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo?  All had direct impacts on the operation.  Changes in any could easily have changed the outcome of the battle.

Two other new sciences are closely related – network theory and emergence.  Both show the remarkable strength, adaptability and flexibility of a network – particularly in relation to a hierarchy.  The insurgent’s emphasis on political organization and networking worldwide maximizes their strengths.  Our tendency to respond with hierarchical, inflexible military forces reinforces that strength. 

In short, science indicates our high technology fantasy of information dominance is not going to happen.  And shows that the speed, flexibility and survivability of a network makes it extraordinarily difficult to defeat.     

Common Sense

Finally comes the big reason for studying small wars.  Successful warriors are practical men. They tend to use what works.  And insurgency works.  Insurgents have defeated the U.S. in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia; they defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan and Chechnya.  Can you think of any other form of war that allowed small movements to repeatedly defeat superpowers?

Small wars avoid U.S. strengths, exploit commercially available technology and maximize the value of the insurgent’s local knowledge and HUMINT capabilities – two areas of notorious U.S. weakness. Further, they have seen the United States continue to ignore this form of war for decades.  They know small wars require deep study and intense human networks based on long-term interaction to develop the kind of genuine cultural, political, economic, social and military expertise to operate in Small Wars.  They also know our personnel promotion system actively punishes those who strive to become the true experts we need. 

Even if the U.S. should change our personnel policies, it will take a decade or more to build the HUMINT, language and cultural skills we require to be consistently successful.  

In summary, we need to study Small Wars.  It is clear that based on history, modern science and common sense, our enemies are choosing Small Wars as the only path that presents a good chance of defeating the United States.  And the same 4GW techniques that work for insurgents in Small Wars can also be used by opposing states to neutralize U.S. military-technical superiority.

Col TX Hammes is a recently retired Marine infantry officer. His most recent assignment was with the Institute for National Security Studies where he served as a Senior Military Fellow.  A veteran of multiple conflicts; he is the author of The Sling and the Stone and numerous articles in newspapers, magazines and professional military publications.

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