Small Wars Journal

Enabling Strategic Success: How MARSOC can help overcome “simple-minded” militarism

Mon, 01/11/2021 - 8:04pm

Enabling Strategic Success:

How MARSOC can help overcome “simple-minded” militarism

By Paul Bailey


There are some militarists who say: ‘We are not interested in politics but only in the profession of arms.’ It is vital that these simple-minded militarists be made to realize the relationship that exists between politics and military affairs. Military action is a method used to attain a political goal. While military affairs and political affairs are not identical, it is impossible to isolate one from the other.

—Mao Tse-tung.[1]




            The U.S. military continues to face terrorist threats from al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but is increasingly reorienting on great power competition (GPC), heralded by the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF), and the wider military, assert success in counter terrorism but also claim the need to better adapt for GPC, particularly against Russia and China.[2] Although USSOF have successfully learned how to hunt down and kill terrorist leaders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden and others, a more comprehensive look at the U.S. fight against irregular-terrorist organizations reveals a bleak global strategic picture. Vice acclimations of success, the major military campaigns across Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen expose unmet U.S. policy objectives and countries littered across the bottom of the Fragile State Index.[3] These countries remain among the highest risk and most destabilized countries in the world, fueling conflict, creating refugees, and fostering terrorist recruitment and safe havens. Some credible analysts even argue that U.S. military campaigns have failed in eliminating current irregular threats and have exacerbated risk to U.S. interests. They suggest that greater instability exists across the Middle East now than prior to the attacks on 9/11.[4] If true, these shortfalls undermine, or debunk, claims of tactical military success, since the accomplishment of military objectives and policy provides the ultimate measure of effectiveness for military operations.


            Perhaps more troubling, many military “professionals” seem confused by GPC and the military’s role in competition.[5] This uncertainty is disturbing since great power competition is as old as time. The father of modern history, Thucydides, recorded the great power struggles between Athens, Sparta, and Persia before the birth of Christ.[6] The history of the Peloponnesian War is really a history of great power competition and conflict. Centuries later, the great power competition between England and France throughout the 18th Century should also resonate considering that North America provided competitors a proxy theater of war during both the Seven Years War and later the American Revolution.[7] Only shortly thereafter, the British competed and, at times, physically skirmished with Russia over Central Asia during the 19th Century’s “Great Game.”[8] Following World War II, and again recently, the United States and its allies competed with the Soviet Union, China, and their satellite states.[9]


            Misperceptions of success against terrorists, and confusion in GPC collide to form a larger problem, blindness to overlaps between irregular conflict with terrorists and great power competition. Overlapping global, regional, and local violent power struggles produce proxy wars.[10] These interconnected proxy wars present complex, dynamic, and uncertain challenges. Especially since World War II, most military-related GPC occurs in intrastate proxy contests, exploiting instability created by terrorism, insurgency, and civil war.[11] Consider the American engagements in Vietnam, El Salvador and Afghanistan in the 1980’s, as well as the current conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Southern Philippines.   Without exception, each example presents overlapping and interconnected layers of proxy wars among local, regional, and global competitors. The military’s experience in Iraq offers a particularly compelling case for the consequences of strategic inattention to these overlaps. Analysis and experience indicate that Iran has become one of the primary beneficiaries to the conflict in Iraq over the last two decades due, at least in part, to strategic inability to confront overlapping state and non-state threats.[12]


            Misperceptions and confusion point toward an overly narrow view of the military’s role in competition and conflict, in and out of GPC. This article explores how these flaws ignore the nature of war and trends in competition and conflict, foil strategic success against irregular enemies such as al Qaeda and ISIS and engender risk in GPC with major regional and global adversaries. USSOF provide the greatest opportunity to rectify current deficiencies in connecting violent and non-violent political competition but are overly focused on reactionary tactical actions vice proactively shaping enduring strategic success. USSOF need to adapt to enable U.S. strategic success in politically fragmented competition and conflict.


            Section one addresses the character of politically fragmented 21st Century competition and conflict. Section two then identifies the necessity to mitigate current military deficiencies. Section three recommends how USSOF can adapt to enable strategic success. Finally, the conclusion applies recommendations to the youngest, and potentially least calcified, component of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC). Overall, this article identifies deficiencies preventing strategic success against terrorists and GPC alike and provides recommendations for adaptation.


Section 1: Competition and Conflict


Overlapping power competition and conflict between the United States and its adversaries occur at all levels of warfare ranging from ethnically divided villages to opposed national governments. Untangling these complex power dynamics requires understanding the identities and strategies of those diverse political groups. Only with nuanced understanding can the United States make sense of modern competition and conflict or develop approaches to safeguard interests and exploit adversarial vulnerabilities.


Competition for power, the ability to control, coerce, or influence for advantage, is the central pillar of politically fragmented competition and conflict.[13] Modern competition intermingles state and non-state political groups in areas such as Syria where government forces, Iranians, Russians, Americans, Turks, Kurds, ISIS, Saudis, and other local proxies vie for influence and control to support their own interests. These groups use both direct and surrogate violent and non-violent means. In “War from the Ground Up,” author Emile Simpson describes modern fragmented political environments as “kaleidoscopes” where the use of violence is used as direct political communications rather than merely setting conditions for an ultimate political outcome.[14] In these highly politicized environments, the decisive value of winning on the battlefield decreases. The U.S. military experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria affirm this claim. In America’s war in Vietnam, the U.S. military generally failed to understand the context for the region, the civil war between Hanoi and Saigon, or the insurgency in the south. The primary measure the military understood was the physical battlefield through killing and capturing the enemy. The U.S. military largely ignored the French experience in Vietnam, pursuing a similar attritional approach to kill more enemy than Hanoi could replace.[15] Regardless of other deficiencies at the national level, The U.S. military fundamentally failed to identify or achieve objectives supporting U.S. policy due to its flawed understanding of Vietnam’s social political context and its misaligned attritional approach.[16] Since the remnants of U.S. military forces in Vietnam retreated in 1975, the U.S. military and SOF continue to perpetuate attritional battlefield solutions to fragmented political competition and conflict. More recently, overwhelming battlefield dominance in Afghanistan and Iraq have, yet again, failed thus far to achieve enduring policy objectives. [17] These failures to achieve strategic ends highlight the central importance to the underlying and decisive struggle for power in fragmented competition and conflict.


Currently, revisionist states use irregular means and proxies to seize advantage in contested environments, while staying below the threshold of direct armed conflict with the United States.[18] Paralleling the Cold War, Russia, China, and Iran are employing hybrid methods, including violence, information, legalities, and economics to secure their interests at the expense of the U.S. led global power structure. U.S. adversaries use these hybrid methods to exploit instability caused by intra-state conflict and to further their objectives. In Iraq, the Iranian Quds Force has enabled proxy militia groups to fight Americans, ISIS, Sunnis, and the Iraqi Government. In Ukraine, Syria, and the Crimea, typically integrated Russia intelligence agencies and special operations forces have used local and contracted proxies to achieve their goals.[19] Author David Kilcullen’s insightful analysis explains that the Russians have effectively employed cyber-hacking in the United States, influence operations in the Baltics,  conventional and SOF military operations in Georgia, surrogate contractors in Syria, and shaping operations in Crimea to leverage ‘ambiguity’ to their advantage, exploiting U.S. and coalition partners’ “response threshold.”[20]


Less overtly  & militarily aggressive, China’s strategic ambitions likely provide a greater long-term threat. In the South China Sea, China uses coast guard-like Maritime Militia to intimidate Vietnamese, Philippine, and other nationalities’ fishermen and merchantmen in order to control strategic waterways.[21] More broadly, the Chinese concept of Unrestricted Warfare spells out the Chinese approach observed over the last two decades to win without fighting through traditionally non-military means.[22] Using economic, legal, and information warfare, China has made strategic gains while avoiding conventional confrontation with the United States. China’s physical, cyber, and space-based Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) sets conditions for global proxy competition through third party states, international organizations, and sub-state groups. Simultaneously, China has built military advantages to exploit specific U.S. vulnerabilities while thus far managing to ensure that the U.S. military industrial complex redoubles their spending to ensure conventional military dominance even while China “conceptually envelopes” through proxy actors and means.[23] Meanwhile, the proliferation of information technology and mass media has enabled both state and non-state groups to exacerbate existing instability and mobilize influence at a historically unprecedented rate and extent.[24]


Sub-state political violence, exacerbated by regional and global competition, dominates modern conflict.[25] Few modern conflicts contain simply polarized-interstate wars such as in the Falklands War, Operation Desert Storm, or the main World War II European Theatre between Germany and the Allies. Because of the simple polarized character of these political clashes, combat in these interstate conflicts yielded generally decisive results. These examples, however, are the exception rather than the rule for political violence. Simpson’s analysis again assists to explain how the “grammar of war” has changed and how fragmented political contexts create ambiguity and change the decisiveness of military violence.[26] As Carl von Clausewitz explained, political ambiguity restricts the use of violence.[27] Information technology and social media exacerbate this ambiguity, broadening the global political audience, drawing in additional political groups, and creating opportunity to wage proxy war, lowering costs and the risk of escalation to direct military conflict.[28] The U.S. military, however, has not sufficiently adapted to these realities. Instead, it has narrowly focused on the legacy application of battlefield violence, failing to translate the military’s role and use of information to political competition and conflict.


Section 2: Military Deficiencies


            The U.S. military, overwhelmingly, fails to recognize the struggle for power, at all levels of warfare, as the central pillar of modern competition and conflict. In fragmented politicized conflict, conventional military tools such as nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, and high-end technology do little to resolve interconnected and overlapping power struggles below the threshold of direct armed combat.[29] Nonetheless, the U.S. military predominately plans on waging conventional battlefield combat in a World War III scenario.[30] Of course the U.S. military should continue to prepare for conventional conflict to deter adversaries and win in major combat if necessary. To achieve national interests, however, the military must also adapt its role to the character of modern competition and warfare.


Within the wider military, another major failure is the military’s narrow and conventional application of USSOF in competition and irregular conflict. The preponderance of the U.S. military is organized for what Samuel Huntington calls the management and execution of violence.[31] Huntington’s seminal analysis explains the creation of a professionalized military culture and the resulting separation between the soldier and the state. While remaining domestically non-partisan, the military incorrectly carries its separation of internal politics mindset overseas. When rigidly applied, Huntington’s analysis is misaligned with the realities of the history and the modern operating environment.[32]


Therefore, the U.S. military predominately focuses on the tactical battlefield while discounting their role in the underlying political competition. The common response among many SOF and conventional force personnel alike is that the Department of State (DoS) is responsible for the information and political domain. This ‘simplistic’ response defies history and current reality. The study of war reveals that war is inherently political. Killing is the ultimate political act since it takes all control away from that individual. While the DoS should lead strategic interstate information and diplomatic efforts, it is impossible for the U.S. military to enable U.S. policy objectives in fragmented political contexts without integration into those efforts. As Huntington explains, the military professional must provide analysis and advice on all areas that impact the application of military force.[33] In current competition and conflict, politics are often indistinguishable from the application of violence, especially at the local level. At the local town or village level, the DoS and other U.S. agency often cannot or will not operate without U.S. military support. The military, and particularly USSOF professionals must achieve greater expertise in foreign power dynamics in order to advise and employ force in support of U.S. interests as well as to advise both U.S. agency officials and local partners. Overall, the disproportionate distinction between violence and politics in fragmented competition and conflict has significantly contributed to U.S. strategic failures.


            In the U.S. military, USSOF provide the primary opportunity to work with the interagency and enable enduring U.S. strategic interests in austere, high-risk, and politically fragmented environments. Often, due to domestic and foreign political interests and sensitivities, it is not desirable to commit large numbers of military forces to a security challenge. In austere and high-risk situations requiring small footprint and partnered approaches, USSOF may provide the only suitable option to inform and secure U.S. interests. While many units can employ violence and legacy military skills in these situations, not all SOF possess the training, capabilities, and culture to understand and influence the deeper power struggle and support U.S. statecraft.


            Like the wider military unfortunately, many USSOF personnel pursue an overly tactical focus on the battlefield and lack the maturity and perspective necessary to shape power struggles and strategically advise interagency and local partners.[34] Beyond education and training deficiencies, the military’s personnel system and deployment models undermine the ability to shape complex power struggles. The military personnel and deployment system is a legacy industrial model that optimizes general readiness to fight on physical battlefields.[35] The personnel management process throughout most of the U.S. military rotates individuals and units through billets and conflict areas to diversify experience and enhance their organizational readiness and promotability.[36] This perpetual rotation leads to short tour lengths, reinforcing focus on the kinetic battlefield and requisite tactical and technical expertise to operate on any battlefield, rather than deeply understanding and adapting to the intricacies of a specific security environment. Unfortunately, the well-rounded personnel this model creates, directly undermines their ability to understand and shape long term political competition and conflict to support U.S. policy and interests.[37]


In practice, U.S. military services place internal organizational interests above national security objectives.[38] As revealed above, military rotational career progression builds generalized promotability rather than solving real-world challenges.[39] Even the military’s basic evaluation systems, Fitness Reports for the Marine Corps, do not systematically assess an individual’s operational contributions or effectiveness.[40] Instead, assessed operational effectiveness is limited to data points such as deployments, combat experience, or combat-related awards – all which emphasize tactical or individual characteristics.


Similarly, at the unit level, personnel and unit rotation often prevents measuring strategic effectiveness over time. Individuals and units are perpetually learning but only build a nascent understanding or true ability to strategically influence. Compounding organizational design flaws, the services are disincentivized from supporting the operational commands responsible for solving real-world challenges. Except at the highest command ranks, the services generally view joint tours in commands such as a Theater Special Operations Command (TSOC) as career enhancing rather than critical.[41] At times, officers are even warned to not be seen as “too joint” and to avoid multiple rotations in joint billets.[42] This prioritization of service internal billets rather than joint operational commands reflects the predominate internal bureaucratic-focus rather than a real-world problem-focus.


Unfortunately, understanding and shaping foreign security environments require nuanced understanding of social, religious, and economic history as well as networked relationships to influence those environments. These requirements do not develop over the course of one deployment and take years or decades to occur.[43] These requirements are also typically at direct odds with the military personnel and organizational incentive structure that perpetually reinforce a short-term tactical battlefield focus, sacrificing the strategic perspective and clarity needed.


Although USSOF must continue to retain skills and capabilities to dominate on the battlefield, continued overemphasis will perpetuate deficient approaches characterized across Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, these same deficiencies will degrade the U.S. military’s contribution in great power competition where the majority of the military’s role will take place in proxy war environments characterized by complex-dynamic power struggles. Although currently deficient, USSOF can also lead necessary adaptation. 


Section 3: Recommended Adaptation


            USSOF can adapt in six ways to better enable strategic success in fragmented GPC political environments against both irregulars and state adversaries. First, USSOF should focus more on solving specific real-world challenges and exploiting threat system vulnerabilities rather than building general purpose capabilities. Arguably, the core value that SOF brings are the individuals and small units that can thrive in uncertain, high risk, politically complex, and austere environments. These individuals and units can develop the level of understanding and enable the approaches necessary to achieve success. The inherent political complexities beyond the legacy battlefield prevent generally focused forces to sufficiently enable strategic success. Overwhelming evidence from 18 years of competition and conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate this claim.[44] Although clear, some USSOF leaders perpetuate the practice of preparing for everything, while solving nothing beyond the battlefield. Fixing this challenge requires rebalancing USSOF through persistently focusing individuals and units on specific threats, partners, and networks vital to securing strategic interests.[45] Rebalancing should not divest of USSOF prepared for world-wide contingency response but should recognize their limited usefulness to preempting crisis and securing enduring policy objectives. USSOF leaders should examine the current Marine Corps’ Commandant’s Planning Guidance which focuses on China, explicitly breaking with legacy general-purpose planning and readiness that sacrifices understanding and exploiting threat vulnerabilities.[46] Unfortunately, where the Marine Corps gets it right by focusing on real problems, it also undermines its strategic relevance by narrowly fulfilling Huntington’s professional military paradigm and disproportionally focusing on the direct management of violence through winning battles.[47]


            Second, USSOF should increase its education and training on political competition and the global U.S., coalition, and adversarial interests at stake. USSOF should layer power dynamics education from the earliest moments of recruiting and advertising, indoctrination, professional education, and training. Operationally, individuals and units should begin pre-deployment analysis by studying and illuminating the power networks and coalitions at play and identifying those interests and agendas, informing both strategy and military operational approaches.


            Third, USSOF should connect, integrate, and create networks to shape the environment to secure U.S. interests. USSOF should continuously refine their understanding of contextual power dynamics and engage through tailored ways and means to shape the power struggle. This shaping requires close synchronization with interagency partners to enable common understanding of the risks and opportunities for U.S. and partner interests. Coalition allies and partners are vital in this process since enduring resolution to these complex and dynamic challenges will only survive through solutions minimally acceptable to the primary stakeholders.


            Fourth, to create these vital networks, USSOF should more deeply invest in working by, with, and through all forms of partners. This recommendation expands on current USSOF approaches. There is an incorrect perception among some USSOF that the indirect approach should be left to the U.S. Army Special Forces (SF). This perception is flawed due to several reasons including lack of SF capacity, other SOF unit’s proven qualifications-training-operational performance, and most importantly the evolving demands of the operational environment. One needs only to examine the summary of the 2018 Nation Defense Strategy’s second pillar of its strategic approach “Strengthen Alliances and Attract New Partners” to recognize the criticality of partnerships and the indirect approach.[48] To meet the growing demand, USSOF should expand its exchange programs to include embedding personnel within coalition and partner force structure in formal billets or as liaisons. Current exchange programs are limited and focus predominately on peer coalition partners. Future programs should expand exchanges or embeds to strategically relevant partners such as India, the Philippines, Thailand, Georgia, and other front-line partners in overlapping competition and conflict. Beyond embedding in foreign partners, USSOF should also expand exchange programs with interagency partners, focused at the embassy country team level where policy and competition collide.  Finally, USSOF should potentially use SOF-unique authorities to partner with non-state groups and organizations in both overt and clandestine roles. More specific discussions should occur via classified forums, but the increasing importance and influence of non-state groups warrants additional analysis and consideration to adequately confront proxy adversarial activities.


While expanding indirect partner-based approaches, USSOF should retain legacy direct-action capabilities. These battlefield skills remain vital to enable independent operations in high risk and austere global environments where USSOF are uniquely suited to provide small-footprint military options. These skills, however, are not enough for the military to link tactical actions to enduring strategic interests. USSOF should retain these essential skills but should also focus more units on understanding and operationalizing the value of working with and through partners. These partnerships are vital to creating networks, aligning U.S. and partner U.S. interests, and producing mutually supporting short- and long-term effects.


            Fifth, USSOF should redesign for understanding and shaping power competition and conflict. USSOF should experiment with cellular organizational design models that contain the multi-domain and cross functional expertise to understand and adapt to unique operational environments. These cells should persistently focus on strategically relevant areas of enduring competition and conflict in ways that understand transregional, layered, and overlapping proxy conflicts among local extremists, regional, and global state adversaries. These focus areas should follow the threat and cross traditional military or other agencies coordination boundaries to mitigate current seams. Additionally, they should develop the core skills to disrupt and counter the irregular, hybrid, and ‘unrestricted’ methods used by modern adversaries. The resulting operational picture would reveal areas of enduring competition and conflict relevant to U.S. security interests. These areas would further identify how and where USSOF are uniquely suited to enable strategic success.


USSOF should also evolve deployment models to foster better understanding and influence. Organizations should rebalance from haphazardly rotating individuals and units in order to facilitate general readiness and experience in favor of expertise that enables influence beyond the legacy battlefield. Finally, USSOF should increase capabilities that enhance power dynamics intelligence collections, information technology, and the human-centered skills to create networks. These skills should include broadly defined preparation of the environment activities, but also requires foreign service officer-like diplomatic skills to support U.S. statecraft.[49] Redesigned future SOF operators should simultaneously perform four functions including the elite commando role to thrive on high-risk battlefields and apply violence where appropriate, the intelligence professional role to deeply understand the holistic environment, the foreign service officer-like professional diplomat, and the embedded advisor to enable partner capabilities and synchronize U.S. interests. Together, these functions will enable USSOF to understand and shape 21st Century “armed politics.”[50]


Sixth and finally, U.S. political and military leadership should provide SOF units the operational authorities to confront politicized overlapping state and non-state competition and conflict. Too often, deploying SOF units are assigned narrowly defined and stove-pipped authorities that prevent understanding or confronting interconnected problems.[51] Typically these authorities only allow collections and operational activities against a single designated threat, such as ISIS. Of course, expanded authorities can also incur additional risk. The previous recommendations, however, will produce more educated and tailored SOF units, mitigating the real and perceived risks associated with escalation due to missteps in great power competition. Regardless of the perceived risks and potential burecratic inertia, strategic success in the modern environment demands reducing stovepipes in operation authorities and enabling USSOF to better understand and confront blended political-military challenges. USSOF can then provide military and civilian leadership more circumspect options to achieve national interests.



            The U.S. military is failing to successfully enable enduring strategic success due to flawed understanding and implementation of its role in politically fragmented competition and conflict. The modern environment contains uncertain, complex, and dynamic power struggles that blend violence and non-violent politics. GPC between the United States and its adversaries will likely exacerbate this environment for the foreseeable future. USSOF provide the opportunity to adapt to the realities of the environment through implementing six recommendations to enable greater strategic success including: 1. Focusing on real-world challenges and threats; 2. Increasing education and training on power dynamics; 3. Connecting, integrating, and creating networks, 4. Focusing on bilateral and partnered approaches; 5. Redesigning SOF for better enabling strategic interests; and 6. Providing SOF units the appropriate authorities to confront real-world overlapping threats. Implementation requires that USSOF rebalance its disproportionate focus on the tactical battlefield. U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) could leverage its newest component, MARSOC, to apply these recommendations.


            MARSOC possesses the necessary heritage, people, and foundational skills to lead USSOF adaptation. MARSOC draws on the Marine Corps’ small wars heritage from the 1940 Small Wars Manual and its legacy as state department troops.[52] The Small Wars Manual identifies power struggles as the critical pillar of “small” irregular conflict. Simultaneously, by 1940, a leading figure of the World War II Marine Raiders, Evans Carlson, returned from embedding with Chinese Communists and Nationalists as an observer of the Chinese war with the Japanese. Carlson’s reports parallel Mao Tse-tung’s emphasis of primacy of the political struggle.[53] Modern Marine Raider’s draw on Carlson’s legacy and ideas that led to the creation of the Raiders in World War II. During World War II, many Marines also served In the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in North Africa, Europe, and Asia to defeat the Japanese and Nazis.[54] The OSS performed both intelligence and shaping operations and played major roles, particularly in peripheral theaters of operation. Later in Vietnam, the Marines’ Combined Action Program (CAP) provided one of the few bright spots during a U.S. military effort that largely misidentified the political fight in South Vietnam until after it was too late.[55] Since its inception in 2006, Marine Raiders have led Village Stability Operations (VSO) in Afghanistan, accompanied Iraqi Security Forces in retaking Mosul, and advised Philippine armed forces in retaking Marawi.


            MARSOC embeds its heritage within its initial qualification course that produces Marine SOF. MARSOC builds on its initial qualifications through producing versatile, adaptable, and thinking individuals and units well suited to meeting the needs of politicized competition and conflict that understands the linkages between irregular warfare and GPC. The Marine Corps, USSOCOM, and the Defense Department have the opportunity to focus MARSOC on correcting a deficiency, the failure to understand and shape violent, fragmented, and political competition and conflict. Doing so will help USSOF, and the U.S. military by extension, to adapt and enable enduring U.S. strategic interests. Regardless of MARSOC’s future focus, the military should take significant steps to overcome current deficiencies. Without proactive steps to overcome ‘simple-minded’ deficiencies, the military and USSOF risk continuing to win short-term tactical battles while gradually losing long-term strategic competition and conflict.


The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.  



[1] Mao Tse-tung, Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare, trans Samuel B. Griffith II (Washington, DC:

USMC, 1989), 89.

[2] “Future of US Special Forces and the Great Power Competition: Deloitte Insights.” Accessed February 6, 2020.

[3] “Fragile States Index: The Fund for Peace.” Accessed February 2, 2020.

[4] John Arquilla, “Perils of the Gray Zone: Paradigms Lost, Paradoxes Regained,” Prism: A Journal of

the Center for Complex Operations 7, no. 3 (2018): 119,

[5] Defense One. “What’s Great Power Competition? No One Really Knows.” Accessed February 2, 2020.

[6] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B. Strassler and Richard Crawley (New York: Free Press, 1996).

[7] Williamson Murray and Peter R. Mansoor, Hybrid Warfare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[8] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Tantor Audio, 2017).

[9] Paul Thomas Chamberlin, The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2018).

[10] Proxy Wars: “conflicts in which a third party intervenes indirectly in order to influence the strategic outcome in favour of its preferred faction.” Referenced by Andrew Mumford, “Proxy Warfare and the Future of Conflict,” The RUSI Journal 158, no. 2 (April2013), .2013.787733, 40.

[11] Chamberlin, The Cold War’s Killing Fields, 2018.

[12] CENTCOM IRAQ Papers. Accessed 7 Jan. 2021; and Todd South, “Army’s Long-Awaited Iraq War Study Finds Iran Was the Only Winner in a Conflict That Holds Many Lessons for Future Wars.” (Army Times, 4 Feb. 2019),; and based on the author’s personal experience deploying to Iraq in 2009 and again in 2016.

[13] Linda Robinson et al., Modern Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible Responses (Santa

Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018).

[15] Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy (New York: Schocken Books, 1972).

[16] Bailey, Paul G., and David J. Woods. Relational Maneuver: How to Wage Irregular Warfare and MARSOC’s Strategic Application, (Monterey, CA; Naval Postgraduate School, 2018), 85-126.

[17] Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. “Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel: Quarterly Report.” Accessed February 4, 2020.

[18] James Mattis, Summary of the National Defense Strategy: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018).

[19] Christopher S. Chivvis, Understanding Russian "Hybrid Warfare": And What Can Be Done About It. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017)

[20] David Kilcullen, The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020), Ch. 4.

[21] Lyle J. Morris, et al., Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019),, 27-30.

[22] Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999); and Kilcullen, The Dragons and the Snakes, Ch. 5.

[23] Kilcullen, The Dragons and the Snakes, 213-214.

[24] Warren, T. Camber, “Explosive Connections? Mass Media, Social Media, and the Geography of Collective Violence in African States.” (Journal of Peace Research 52, no. 3 (May 2015): 297–311.; Dr. Warren also provided a detailed lecture on mass media, rapid evolution of information technology, and mobilization of armed groups at MARSOC headquarters in June 2019.

[25] Kendra Dupuy and Siri Aas Rustad, “Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946–2017,” Conflict Trends, May




[27] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed and trans Michael Howard and Peter Paret (New York: Oxford

University Press, 2006), 605-610.

[29] Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019), Rule 1: Conventional War is Dead.

[30] McFate, The New Rules of War, Rule 1: Conventional War is Dead.

[31] Samuel P. HuntingtonThe Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2002), Ch. 4.

[32] Simpson, War from the Ground Up, 165-171.

[33] Huntington, The Soldier and the State, Ch 4.

[34] David Woods and Paul Bailey, Relational Maneuver: How to Wage Irregular Warfare and MARSOC’s Strategic Application. (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2018), 337.

[35] John A. Gentry. How Wars Are Won and Lost: Vulnerability and Military Power. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2012), Conclusion.

[36] R. W. Komer, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.-GVN Performance in Vietnam (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp, 1972; Gentry. How Wars Are Won and Lost, 2012; Richard D. Hooker and Joseph J. Collins, Lessons Encountered Learning from the Long War (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015), Ch. 3.

[37] Todd Greentree, “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: U.S. Performance and the Institutional Dimension of Strategy in Afghanistan,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 3 (June 2013): 331–336.

[38] Greentree, “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing; Komer, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing.

[39] Woods and Bailey, Relational Maneuver, 292-295.

[40] Observations based on author’s experience.

[41] Ryan Shaw and Miriam Krieger, “Don’t Leave Jointness to the Services: Preserving Joint Officer Development amid Goldwater-Nichols Reform.” War on the Rocks, December 30, 2015,; and based on authors personal observations since 2007.

[42] Observation based on author’s personal experiences since 2007.

[43] Collins, Lessons Encountered Learning from the Long War, 2015, 226-227.

[44] Richard D. Hooker and Joseph J. Collins, Lessons Encountered Learning from the Long War (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015); and Robinson, et al, Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from 13 Years of War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2014).

[45] Linda Robinson, One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare (New York: Public Affairs, 2013); and Linda Robinson, The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces, Special Report no. 66 (New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2013).

[46] General David H. Berger. “Commandant’s Planning Guidance: 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps.” (Headquarters Marine Corps, 2019).

[47] United States Marine Corps. “Marine Air-Ground Task Force.” Accessed February 3, 2020.

[48] James Mattis, Summary of the National Defense Strategy: Sharpening the American Military’s

Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018), 8.

[49] Preparation of the Environment (PE) is “an umbrella term for operations and activities conducted by selectively trained special operations forces to develop an environment for potential future special operations…” “PE is conducted during the shape phase of an operation as well as for developing and preparing for the entry of forces and supporting agencies to resolve conflicts using either lethal or nonlethal actions.” Joint Chiefs of Staff, Special Operations, JP 3–05 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2014), II4-5 and GL-9.

[50] Simpson, War from the Ground Up, 32.

[51] Observation based on the author’s SOF experience since 2013.

[52] Ronald Schaffer, Small Wars Manual: United States Marine Corps 1940 (Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 2004).

[53] Evans Fordyce Carlson, The Chinese Army, Its Organization and Military Efficiency. (New York, 1940., 129-130; Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings of Mao Tse-Tung: On Protracted War (Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press, 1967).

[54] Robert E. Mattingly, “Herringbone Cloak GI Dagger - Marines of the OSS,” (History and Museums Division

Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Washington, D.C., 1989).

[55] Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 85.; Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999).

About the Author(s)

Paul Bailey is a U.S. Marine Officer with experience in both conventional and SOF Operations.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:01am

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