Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part I.)

This post is the first in a series that is not intended for those bloggers or readers who already follow military affairs closely; for them it contains nothing new. Nor is this intended to be an exhaustive investigation of any specific military theory. Instead, it is written for those who would like to know more about buzzwords like ” Core-Gap”, “4GW”, “Open-Source Warfare” and “COIN” that have begun seeping into the MSM and the mainstream blogosphere and who would enjoy a set of links for further investigation.


After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Pentagon found itself deprived of it’s main adversary, the Red Army, that the American military had been lavishly equipped and superbly trained to confront, along with our NATO allies, on the North German plain. That awesome high-tech, American military power ended up being unleashed not upon the Russians but on the Soviet equipped and formidably large and well trained armies of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first Gulf War, which were crushed in approximately 100 hours, recorded in images that were televised around the world on CNN. While this outcome had been foreshadowed by the infamous aerial duel over the skies of Lebanon where the Israelis shot down 72 Syrian MiG fighters, the lopsided nature of the outcome forced a strategic reassessment by general staffs of every major military power, guerrilla army and terrorist group that someday might be on the business end of America’s big stick.

Many theorists, statesmen strategists,historians retired military officers and think tank intellectuals have tried, both before Gulf War I. and afterward, to grapple with the implications that asymmetry, information technology, American hegemony and globalization have had on the classical conceptions of war. Clausewitz and Sun tzu were now in the age of the internet and non-state actors. What did all of this mean ? There are many intriguing suggestions but few hard answers; some members of the military community, notably the writer Ralph Peters, are of a temperament that Walter Russell Meade would call “Jacksonian”, reject the new theorizing entirely and implicitly embrace total war as the answer to our strategic problems in the War on Terror. Others are wholesale advocates for a particular theory as the vision of the future of warfare in the twenty-first century. I have my own opinions but in this series, I will try to present each facet of emerging military thinking as objectively as possible.


“COIN” is military jargon for “counterinsurgency warfare”, which in our grandfather’s time was generally referred to as “Small Wars” – a situation where a conventional army faced an irregular, often weaker, opponent who generally could not be expected to adhere to the customary laws of war. Traditionally, in the American military, this task was the preserve of the U.S. Marine Corps which saw action as far afield as Beijing, Veracruz, the Philippines, Haiti and Tripoli. By contrast, the U.S. Army has disdained both the role of suppressing insurgencies and the special or elite units required to wage unconventional warfare. Political pressure from the White House was required for the Army to create and tolerate Airborne troops (WWII), the Green Berets (Vietnam) and the Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

COIN is ” hot” in the MSM because of the ” surge” strategy being implemented in Iraq by General Petraeus and his brain trust advisors that include the noted COIN experts and authors, LTC. David Kilcullen and LTC John Nagl but its history goes back to ancient times. The primary objective of COIN is to neutralize the political legitimacy and appeal of guerrilla forces and isolate them from their target, the civilian population – hence the Vietnam War era phrase, ” hearts and minds”. Firepower takes a definite backseat to proximity, cultural intelligence, propaganda, psychological warfare and engaging civilian networks politically and economically. Classic experts in COIN would include T.E. Lawrence, Colonel Edward Lansdale and Dr. Bernard Fall.

Recommended Reading and Links:

The Small Wars Journal and the companion SWJ Blog

The “Counterinsurgency is Hard” series at Arms and Influence

Twenty-Eight Articles:Fundamentals of Company Level Counterinsurgency” by David Kilcullen

Counterinsurgency: The French Experience” by Bernard Fall

Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John Nagl

The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot

Related Posts:
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part II.)
Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part III.)
O-5 and the Peter Principle

12 thoughts on “Cutting Edge Military Theory: A Primer (Part I.)”

  1. In true irony is the Army’s own act of ignoring its hundred year record of dealing with ‘insurgents’, tribalism, and nation building that it actively participated in for the first hundred years of the Republic. If it didn’t happen before 1939, it isn’t worth examining.

    If you read Robert Utley’s Frontier Regulars, you get a sense of deja vu.

  2. Hi Don,

    Excellent point. Wish I had made it.

    The U.S. Army as an institution is highly resistant to change but when it does change, it jettisons all that it used to know. The modern Union Army was effectively disbanded after the Civil War/early Reconstruction period; knowledge of fighting the Indian Wars died with the personnel/promotion reforms of the 1890’s; the 2GW, spit and polish, barracks square, culture that produced Pershing was partly ( but not entirely) changed by Marshall’s Ft. Benning revolution and mass conscription; COIN was discovered the hard way in Vietnam but the lessons learned were systematically purged from Army doctrine with the conversion to the professional, All-Volunteer Force under Nixon. The Army is now relearning those bitter lessons in Iraq.

  3. I think all sectors of the Federal Government forgot history (as well as the rest of the West). No one had anticipated the return of Islamic Jihad at a global strategic level, as it began to bubble to the surface in the 70s and 80s. There’s still a question if enough of the Federal giant slug finally recognizes it. It seems clear to me the Democrats insist on closing their eyes to all proof. It’s dismaying.

  4. IMHO I think Zenpundit and Don are putting too much blame on the Army; keep in mind the military was only “in charge” of the whole reconstruction effort (instead of merely doing most of the work) for a couple months, before Gen. Garner was relieved and Bremer brought in. The State Dept. reportedly threw out a lot of the planning the military did for the occupation, and ever since then people have been running around making the argument that the military didn’t plan for the occupation.

    Do I think the military made mistakes? Yes. But I don’t think they count for even a plurality of the mistakes made.

    (Just an example off the top of my head: we seem to have encouraged Iraq towards the sort of parlaimentary system where the power of fringe parties and candidates, like Moqtada al Sadr, are greatly exaggerated with respect to the amount of actual votes they get.)

  5. Does anyone see the recent congressional actions of the democrats as an effort to “neutralize the political legitimacy and appeal of [US] forces and isolate them from their target?” It would appear the democrats are using COIN against the US. Cut off money? Cut off support? Impose deadlines for disengagement? This sounds a bit harsh, but if we accept the description of COIN, then that’s what’s happening.

  6. Mark, this is terrific. I eagerly await further installments. The links are a treasure trove.

    I would also mention, for an insider’s view of the French experience, Roger Trinquier,
    Modern Warfare, from 1962. The brief introductory chapter could have been written yesterday, about us. Trinquier also justified the use of torture. A troubling question, still very much alive. I tend to agree with the implicit message of Gilo Pontecorvo, Marxist though he was, in his film the Battle for Algiers. A “victory” won at such cost destroys the moral basis of the victor’s whole effort, and undermines the value of that victory to the point that it evaporates in the victor’s hands. Boyd would, I think, have understood that tolerating a defeat on the material plane which imposes on the enemy a defeat on the moral plane is a step toward ultimate victory, no matter how it may initially appear.

  7. Thank you much. You are, BTW, 100 % correct, Lex.

    4GW theory, which draws heavily upon Colonel John Boyd’s ideas, emphasizes ” the moral level” of warfare as the most significant variable ( within rational limitations, of course) in strategic calculations.

  8. I’m glad to see that you mentioned TE Lawrence. Chapter 33 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence’s account of the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule in 1917-18) is a brilliant exposition of the art of guerilla warfare.

  9. Hi Strategist,

    Thank you! What I’ve found most hard here is restraining myself from including everything but the kitchen sink as people like TE Lawrence are worth a post in their own right. Hopefully, newcomers to the subject will use these posts as a springboard to their own reading.

    PS- added you to my blogroll at Zenpundit

  10. This is a great intro to one of the more important subjects of our time. But it is incomplete in the sense of showing only one side of the story about COIN.

    Counter-insurgency theory is a response to the development of an effective method of insurgency. Modern maneuver warfare has its roots in the Bronze Age development of chariots – but matured with the development of the internal combustion engine and Blitzkrieg. Insurgency goes back to Israel’s successful rebellion against the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty – and earlier – but the modern era of insurgency catches fire with Mao’s development of guerrilla warfare. It’s a bright line in history, marking the beginning of the end of a style of war going back to the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648. The end of our way of war. The end of western nations’ military superiority.

    We are at the point like that of the French as the began the final phase of the Hundred Years War. They had suffered three shattering defeats from the English, although their armies had everything. Their Knights, trained from childhood, lavishly equipped with the highest technology in armor and weapons, superior mobility with their expensive horses — even superior numbers. Yet a collection of English knights, farmers, and merchants defeated them. Only when they changed how they thought about war were they able to win.

    Martin van Creveld says it best, as usual. Here are some quotes from his latest book, The Changing Face of War (which I recommend in the strongest way to anyone interested in military affairs).

    “As of the opening years of the 21st century, the mightiest, richest, best-equipped, best-trained armed forces that ever existed are in full decline and are, indeed, looking into an abyss. Examples of their failures abound.” {Introduction}

    “…Against this kind of threat, either tanks, nor warships, nor aircraft, nor the giant “eye in the sky” the Pentagon was planning to enable the last marine private in his or her foxhole to participate in “network-centric” warfare,” or other esoteric forms of warfare its experts kept dreaming up, are of any use at all.” {page 258}

    “…What can hardly be in dispute, though, is the fact that, from 1945 on, almost all attempts to deal with insurgencies have ended in failure. … as of the late 1990s, there were growing signs that … guerrilla warfare and terrorism, becoming international, were turning into an export commodity.” {page 268}

    That’s why the development of effective counterinsurgency methods is important, perhaps vital, for America.

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