Small Wars Journal

Revisiting an Alternative Approach to Fighting Small Wars: The Works of Charles Wolf Jr. and Nathan Leites, 1965 to 1970

Revisiting an Alternative Approach to Fighting Small Wars: The Works of Charles Wolf Jr. and Nathan Leites, 1965 to 1970

Matthew P. Arsenault

All too often academics and practitioners concern themselves with the latest theory or framework addressing some aspect of security studies, in this case insurgency and counterinsurgency.  An excessive focus on the “now” does a disservice to the knowledge and hard work of those thinkers who came before.   Often times the “new” drowns out the voices of the recent past who may have pushed against the current tide and offered an alternative to what may have become common wisdom.  I contend it is important to pause and revisit older works which, perhaps not as influential as “modern” scholarship, retain valuable insight that could influence modern thinking.  This short piece does just that.   

Wolf, Leites and the Critique of Hearts and Minds

Charles Wolf Jr. (1924-2016), an economist with the RAND Corporation for over 60 years, maintained wide-ranging interests. His work spanned from economic aid and development, nuclear deterrence, insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN), oil and energy security, Soviet economics, U.S. and China relations, and space policy (Wolf Jr. RAND). Nathan Leites (1912-1987), a RAND associate, and faculty member at University of Chicago has been primarily associated with studies of the Soviet Union (Leites RAND).  During the 1960s and 1970s, likely in response to the behavioral revolution, - and specifically SECDEF Robert McNamara’s move towards the “academization” and application of systems analysis to the study of the Vietnam conflict – Wolf and Leites contributed significantly to issues of insurgency and counterinsurgency in support of U.S. actions in Southeast Asia.  Although both prolific researchers and authors, I contend Wolf and Leites alternative approach to insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) deserves additional attention, especially in light of the increasing number low intensity conflicts shaping modern international affairs (Gleditsch, Melander, & Urdal, 2016).

This brief article seeks to draw attention to Wolf and Leites unique contribution the study of insurgency and counterinsurgency by constructing a chronological literature review spanning their work between 1965 and 1970.  Specifically, this short piece revisits the authors’ RAND publications calling into question “hearts and minds” (HAM) strategies, and sheds light on their alternative proposal for a systems framework to examine insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare.  This approach “starts from the view that insurgent movements can properly be considered as operating systems, requiring certain inputs [supply side] from either local or foreign sources, which organized and converted into ‘outputs’ characterizing the active insurgency” (1965, p. 10).

In sum, Wolf and Leites alternative approach moves away from the demand-side of insurgencies, i.e. “that is to say, on the receptivity of the environment for insurgency and on the readiness of the population to enlist in, and be enlisted by, the rebellion” [think receptive attitudes, preferences, ardor, etc.], (1966, p. 6).  Rather, their approach focuses on the supply-side of the equation.  Insurgencies demand a ready supply of inputs in order to emerge and grow.  Inputs include food, money, recruitment, etc.

An Initial Framework: Taking Issue with “Hearts and Minds,” 1965

Wolf’s 1965 piece, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: New Myths and Old Realities (Wolf Jr. 1965), takes issue with conventional wisdom regarding “hearts and minds” COIN strategies. Specifically, Wolf calls into question the commonly held beliefs that, (a) successful insurgencies necessitate popular support, and connectedly, (b) counterinsurgents must provide socio-economic benefits to the rural population from which the insurgent gains necessary support (especially important for Maoist insurgencies), and (c) “socio-economic improvement programs, especially in rural areas, are essential for effective counterinsurgency effort” (1965, p. 3-4).  Wolf finds such doctrine lacking.

As such, Wolf suggests a rethinking of such traditionally held COIN truisms. Most pointedly, Wolf calls into question the traditionally held belief that that “winning the hearts and minds” is instrumental to successful COIN strategy.  Wolf argues that focus of COIN must be on changing behaviors, not attitudes and preferences. He contends that attempts to shift population behaviors are better served through a system of opportunities and costs, rather than a superficial attempt to manipulate likes and dislikes. He writes, “At a broad, conceptual level, the main concern of insurgency efforts should be to influence the behavior and action of the populace rather than their loyalties and attitudes” (1965, p. 23).

As such, Wolf does not view popular support as crucial to a successful insurgency or counterinsurgency. Wolf contends – in my opinion, rightfully so – that an insurgency can indeed be successful in environments with limited to no popular support.  Rather, Wolf applies a systems approach to the study of insurgences. That is, he focuses on those inputs necessary for a successful insurgency – namely, food, money, weapons, intelligence, combatants etc. Therefore, it is not popular support that allows an insurgency to emerge and grow, but rather access to necessary inputs. Wolf contends that the costs of said inputs are the crucial variable, particularly the relative costs of inputs for insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Wolf writes that the actions of counterinsurgents should be “primarily directed toward influencing behavior, rather than attitudes, by raising the costs and reducing the availabilities of inputs needed by the insurgency movement” (1965, pg. 14).  Manipulating the costs of these necessary inputs is largely separate from popular support, either for the insurgency or the counterinsurgency.

Wolf draws from historical counterinsurgencies to illustrate successful manipulation of costs designed to shape the behaviors of the populace without consideration to population preferences.    For example, Wolf examines recruitment as an insurgency input.  Guerrilla recruits may be drawn to the insurgency for a multitude of reasons:  adventure, personal gain, the yearning to address social wrongs, etc.  However, inevitably, there will be times where coercion will be necessary to recruit guerrilla fighters.  The greater the use of coercion, the more difficult it becomes to recruit based on positive inducements.  As such, Wolf suggests it is imperative for the insurgency to increase coercion, and subsequently increase the cost of the recruitment input (1965, p. 15).  Similarly, Wolf suggests offering a reward for the killing of guerrillas.  He writes, “some method of providing rewards for effective military action against insurgents may make a useful contribution both to motivating successful action by government forces, and making the prospect of guerilla service less attractive to prospective recruits” (1965, p. 16).  Wolf also explores amnesty or resettlement programs as a means to increase the cost of the insurgent recruitment input.  Here the government would provide amnesty, as well as business capital to insurgent converts, thus shaping the behavior of those weighing the costs and benefits of continuing allegiance to the insurgency.

In sum, Wolf’s Insurgency and Counterinsurgency (1965) begins to flesh out a theory of COIN that calls into question the applicability of “hearts and minds” strategies to combating an insurgency.  Rather than focusing on shaping the attitudes of the population, Wolf argues one needs to look at an insurgency as an overarching system consisting of inputs, outputs, costs, etc.  As such, Wolf (1965) writes:

The problem of counterinsurgency can be divided into two parts.  One part of the problem is to raise the costs and reduce the availability of the inputs that the system requires.  The second part is to curtail the outputs of the system by interfering with the process by which inputs are converted into outputs, and directly blocking or destroying outputs (1965, p. 11).

Fleshing out the Supply-Side Approach to COIN, 1966

In 1966, Wolf began to collaborate with fellow RAND researcher Nathan Leites.  Together, authors further develop their alternative theory in Rebellion and Authority: Myths and Realities Reconsidered (Leites & Wolf Jr. 1966) (1966).  Wolf and Leites further their criticism of traditional hearts and minds strategies, and began to formalize an alternative systems theory and rational choice approach to insurgency and COIN (1966). 

Leites and Wolf divide “hearts and minds” strategies into two categories: an extreme variant and a moderate one.  The extreme HAM variant is largely concerned with the preferences and attitudes of the population, with special attention paid to poverty, economic equality, etc.  The popular preferences and attitudes are shaped by social, political, and economic inequities, as well as the effects of ‘corruption” (1966, p. 4).  In order to address rebellion, the counterinsurgent should focus on economic development, and the minimization of socio-political inequalities as a means to sway popular preferences towards the state. The moderate HAM variant views poor government performance as a possible source of popular discontent.  The logic posits that poor government performance will, “increase poverty, or inequality, or the population’s sense of grievance; or that fail to alleviate those conditions” (1966, p. 5).  The counterinsurgent is largely concerned with swaying the preferences of the populace away from the insurgent and toward the state. To do so, the government must develop effective institutions, address social and economic grievances, and minimize government corruption.  Wolf and Leites find this demand-side approach lacking. 

Wolf and Leites illustrate their approach with analogies to economics.  Specifically, they examine the operations of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies through the lens of supply and demand functions, income and substitution effects, and firm behavior.   The authors view HAM strategies, either the extreme or moderate variants, as a demand-side issue.  That is, there must be a “demand” on the part of the population to actively engage in an insurgency.  They write, “the emphasis is still on the demand side of the insurgency problem; that is to say, on the receptivity of the environment for insurgency, and on the readiness of the population to enlist in, and be enlisted by, the rebellion” (pg. 1966, pg. 5-6).  In short, HAM (especially the extreme variant) focuses on popular preferences.  Both parties, insurgent and counterinsurgent, focus on courting popular preferences in the hopes of swaying the population to their side. Wolf and Leites contend that HAM strategies concentrate too fully on popular preferences, and fail to focus on opportunities or capabilities for action.  The authors write:

The distinction that we’re suggesting is more familiar in economics than political science: between a preference function that shows the wishes of a behavioral unit; and a (production) possibilities function, that shows the opportunities that area available for achieving these wishes – that is, for acting (1966, p. 6).

Wolf and Leites contend that more useful approach should emphasize “the supply side of the problem rather than the demand side” (1966, p. 9).  That is, the focus should be on actions that affect the cost of inputs.  That is, the focus should not be on preferences per se (as HAM would argue) but rather on the necessary inputs for a successful insurgency.  Wolf and Leites sum up the supply side approach to combating insurgencies succinctly:

In effect, the first task is to raise the costs of the rebellion’s operations.  The second is to reduce its physical productivity (by impeding the conversion mechanism).  Finally, the third and fourth tasks both try to reduce the value of the rebellion’s ‘product,’ by counterforce operations and active plus passive defense operations, respectively (1966, p. 12).

It should be noted that the authors are not in opposition to the manipulation of preferences through “winning heart and minds.”  Their primary issue lies in the emphasis that HAM should be the principal means to combat an insurgency.  The authors view HAM strategies as long-run goals, where their proposal in more focused on the short-run.  That is, the authors argue that the focus should be on attacking the process of an insurgency, thus making success easier or more difficult” (1966, p. 9).  They write, “One may lose control over the long-run by neglecting the short-run” (1966, p. 13).  As such, attacking short-term inputs is critical.

A Final Iteration: Supply-Side Approach to COIN

Wolf and Leites alternative COIN approach culminates in the book, Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts (Leites & Wolf Jr. 1970) (1970).  The authors expand their previous criticism of “hearts and minds” strategies by calling into question three propositions: insurgencies require popular support for success, rebellions are largely driven by poverty and other forms of economic inequality, and factors for a successful rebellion are largely endogenous to the insurgency.

Wolf and Leites adopt a more rational choice-based approach in their critique of the HAM propositions above.  For example, in discussing proposition one, i.e. popular support is imperative for the starting and success of an insurgency, Wolf and Leites take issue with the demand-side of the insurgency problem.  The population must have sympathies or preferences favoring the insurgency, and it is necessary for the counterinsurgent to woo the population to their side. 

The authors see attitudes as secondary to behaviors. As such, Wolf and Leites focus on changing the behavior of the population.  The authors suggest that the preferences of the population will largely be driven by fear of consequences, or the likelihood of gain.  They write, “We shall call behavior based on fear of the consequences of acting otherwise damage-limiting, and behavior based on considerations of gain profit-maximizing…The degree of preference for (or resistance to) R [rebellion] is reflected by the magnitude of gain or penalty required to elicit the desired behavior” (1970, p. 11).  That is, behaviors are more important than ardor, and behaviors are shaped by doses of carrot and stick.


Many contemporary counterinsurgency theorists and practitioners remain enamored with the “hearts and minds” approaches to combating insurgency (Bunker, 2016). That is, they focus on the demand-side of insurgency problem.  Wolf and Leites critique the traditionally held “hearts and minds” approach to counterinsurgency. “…winning popular support and allegiance by a government that is combating an insurgent movement is a highly desirable goal, but it is probably too broad and too ambitious to serve as a conceptual framework for counterinsurgency programs” (1965, p. 7).  As such Wolf and Leites, develop a more formalized theory of insurgency and counterinsurgency warfare focusing on opportunities and costs (both positive and negative), or the supply-side of the insurgency problem.  They write, “The operational problem, therefore, is how to increase the effectiveness of such counterinsurgency efforts directly; how to influence behavior and action in the short run, so that attitudes and loyalties can be altered in the long run” (Wolf 1965, p. 8). This approach focuses far less on the preferences and attitudes of the populous, and rather focuses on the shaping of behavior by manipulating incentives (both positive and negative).

Works Cited

Bunker, R.J. (2016). Old and new insurgency forms. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press.

Easton, David. (1957). An approach to the analysis of political systems. World Politics (April 1957). Excerpted in Macridis and Brown. Comparative Politics: Notes and Readings.

Gleditsch, N. P., Melander, E., & Urdal, H. (2016). Introduction: Patterns of armed conflict since 1945. In T. D. Mason & S. McLaughlin Mitchell (Eds.), What do we know about civil wars? Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Leites, N. & Wolf Jr., C. (1966). Rebellion and authority: Myths and Realites. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

Leites, N. & Wolf Jr., C. (1970). Rebellion and authority: An analytic essay on insurgent conflicts. Santa Monica: RAND.

Wolf Jr., C. (1965). Insurgency and counterinsurgency: New myths and old realities. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Matthew P. Arsenault is assistant professor of political science at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania.  Previously, Dr. Arsenault worked with the U.S. Army Human Terrain System from 2010 to 2011.


Mike in Hilo

Mon, 01/13/2020 - 2:49am

Thanks for Posting.

I didn't discover Leites and Wolf's Rebellion and Authority (R and A) until after retiring, but I was hugely impressed, and would recommend it to COIN practitioners as a must read. I suggest that well into the Vietnam enterprise, the insights articulated in the study had indeed become "common wisdom," albeit void of the terminology of economics.

In late 1970, I found myself in training at the Department of State's Vietnam Training Center (VTC) in Arlington, where, mainly, army field grade officers plus a handful of civilians, of which I was one, were preparing for assignments as Province and District Senior Advisers on MACCORD advisory teams in Vietnam. The VTC syllabus had by then eschewed WHAM (winning hearts and minds) in favor of emphasizing the efficacy of UK, control-driven COIN, based in part on the actual Malaya experience (as opposed to its softer PR image), in which the centerpiece of success was seen as cutting the symbiotic relationship between populace and insurgents by mass relocation, their physical separation, so that the peasants could not supply rice to the insurgent units even if they so desired. 

Among the principles that we learned--and which I found valid on the ground in Vietnam--and which I noted also in R and A are: the summary conclusion that the influence of battlefield success on population affiliation was greater than the influence population sympathy/loyalty would have in effecting progress toward battlefield success; the finding that grievances are subject to insurgent manipulation and may be insurgent creations, and are not necessary to generate an insurgency; and the critical nature of outside support (think cross-border sanctuaries) to insurgent success.

Perhaps the most influential instructor on the VTC staff was Dennis Duncanson, close collaborator and colleague of Sir Robert Thompson, the two having served together in Malaya, where Duncanson had been a leading "control Coin" architect and practitioner, as well as in Vietnam. Duncanson had made the point, in his pentateuchal 1968 history, Government and Revolution in Vietnam, in a stark denial of "civilian agency," that the Vietnamese peasant is not permitted free choice; he will comply with the wishes of the power believed to be the stronger in the end unless faced with some more immediate intimidation. WHAM thus reduced to irrelevance.  

Recent (acclaimed) chroniclers of control-driven (vs.Hearts and Minds) COIN successes include Jacqueline Hazelton ("The Hearts and Minds Fallacy," International Security, Summer 2017); and Stathis Kalyvas in his groundbreaking The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars, in which he describes, inter-alia, the critical role of physical occupation in eliciting population collaboration, such as enlistment in the occupier's militia, irrespective of the population's initial sympathies. This relationship obtained in Vietnam, and both sides were its beneficiaries in the terrains they respectively occupied.