Small Wars Journal

American Way of War

The American Way of Irregular War - By LTG Charles Cleveland and Daniel Egel

Thu, 07/30/2020 - 8:55pm

The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir

By LTG Charles Cleveland and Daniel Egel

Dave Maxwell Commentary: 

There is no other "report" that identifies the essence of the problems we face and offers big ideas for solutions. (I put "report" in quotes because it is unlike any report and as noted it is an analytic memoir). Everyone who writes about these issues (most researchers. admire the problem — none have lived it). This report uses real world experience to tell the story (which is a key element here because the "case studies" tell the story and that is the best way to influence people — to see what is real and tangible rather than theoretical or some dry historical recounting). Furthermore those with some experience who write about these issues do not come close to the level of expertise in multiple theaters. There is no senior leader who has put this much intellectual sweat into analyzing the problems and recommending sound and concrete solutions. There is so much meat in this report to drive thinking and debate. Some may not like the recounting of some stories, some may not like the recommendations but all who read this will benefit. The perspective from the depth experience combined with the intellectual rigor ensures this report will make a significant contribution to the future study of the American Way of Irregular Warfare.

Source: Charles T. Cleveland and Daniel Egel, The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020.  



American irregular warfare is the United States' unique and, in recent times, troubled approach to conflict in which armed civilian or paramilitary forces, and not regular armies, are the primary combatants. In most forms, it emphasizes the importance of local partnerships and gaining legitimacy and influence among targeted populations. It is thus a critical capability in contests in which populations, rather than territory, are decisive.

This memoir explores the strengths and limitations of America's current irregular warfare capability and provides recommendations for what the United States must do to develop the world-class American way of irregular war it needs. This analysis is based on a detailed examination of Lieutenant General Charles T. Cleveland's career, the majority of which was spent with U.S. Special Forces, and his experiences in Europe during the Cold War, Bolivia, El Salvador, Operation Just Cause, Bosnia, and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as in command of 10th Special Forces Group, Special Operations Command South, Special Operations Command Central, and U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

The United States, despite the admirable performance of civilian and military tactical-level irregular warfare formations, has failed to achieve its strategic objectives in nearly every population-centric military campaign during the past 40 years. The memoir concludes that the reason for this consistent failure is that the United States lacks the concepts, doctrine, and canon necessary to be effective in population-centric conflicts and as a result is not well organized for irregular warfare.

In the wake of the coordination breakdown that led to the failed Operation Eagle Claw and the intelligence failure that led to September 11, action by Congress and the support of the President were needed to drive reforms. This memoir concludes that Congress and the President will need to act again. To provide a proactive defense against the irregular warfare campaigns of U.S. enemies and the necessary offensive potential to destabilize Great Power adversaries, the country must turn to, and not away from, the American way of irregular war.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Irregular Warfare and the Cold War in Europe

  • Chapter Three

    Bolivia and the Department of Defense's Entry into the War on Drugs

  • Chapter Four

    El Salvador and the Fight Against Communism in the Americas

  • Chapter Five

    Panama and the Transition from Traditional to Irregular

  • Chapter Six

    The Decade of Delusion and My Pentagon Wars

  • Chapter Seven

    Peacekeeping in Bosnia and the Reemergence of Irregular Warfare

  • Chapter Eight

    Unconventional Warfare in the War on Terror

  • Chapter Nine

    Special Operations Campaigning in Latin America

  • Chapter Ten

    At the Vanguard of American Irregular Warfare

  • Chapter Eleven

    Shepherding America's Irregular Warfare Capability

  • Chapter Twelve

    Key Observations

  • Chapter Thirteen


  • Chapter Fourteen


The High-Tech Arsenal of Democracy: Economic Strength and Scientific Innovation in the Evolution of Modern Warfare

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 8:39pm
The ability to leverage financial capabilities to bankroll both technological innovation and large-scale production of war materiel has increasingly driven the evolution of modern warfare. There is every indication that these interdependent elements will continue to have an even greater impact on the international security environment in the 21st century and beyond.

About the Author(s)

Casualty Aversion, The Challenge in Medical Planning for LSCO

Sat, 06/08/2019 - 2:23am
Future military success hinges on the American military’s ability to understand the underpinnings of casualty aversion as a component of the American way of war and be able to accept more risk with health care assets on the battlefield. This essay describes the American way of war, the development of casualty aversion, and its implications for LSCO.

About the Author(s)