Small Wars Journal

Book Review: Irregular Soldiers and Rebellious States: Small Scale U.S. Interventions Abroad

Thu, 04/22/2021 - 4:11pm

Book Review: Irregular Soldiers and Rebellious States: Small Scale U.S. Interventions Abroad


By David Maxwell


America may not be interested in irregular, unconventional, and political warfare but IW/UW/PW are being practiced around the world by those who are interested in them – namely the revisionist, rogue, and revolutionary powers and violent extremist organizations.

-With no apologies to Leon Trotsky


Irregular Soldiers and Rebellious States by Michael Noonan, Rowman & Littlefield (March 23, 2021), 206 pages, ISBN-10 : 1442271302


Michael Noonan provides us with the best contemporary treatment of unconventional warfare (UW) and foreign internal defense (FID) I have read.  I begin this review with this statement at great risk because I know many people will not read further because of the antibodies surrounding UW and FID, but especially UW.  If you do not want to read this review, fine.  But I urge you to read the book because it goes well beyond UW and FID.


Irregular Soldiers and rebellious States is timely and important because in provides insight into how the military may be effectively employed in irregular warfare in this era of great power competition. This is best described as political warfare which requires a form of irregular statecraft conducted at the national level to compete effectively with revisionist and rogue powers and violent extremist organizations.  Irregular warfare is the military contribution to political warfare and irregular statecraft. FID and UW are the foundation of irregular warfare.


This book is for the practitioner, policymaker, scholar, and student. But it also will inform the general public and all those with an interest in U.S. national security. It is not a chest thumping book about the exploits of special operations forces (SOF). It is really not even a book about SOF despite the missions it describes. It is about what the subtitle states, and another word with large antibodies, “interventions,” and the most important being, in my opinion, indirect interventions.  It is as the author notes: “a primer – or refresher ­– on how these forms of intervention work.” It is a critical treatment of policy and strategy in the 21st century and built around what is the author’s main thesis: “The political will of the United States for large-scale uses of force aboard will be – absent a major attack – lacking. Options between committing 140,000 personnel on the ground, for instance, and doing nothing, will be needed.”  So what are those options?  Here a simplified analytic construct based on Noonan’s detailed work: 


Limited Defensive Interventions:  In support of a state. May be small footprint FID with a restricted combat role for U.S. forces.


            Limited Offensive Interventions: Against a state or within the boundaries of a state.  May be small footprint UW operations with a restricted combat role for U.S. forces.


Assertive Defensive Interventions: In support of a state.  May be small footprint FID with a relatively unrestricted combat role for U.S. forces.


Assertive Offensive Interventions: Against a state or within the boundaries of a state. May be small footprint UW operations with a relatively unrestricted combat role for U.S. forces.


Although there is a short and useful summary of the long history of U.S. interventions abroad, as well as an excellent discussion of advisory operations and military culture,  the heart of the analysis is in the case studies he has chosen to make his arguments and recommendations.  To demonstrate the “Limited Defensive Interventions” concept, in chapter 3 there are three U.S. operations: El Salvador (1981-1992), Philippines (2001 -present), Pan Sahel/Trans-Sahara (2002 – present) and one British intervention to showcase “Assertive Defensive Operations:” Oman/Dhofar (1965-1975).   Chapter 4 discusses offensive indirect interventions – limited: Angola (1975-1990), Nicaragua (1981-1991), and northern Iraq (1992-2002) – and assertive: Afghanistan (2001-2002) and northern Iraq (2002-2203).


Although a relatively short book it is very thoroughly sourced so students and researchers will find it very useful. Most importantly however, is the amount substantive information and sound analysis and arguments that will inform policy makers and strategists.  This book punches well above is weight as evidenced in its three findings and six policy prescriptions.


Key Findings:

#1: Small Wars Are Not Going Away

#2: The Necessity of Building Expertise

#3: Accept That Results Will Vary Over Time


Policy Prescriptions:

#1: Develop Considerations for What Mandates Indirect Intervention

#2: Understand That the Concepts of War and Peace Are a False Dichotomy

#3: Avoid Strategic Monism

#4: Develop and Protect a Mindset for Irregular Operations

#5: Develop Coordination and Command and Control Mechanism for Indirect Interventions

#6: Develop and Expand Information and Cyber Capabilities for Indirect Operations


This should book should dog-eared and thoroughly highlighted and underlined with margin comments (mine is now) on every practitioner’s and policy maker’s bookshelf.  It provides the foundation for Congress’ description of irregular warfare.  Although the following will never meet the military doctrine standards for the definition of irregular warfare, Congress in the 2018 NDAA has provided the conceptual framework for irregular warfare and limited indirect operations, both defensive and assertive:


Irregular Warfare is conducted “in support of predetermined United States policy and military objectives conducted by, with, and through regular forces, irregular forces, groups, and individuals participating in competition between state and non-state actors short of traditional armed conflict.”


Michael Noonan’s excellent book will contribute to the intellectual foundation necessary to achieve those predetermined U.S. foreign policy and military objectives through limited indirect operations.


David Maxwell, a thirty-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 


About the Author(s)

Dave Maxwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation, and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy. He is a 30-year veteran of the US Army, retiring as a Special Forces Colonel. He has worked in Asia for more than over 30 years, primarily in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Colonel Maxwell served on the United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / United States Forces Korea CJ3 staff where he was a planner for UNC/CFC OPLAN 5027-98 and co-author of the original ROK JCS – UNC/CFC CONPLAN 5029-99. He later served as the Director of Plans, Policy, and Strategy and then Chief of Staff for the Special Operations Command Korea. He commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), served as the G3 for the United States Army Special Operations Command and culminated his service as a member of the military faculty at the National War College. Following retirement, he served as the Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Colonel Maxwell is a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies, and on the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the International Council of Korean Studies, the Council on Korean-US Security Studies, the Special Operations Research Association, the OSS Society, and the Small Wars Journal. He earned a B.A. in political science from Miami University, and an M.A. in Military Arts and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and an M.S. in National Security Studies from the National War College. Colonel Maxwell teaches Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists.



Wed, 09/22/2021 - 8:51am

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