An American Ulcer?

Should the U.S. take a leaf from an old playbook and consider trying war by contingent in East Asia?

In Rhode Island we’re used to consorting with renowned historical figures. Gen. Nathanael Greene, the self-made soldier who fought Lord Cornwallis to a standstill in the Carolinas during the War of American Independence, hailed from nearby Coventry. George Washington wrote his famous letter on religious toleration to the congregation of Newport’s Touro Synagogue. A Newport native, Commodore Matthew Perry, opened Japan to foreign trade and commerce in the 1850s. In summertime, the “Four Hundred” – the Vanderbilts, Astors, and other glitterati who comprised the “1 percent” of America’s Gilded Age – took their ease in sprawling “cottages” overlooking the Narragansett Bay.

The French connection is less visible but no less real. Another celebrated figure – Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, a.k.a. the marquis de Lafayette – occupies his own place in Rhode Island lore. Lafayette made his headquarters in Bristol in 1778, soon after France and the American colonies made common cause against Great Britain, inking a treaty to that effect. I pass by his pumpkin-coloured saltbox house every day while driving to and from work. Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the comte de Rochambeau, brought an army to Newport in 1780 before marching south with Washington to besiege Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown, Virginia. Victory at Yorktown broke the back of the British war effort.

Although the term hadn’t been invented yet, Rochambeau and Lafayette came to North America to wage what Carl von Clausewitz and his maritime counterpart, Sir Julian Corbett, called a “war by contingent.” That is, France dispatched a modest-sized detachment to make trouble for its main antagonist in a larger struggle spanning several parts of the globe. French entry into the war expanded the conflict on the map to encompass faraway theatres such as the Caribbean Sea, whose rich sugar crops made it the Persian Gulf of the 18th century; the Indian Ocean, where strategic seaports and islands were up for grabs and mastery of the subcontinent remained in doubt; and the English Channel, where the decline of its Royal Navy left Britain at a disadvantage even near its own shores.

Waged deftly, war by contingent yields gains out of all proportion to the resources expended and the costs and risks incurred. Probably the most successful such deployment in modern warfare – and the intellectual point of departure for Clausewitz and Corbett – was, ironically, a British campaign against France. It offered a way for seafaring Britain to bedevil land power Napoleonic France in continental Europe. The emperor had placed elder brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne in Spain, provoking partisan resistance. Sir Arthur Wellesley – later Lord Wellington – commanded a modest army that landed on the Iberian Peninsula to support partisan forces, much as Lafayette and Rochambeau had intervened in North America. So effective was Wellington’s land-sea campaign that Napoleon dubbed it his “Spanish ulcer.”

As American leaders ponder strategy for increasingly contested waters and skies in East Asia, they might conjure up the lessons of Lafayette, Rochambeau, and Wellington. In an age of declining resources and a rising China, it behoves U.S. commanders to think ahead about waging war by contingent in Japan, Taiwan, or some other regional hotspot. If the U.S. political leadership displays the resolve to initiate low-cost, high-payoff operations – and if the U.S. military displays the capacity to execute them – Washington can threaten Beijing with an ulcer all its own. China would think twice before making mischief along the Asian seaboard.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and the co-author of 'Red Star over the Pacific,' just out in German translation through E. S. Mittler & Sohn. The views voiced here are his alone.