On Definitions

“War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” – Clausewitz

I’ve always preferred this definition of war offered by Clausewitz (as opposed to the more popular “extension of politics by other means”) because of its generality and therefore its universality.

War isn’t about red states and blue states, nor is it about Muslim and Christian. At its very basic level, war is about me doing what I want, and making sure you either don’t, or can’t, get in my way.

So, when does “Irregular Warfare”, or “Counter-Insurgency Operations”, or “Small Wars” all simply become “WAR”? Until the military as a whole, and its leadership in particular, can get beyond trying to categorize the current levels of conflict as something minor, an aberrational conflict detracting from the World War II level of engagements studied ad nauseam in War College, we will continue to pay short shrift to those battles that have become the norm. And those who fight them for us will continue to receive the bare minimum in supplies and support as the powers that be continue to jockey for position inside the E-ring to make sure they’re ready for “the Big One.”

Gen. Mattis

Gen. Mattis

Some folks, notably those in the arena, seem to understand this

Mattis’ keynote warning could not have been more clear: Without the strategic reorientation pushed by Secretary Gates, naval forces “face the prospect of being dominant and irrelevant at the same time.” SOCOM’s Olson was equally direct. “The type of war we wage is not determined by the type of troops we put on the ground,” he said. America’s military has to adjust to this “new normal,” in which “war does not mean what it used to,” or else continue to suffer the consequences of that maladjustment.

I’ve seen things floating around teh interwebs for all services, asking questions like “How will Irregular Warfare affect how we do business? How will it change our processes?” I’d argue that if you enter into the discussion with this perspective, you’re doing it wrong.

Irregular Warfare, as defined by Joint doctrine, is “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.”

Pretty good definition, but I think it has some errors in logic. First, IW favors indirect and assymetric approaches? This is merely a symptom of the fact that no one can stand up to the US Military (and allies) in a head-to-head fight. Vietnam, for example, was a war against a nation state, but the tactics used by the enemy were very much in line with those we see today. Assymetric and indirect action is not the tactic of choice for non-state actors, it’s the tactic of choice for those trying to not get soundly defeated in battle by a superior force.

Not your daddys Fulda Gap

Not your daddy's Fulda Gap


Second, if IW “may employ the full range of military power” then what is to separate it from conventional war? What IS conventional war any more? Conventional War *used* to mean war that did not employ nuclear weapons. A solid delineation if you ask me. Somehow, now that the combat action no longer resembles Rommel/Patton epic tank battles, the term conventional is used to mean “Fulda Gap” scenarios, and the conflict we’ve been fighting for over 8 years is still classified as “Irregular”, as in to say “We don’t regularly do this, but we’ll make in exception this one time.” If the meaning of “conventional” can be arbitrarily changed from the nuke/non-nuke designation to what it is now, it can just as easily be changed to eliminate the difference between Major Combat action and the small scale engagements of COIN.

The problem is paradigm. Generals and Admirals who grew up in the Cold War have no other base of reference than the Soviet Union, so any conflict that doesn’t match that mental image will seem out of place, odd…. irregular, if you will. Until those leaders can be convinced that it is all simply “war” we will fail to effectivley utilize all the facets of combat operations available to us.

The enemy will continue to be able to do things like deligitimize us in the media because we fail to see that in the age of the Internet, you don’t have to be a Nation to have a voice. He who effectively uses the web wins the IO war.

After all, in order to win, you either kill everyone not on your side, or get everyone to join your side. To do that requires all the forces available in a whole-of-government approach. Combat Ops, Rebuilding of infrastructure, education of the populace… all have their place in winning conflict; in winning “legitimacy and approval from the relevant population.”

But we must first stop looking for the war we know and want, and start looking at the war we have been given.

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