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Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt?

Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt? - Cover

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray.

March 2006

71 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author offers a detailed comparison between the character of irregular warfare, insurgency in particular, and the principal enduring features of "the American way." He concludes that there is a serious mismatch between that "way" and the kind of behavior that is most effective in countering irregular foes. The author poses the question, Can the American way of war adapt to a strategic threat context dominated by irregular enemies? He suggests that the answer is "perhaps, but only with difficulty."


Can the traditional American way of war adapt so as to be effective against irregular enemies? An endeavor to answer that question shapes and drives this inquiry. In order to address the question constructively, the author is obliged to explore and explain the nature and relations among three elements fundamental to our problem. Those elements are strategy, irregular enemies, and the American way of war. Carl von Clausewitz offered his theory of war in terms of a “remarkable trinity composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity . . . the play of chance and probability . . . and subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” He defined his task as a need “to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.” The theoretical analogy may be imperfect, but still it is useful. Just as Clausewitz sought to explain war, and wars, as the product of inherently unstable relations among passion, chance, and reason, so this monograph has at its core the unstable interactions among irregular enemies, strategy, and the American way of war. Unlike Clausewitz, however, our purpose is not to develop or improve on general theory. Instead, the intention is to confront and try to answer the very specific question with which this summary began. To that end, strategic theory is deployed here pragmatically, as an aid to soldiers and officials who face challenges of a most pressing and serious character.

This inquiry defines and explains the essence of strategy. Next, it identifies what is distinctive about irregular enemies and the kinds of warfare they wage. Then the analysis proceeds to outline the fairly long-enduring traditional American way of war, and considers critically the fit between the many separate elements of that “way” and the requirements of sound practice in the conduct of warfare against irregulars. It concludes with a three-point argument which binds together the otherwise somewhat disparate topics and material.

The purpose of this monograph, beyond the commitment to offer some useful education, includes a desire to help explain better to the defense community both what it ought to know already, and—most especially—how the separate pieces of the trinitarian puzzle relate to each other. Much, probably most, of the content of the monograph is already familiar to many people, but it is not really familiar enough. Everyone interested in security affairs, surely, believes he/she understands strategy, irregular warfare, and the American way in war, but just how well are these elements comprehended, and are the consequences of their unstable interaction grasped securely? We think not. The monograph should make it difficult, not impossible, of course, for its readers to remain confused about the basics. These pages lay out in explicit detail the nature of strategy, irregular warfare, and—last, but not least—the long-preferred American way. But what does it all mean?

Both explicitly and implicitly, the monograph asks questions of the American defense community at all levels of behavior: strategic, operational, and tactical. The three conclusions explain the essential unity of the consequences of performance at these levels. We find that:

1. War is war and strategy is strategy. Strategically approached, there is only war and warfare. It does not matter whether a conflict is largely of a regular or an irregular character; Clausewitz’s general theory of war and strategy applies equally to both. The threat or use of force is instrumental for political purposes. The kinds of warfare are of no relevance whatever to the authority of the general theory of strategy. In short, irregular warfare, waged by a range of irregular enemies, is governed by exactly the same lore as is regular warfare, viewed strategically.
2. The United States has a persisting strategy deficit. Americans are very competent at fighting, but they are much less successful in fighting in such a way that they secure the strategic and, hence, political, rewards they seek. The United States continues to have difficulty regarding war and politics as a unity, with war needing to be permeated by political considerations.
3. American public, strategic, and military culture is not friendly to the means and methods necessary for the waging of warfare against irregular enemies. The traditional American way of war was developed to defeat regular enemies. It reflects many of the strengths of American society and culture. Alas, one military style does not suit all kinds of warfare equally well. The fit between the traditional “American way,” and the requirements of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, for example, falls far short of perfect. The pertinent question, therefore, is “Can that traditional way of war adapt so as to be effective against irregular enemies?” The answer of this monograph is “perhaps, but only with difficulty.” The analysis and arguments presented here should help reduce the difficulty.

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