One grave risk lurks within the upcoming pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, otherwise an altogether wholesome development. Namely, the armed services may—either through neglect or conscious choice—forget hard-won lessons learned from the past two decades of counterinsurgent combat. Never again is a recurrent but underappreciated reflex in human affairs, including the martial strain thereof. Individuals or an institution—which is nothing more than a group of individuals—may resolve never again to undertake enterprises resembling those that proved painful or inglorious in the past.
In that sense our contemporary era feels like the late 1970s, when no more Vietnams rang out from sea to shining sea—especially in the armed forces, the ground services in particular. After all, it was U.S. Army and Marine Corps troopers who bore the brunt of frustrating close combat against Vietcong insurgents and their North Vietnamese patrons. (U.S. Air Force and Navy aviators belong to this honorable company as well, as do the crews of Navy and Coast Guard brown-water units.) Counterinsurgent warfare fell into disrepute in the services along with all things Vietnam, and service magnates more or less deliberately forgot about this mode of warfare in favor of girding for great-power strategic competition with the Soviet Union. They wanted to get back to missions at which they excelled.
That forgetfulness is why we heard so much about the “new” and “brilliant” counterinsurgent strategy set forth in the army’s Field Manual 3-24 some years back, in the context of stubborn insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The irregular-warfare ideas General David Petraeus & Co. codified in doctrine may have been brilliant, and indeed FM 3-24 is a solid document. But the ideas were hardly new. In fact, their lineage arguably stretches back to the army’s frontier wars of the nineteenth century. It certainly reaches back to the Philippine War and the Caribbean “banana wars” that came after the Spanish-American War (1898).
If the 1970s rhymes with today in disconcerting ways, the years between the world wars rhyme even more clearly. During that turbulent age U.S. maritime forces waged “small wars” while at the same time experimenting with new methods and hardware for conventional warfare. Sound familiar? But rather than forget old challenges while pivoting to new, the U.S. Marine Corps assembled a group of small-wars veterans to record the lessons they had learned from small wars. Their labor culminated in the Small Wars Manual, a doctrinal treatise that appeared in 1935 and then in final form in 1940. People like to jest that the Marine Corps is filled with knuckle-draggers who write with (or maybe even ingest) crayons. The interwar decades belie marines’ anti-intellectual reputation.
The Small Wars Manual had its origins in the schoolhouse, at the Field Officers School at Quantico, Virginia. Its authors emphasized how small wars departed from the pattern typical of conventional warfare and demanded different strategies. Force was a last resort in conventional conflicts. In small wars, by contrast, the United States deployed force early and often but with restraint. Washington, say the writers, intervened in a foreign state’s internal affairs “to sustain governmental authority, to obtain redress, or to enforce the fulfillment of obligations between the two states.” U.S. political leaders maintained tight control of operations even after authorizing the use of violence. Field commanders had to shape strategy and even tactics around political constraints. As the manual puts it, marines were known as “State Department Troops.”
A light touch was essential. Marine commanders had to address the nonmilitary causes of insurgencies and avoid embittering the local population against the United States. Guerrilla fighters could be expected to “disregard, in part or entirely, International Law and the Rules of Land Warfare in their conduct of hostilities.” U.S. military commanders could not follow suit lest they alienate the populace. Heavy-handed tactics could undercut political support from the American electorate, while diplomatic fallout could damage U.S. diplomatic and economic relations abroad.
It was necessary to be firm in small wars, even ruthless on occasion. At the same time, marines had to be tolerant and sympathetic in their treatment of ordinary people while knowing local customs and culture. Above all, declared the Small Wars Manual, nothing “should be said or done which implies inferiority of the status or of the sovereignty of the native people. They should never be treated as a conquered people.” Only by mild treatment could American forces instill respect for law and order, justify U.S. military intervention to civilians inclined to doubt the United States’ goodwill, and counter insurgent propaganda.
The manual espied five phases to a naval constabulary deployment. First, owing to tempestuous political conditions in beleaguered countries, marines would deploy by increments rather than storm ashore. They would “dribble in” without a declaration of war from Congress that might stoke local fury against the United States. The on-scene commander might not have clear orders. Small wars were “conceived in uncertainty” and “conducted often with precarious responsibility, under indeterminate orders lacking specific instructions.” Above all, marines were to secure U.S. objectives with “as little military display as possible with a view toward gaining the lasting friendship of the inhabitants . . . .” Marines thus confronted a daunting challenge: to refrain from military intimidation and respect local customs while stamping out bands of guerrillas and restoring republican self-rule.
Marines first had to emplace defensive strongholds in the country. During an expedition’s initial phase a “vanguard” composed of marines or mixed units of sailors and marines would land at key points such as seaports and the capital. The vanguard would prepare the way for the offensive phase of field operations. The landing force would occupy a coastal area and then move inland, occupying principal cities and economically vital areas and stationing garrisons in fortified outposts. From there combat patrols would range across the countryside “in all directions” to engage guerrilla units. An initial conventional battle with the enemy force was probable, after which the defeated enemy would probably dissolve into armed bands of guerrillas.
Marine commanders would then dispatch lightly armed patrols capable of swift movement. The counterinsurgent phase, noted the Small Wars Manual, was “the most arduous of all operations,” since it required marines “to combat the [guerrilla] at his own game on his own ground.” Counterinsurgent warfare was also a slow grind, not something that would deliver quick, decisive victory. It allowed insurgents to protract the war in an effort to sap American willpower. The manual’s framers acknowledged that the insurgents would blend in with the local population, both for concealment and in hopes of provoking American atrocities that would rally the populace to the insurgents’ banner. The authors frankly conceded that counterinsurgent operations would alienate the natives to some degree. This verged on inescapable. They nonetheless warned that reprisals and other drastic actions would “create sympathy for the revolutionists . . . destroy lives and property of innocent people, and . . . have adverse effect on the discipline of our own troops.”
In the meantime, second, the U.S. expeditionary force would institute a local constabulary that would ultimately assume responsibility for internal and external defense while shouldering police duty and civil responsibilities. Restoring control to the indigenous government would allow the U.S. Marine and Navy vanguard to withdraw. The manual instructed marine commanders to respect local traditions and mores. To the maximum extent possible, furthermore, they should avoid discharging “police and other civil functions” best left to sovereign governments. U.S. military forces “usually constitute a reserve which is to be made available only in extreme emergencies to assist the native constabulary in the performance of its purely police mission.”
In other words, U.S. forces’ mission “usually involves the training of native officers and men in the art of war, assisting in offensive operations against organized banditry and in such defensive measures . . . as are essential to the protection of lives and property.” Since civil police functions were usually “vested in the native military forces of the country,” indigenous soldiers had to both combat insurrection and carry out “a police task involving, in general, the enforcement of the civil and criminal laws.” Among these enforcement activities were controlling the flow of arms and ammunition, monitoring compliance with “police, traffic, and sanitary regulations,” administering prisons, and performing “numerous other duties that, by their nature, may obviously, directly or indirectly, play an important part in the accomplishment of the military mission.”
Now, American officers and enlisted men could be temporarily assigned to influential posts in the local constabulary. Adherence “on the part of our personnel, to the dictates of the local laws and regulations, and a thorough knowledge of the scope of authority vested in the native police force” were crucial to enforcing the law while maintaining “the respect and confidence of the community as a whole.” The Small Wars Manual professed hope that marines steeped in local laws and traditions could court cordial relations with the judiciary, which would remain largely under local control.
Led by U.S. officers, the native constabulary would also be assigned tasks such as flood and earthquake relief. Marines believed joint endeavors would help them to win the trust and friendship of the citizenry. Additionally, constabulary troops would accompany marines on combat patrols so that “the constabulary, as well as the native population,” would “feel that the local situation [was] being handled by their own government agency and not a foreign power.” By reducing the impression that the country was being subjugated by an alien nation, the manual’s architects hoped to enlist the support of the inhabitants, or at least to mute their discontent with U.S. policy.
Third, U.S. forces would assume control of the indigenous government’s executive agencies while leaving the judicial and legislative powers in local hands. Depending on how the combat forces fared, this could involve “the establishment of military government or martial law in varying degree from minor authority to complete control of the principal agencies.” Further U.S. reinforcements would arrive in the meantime, allowing marines to “carry the burden of most of the patrolling.” Marines would shift responsibility for combat patrols to local troops as they were recruited and trained. The third phase would continue until the insurgents, or “lawless elements,” were subdued. At that stage the expeditionary force would gradually surrender command of the constabulary to local officers and control of government executive organs to local officials. American troops, meanwhile, would withdraw to large outposts where they would provide a reserve force, largely out of sight but on call if hostilities flared again.
Fourth, during the phase dubbed “routine police operations,” the occupying force would prepare to hold “free and fair” elections. The manual exhorted U.S. commanders to refrain from taking on “any judicial responsibilities over local inhabitants” beyond those “expressly provided by proper authority.” Any judicial powers wielded by U.S. military officials must be clearly spelled out in “orders from superior authority” to avoid conveying the impression that America was a conqueror—and not a benefactor—of the afflicted nation. How intimately the U.S. force involved itself in judicial functions varied from operation to operation depending on the extent of disarray in the local government.
The goal was to preserve the appearance of American commitment to the rule of law and nourish respect for law and order among the populace. Accordingly, the Small Wars Manual set forth precise instructions for conducting and supervising elections. A national board of elections staffed mainly by locals would nominally direct the electoral machinery while an American electoral mission exercised real control of the process. Military forces would take station to prevent armed revolutionaries or anyone else from disrupting the balloting process and thus thwarting lawful elections. And fifth, the local government would resume full control of the country’s affairs while the U.S. expeditionary force withdrew from the interior and eventually departed the country altogether.
By no means is the Small Wars Manual a perfect document. For example, its authors instructed U.S. commanders to remain nonpartisan even while intervening on behalf of the party in power. They likewise admonished commanders to recruit the local constabulary on the recommendations of eminent local officials—despite these officials’ partisan leanings and the likelihood that their actions had fanned the flames of insurgency in the first place. Such ambiguities taint this digest of lessons learned from counterinsurgent warfare.
All the more reason for the U.S. armed forces to convene a new U.S. Marine and Army study group to analyze counterinsurgent operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other embattled theaters and commit their findings to paper. Let’s compile a Small Wars Manual for the twenty-first century—and avoid having to improvise a brilliant new strategy from scratch the next time America embroils itself in another country’s internal affairs. Enough with the self-imposed amnesia.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Contributing Editor for 19FortyFive. The views voiced here are his alone.