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Why the U.S. Loses ‘Small Wars’

If history is any gauge, the US will lose the current conflict in Iraq. Since the end of World War II, major US use of force against substantially weaker enemies – Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, for example – have ended poorly. The last remaining superpower is not alone in this phenomenon of strong armies losing to lesser foes: the American colonists beat the British, the Vietnamese forced France to leave Indochina and Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen drove  the Soviets from their country.

Why do powerful armies lose against decidedly weaker enemies, and what does it say about the US involvement in Iraq?

The answer lies in the study  of “small wars.” At its simplest, a small war is one in which the relationship between the combatants is decidedly unbalanced.  One side is not only militarily superior in size but its weapons are state of the art. Some call this Asymmetric Warfare or Fourth Generation Warfare, or the more familiar guerrilla warfare, from the Spanish for ‘small war.’

While the larger force relies on high-tech weaponry and sophisticated air power, contemporary small forces use simple, durable and easy-to-use and obtain weapons,  mainly the venerable AK-47 rifle backed up by Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Despite reports of dramatic explosions, the ubiquitous and cheap AK-47 still kills more people in Iraq than any other weapon.

While trying to understand how to win in Iraq, US military scholars are turning to the classics, and one of the hottest books making the rounds is, surprisingly, over a century old.  Small Wars was written in 1896 by C.E. Callwell, a colonel in the British army,  for British officers posted to Africa and India. It  draws on his own experience in the Second Afghan and Boer Wars and claims that a powerful force can easily lose, if it doesn’t fully understand the enemy, fails to describe clear objectives or, worst of all, pursues military objectives that do not contribute to the conflict's political goal.

He  notes that the primary object in a small war is to force insurgents to fight on the regular force’s terms by drawing them into conflicts in which their superior firepower and discipline could prevail. Unfortunately, the history of small wars has shown that insurgents play hit and run – striking boldy and then retreating quickly, and rarely engaging the larger force head on.

The other, and much bigger obstacle to winning small wars, brings a moral dilemma.  According to Callwell, to win small wars, mere victory isn’t enough, the enemy must be thoroughly and utterly destroyed to the last man, woman, and child – which means enormous civilian casualties. For citizens of most modern democracies,  this is an unacceptable stance. The level of violence and barbarism it would take to beat an insurgent force -- torture, wholesale executions, leveling of towns -- is a place where most democracies refuse to go.  This keeps victory out of reach.

Small wars are also lost because of  the larger army’s lack of national commitment which ends in inadequate or misspent  funds and deployment of too few troops. For insurgents fighting for their own soil, the commitment is 100 percent. If they lose the war they lose everything. Without ‘skin in the game’ national commitment by the larger force’s country usually wanes.

If Callwell got military scholars to think more clearly about small wars, a group of Marine Corps officers in the 1930s took it to the next level with production of the Small Wars Manual based on US experiences in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. While building on Callwell’s work, this landmark book published in 1940, points to what some say is one of the most important aspects of winning small wars  - understanding the role of indigenous religion, ideology and tribal relationships. The manual not only talks about the military aspects of winning small wars – and yes, they can be brutal - but of more importance is a deep understanding of a society’s language, culture, religion, history, economic structures and mores. The manual is a hot seller from a much-clicked website, The Small Wars Center of Excellence, run by the Marine Corps, which advocates the use of simpler weapons and more complex soldiers in small wars – the opposite of current conventional wisdom. This is not the only take-away message from the manual, but it is a vital one.

Unfortunately the Department of Defense’s upper echelon are heading in the wrong direction. The proposed $200 billion Future Combat Systems is a mélange of expensive and complex high tech weapons that will be less effective in winning future small wars than thousands more soldiers with language skills, armed with durable rifles, who understand history, foreign culture, religion local customs and guerilla warfare.

The soldiers in Iraq understand this. Now it’s time for Pentagon planners to read and heed the classics. It’s not too late to win the ‘small war’ in Iraq, but the lessons of history must not be ignored.