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An Assessment of the Small Wars Manual as an Implementation Model for Strategic Influence in Contemporary and Future Warfare
Bradley L. Rees
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
The United States has ceded the informational initiative to our adversaries. As Shakespeare said, “Whereof what is past is prologue.” If the DoD is to (re)gain and maintain the initiative against our adversaries, its actions are best informed by such a prologue. An analogy exists between how, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio encourages Sebastian to kill his father in order for Sebastian to become king and how most within the DoD think about responsive and globally integrated military information and influence activities. Antonio’s attempts at conveying to Sebastian that all past actions are purely contextual – an introduction or prologue – is meant to narrow Sebastian’s focus on the future rather than the past.
The Department likely finds value in viewing that anecdote entirely relevant when attempting to answer what it means for Information to be a Joint Function in contemporary and future warfare. If the Department seeks to (re)gain and maintain the initiative, appreciating history is a valuable first step, while critically important from a contextual perspective, is second only to how society today holds operational and strategic information and influence activities at a much higher premium than in years’ past. With that, there is much to learn from the U.S. Marine Corps’ (USMC) development of its Small Wars Manual (SWM).
Today, many may question what the relevance and utility are of a 1940 USMC reference publication that focuses on peacekeeping and counterinsurgency (COIN) best practices collected from the turn of the 20th century, particularly in relation to contemporary and future warfare framed by Information as a Joint Function, strategic influence operations and their nexus with technology, and long-term strategic competition. However, the SWM is one of those rare documents that is distinct within the broader chronicles of military history, operational lessons learned, and best practices. It is not doctrine; it is not an operational analysis of expeditionary operations, nor is it necessarily a strategy. Its uniqueness, however, lies in how it conveys a philosophy – an underlying theory – that addresses complexity, the necessity for adaptability, and the criticality given to understanding the social, psychological, and informational factors that affect conflict. The SWM reflects how ill-defined areas of operations, open-ended operational timelines, and shifting allegiances are just as relevant today, if not more so than relative combat power analyses and other more materially oriented planning factors have been in most of two century’s worth of war planning. More so, the SWM places significant weight on how behavior, emotions, and perceptions management are central in shaping decision-making processes.
Currently, the DoD does not have the luxury of time to develop new philosophies and theories associated with military information and influence as did the USMC regarding small wars. Similarly, the Department cannot wait an additional 66 years to develop relevant philosophies, theories, strategies, and doctrine relating to information warfare as did the U.S. Army and the USMC when they released COIN doctrine in 2006. The Department does, however, have within the SWM a historiographic roadmap that can facilitate the development of relevant theory relating to Information as a Joint Function and strategic influence relative to long-term strategic competition.
The DoD does not intrinsically rest the development of defense and military strategies on an overarching philosophy or theory. However, it does link such strategies to higher-level guidance; this guidance resting on a broader, more foundational American Grand Strategy, which academia has addressed extensively, and on what has been termed the “American Way of War” and the broader institutional thinking behind such American ways of warfighting for more than a century. Such grand strategies and ways of warfighting are best informed by deductive reasoning. Conversely, in the absence of deductive reasoning, practitioners usually rely on induction to guide sound judgment and decisive action. Despite this fact, a considerable dearth of DoD-wide organizational, institutional, and operational observations and experiences burden the Department’s ability to fully embrace, conceptualize, and operationalize globally integrated information and influence-related operations.
While the USMC did not have a century’s worth of thinking on small wars, their three decades of experiences in peacekeeping and COIN served as the foundation to the SWM. Throughout those three decades, the Marine Corps paid particular attention to the psychological and sociological aspects of the environment that impacted operations. They realized that military action was doomed for failure if it was undertaken absent a well-rounded understanding of what the DoD now refers to as systems within the Operational Environment. The SWM has an entire section dedicated to the psychological and sociological aspects that potentially motivate or cause insurrection. Such considerations are just as relevant today as they were in 1940.
Today, the DoD lacks a straightforward and applicable information and influence roadmap that can be used to navigate long-term strategic competition. The SWM provides such a navigational guide. Studying it can provide the insights on a wide variety of factors that the Marine Corps recognized as having a significant influence on the ever-changing character of the conduct in war, the relationships and interaction between a philosophy or theory to military practice, and how its understanding of small wars impacted the development of strategy and campaign planning. The SWM can inform the DoD on how to quickly and effectively address Information as the Seventh Joint Function, strategic influence, and long-term strategic competition in contemporary and future warfare.
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 Joint Staff. Joint Publication 2-01.3, Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment, pp. III-38 to III-40, (Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, May 21, 2014).
 Ibid, p. xi.
 Department of the Navy, Headquarters United States Marine Corps. Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication 12-15, Small Wars Manual, (Washington, D.C., United States Government Printing Office, 1940).