James Holmes

The Insurgents’ Head Game

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James Holmes

The Insurgents’ Head Game

Weak actors prevail in conflict by convincing the strong of what they can’t do-namely, win.

U.S. Army major general H. R. McMaster ran an op-ed over at the New York Times yesterday that will warm the heart of any war-college professor or graduate. Its basic theme boils down to the wisdom of strategic guru Han Solo: don't get cocky, kid. Hubris kills when grappling with determined adversaries, no matter how great the physical mismatch between the warring sides. And you know what follows hubris: vengeance dispensed by the gods, Fate, or whatever your favorite higher power might be. If you don't believe the great Han, crack open a Greek tragedy at random and be enlightened.

The weak, in short, can make things tough on the strong. They sometimes win if, pace Clausewitz, they convince the strong they can't win, or can't win at acceptable cost.

General McMaster, a University of North Carolina Ph.D. and the author of the well-regarded Vietnam study Dereliction of Duty, alleges that the U.S. military learned false lessons from the 1990-1991 Gulf War, namely that high technology delivers speedy, painless victories. By the end of the decade, senior officers and commentators were claiming that new sensors, networks, and associated technology would lift the fog of war, granting American commanders a near-perfect picture of the battlespace and letting them put precision ordnance on target quickly, discriminately, and to deadly strategic effect. If messy, frustrating warfare was the question, high tech was the answer.

Claptrap. McMaster invokes Clausewitz and Thucydides (aren't those guys dreamy?), reminding the powers-that-be that war is a political enterprise, that the enemy is as ingenious and ornery as we are, and that uncertainty is the rule in times of strife. He also faults the nation and its military for forgetfulness. Bygone generations learned these lessons, yet posterity largely neglected them.

Look no further than one of my favorite works of strategic theory, the U.S. Marines' Small Wars Manual. Published in 1935, and again in 1940, the manual adds a bit more texture to McMaster's account of things. Where he seems to despair of technology altogether, the Marine officers — most of them veterans of the Philippine War and the banana wars, "small wars" in the parlance of the day — discerned a pattern that persists to this day. When U.S. political leaders dispatched expeditionary forces to take down a lesser opponent — Aguinaldo's ragtag army, or some Caribbean potentate, or what have you — materal superiority did grant America an initial battlefield victory. It supplied an invaluable advantage so long as the enemy fought on conventional ground using conventional methods.

Sound familiar from Desert Storm, or Enduring Freedom, or Iraqi Freedom? It should. But what came next was hard, and bloody, and messy. Once American arms shatter an enemy force, declares the Small Wars Manual, the remnants of that force disperse to carry on the fight. U.S. forces find themselves embroiled in patrolling, executing ambushes, and constructing civilian infrastructure and institutions — in counterinsurgent warfare, as we call it today. This is terrain where savvy antagonists can nullify U.S. material superiority, in whole or in part, and deliberately lower the fog of war.

And on foggy ground, the weak stand at least some chance of convincing the strong that an endeavor isn't worth it. Americans might ultimately throw up their hands and walk away. War is a head game. Let's not get cocky about future conflicts — or assume that advanced technology is a fudge factor that lets us bypass stubborn realities.

That is all.