View Full Version : Colin Gray's New Article in SSQ

Gian P Gentile
12-13-2007, 12:58 PM
I just read Colin Gray’s exceptionally fine article in the recent issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly titled Irregular Warfare: One Nature, Many Characters. (http://www.maxwell.af.mil/au/ssq/2007/Winter/gray.pdf) I highly recommend it to SWC members. It is elegantly written and easy to understand; its brilliance is that it can be read on many different levels from the simple to the complex. Now I know why Steve Metz was “giddy” when he found out Professor Gray would be writing the introduction to his new book.

Here are a few quotes taken directly from the article with some comments by me underneath. I make these comments with humility and deference to Professor Gray’s fine piece. The point here is to wet your beak a bit to give you a quick sense of his article (with some comments from me added) and then to get you to read the entire piece.

The art of war, as generally understood, must be modified to suit the circumstances of each particular case. The conduct of small wars is in certain respects an art by itself, diverging widely from what is adapted to the conditions of regular warfare, but not so widely that there are not in all its branches points which permit comparison to be established.
—Charles E. Callwell, 1906 Small Wars: A Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers

Great lead in quote to the article; thankfully and rightfully Gray starts off with Callwell and not Galula, and mercifully not the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual.

We think we can improve our understanding of a subject as diffuse and richly varied as irregular warfare and insurgency by hunting for the most precise definition and subdefinitions… But always remember that conceptual sophistication can be overdone. Of course, there is much more to war than warfare, but warfare is warfare, and the most core competency of soldiers is skill in inflicting pain, killing people, and breaking things. Also, just as we need to see irregular warfare in the context of COIN, or vice versa for my preference, so in addition we cannot permit ourselves to forget that insurgency is warfare.

Hence we don’t need terms like “armed politics” or “armed social science” to help us understand Coin which at its essence is still war with its basic elements of fighting, death, and destruction.

No matter, when COIN—or whatever is the challenge of the hour—is king, whatever is to hand is rushed to the front to serve. Every piece of fashionable jargon, every execrable acronym, every dodgy idea is hijacked for the bandwagon. The bandwagon now is COIN.

I would add that Coin is more than a “Bandwagon” but a steamroller that dominates the operational thinking of the American Army.

Irregular warfare does not have a distinctive nature. Warfare is warfare, and war is war, period. But it does have an often sharply distinctive character.

This is the sine quo non of Gray’s article and of Counterinsurgency war. When we call Coin something else, like “armed politics,” then we alter its fundamental nature and turn it into something that it is not.

There is no need for us to devote attention to the nature of war; that vital task has been performed more than adequately by Carl von Clausewitz. And since all war has the same nature, it matters not whether it is regular or irregular.

Rightly so Gray relies on Clausewitz for theoretical discussions on the nature of war and not, thankfully, on Galula. Why again did FM 3-24 leave Clausewitz off of the classics reading list?

…COIN was always much more likely to be successful in the Philippines, Malaya, and El Salvador than in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Not all tasks are doable, even to a gifted strategist. Iraq today bears all the hallmarks of mission improbable…Even a sound, well-tested COIN doctrine, to be implemented by a suitably coordinated civil-military effort, may stand no reasonable chance of succeeding.

Gray here points out the limits of what military force can accomplish and offers an implicit warning to a hyper-reliance on lessons-learned that are applied dogmatically to current operational problems.

Second, as problem solvers our officials and soldiers are always in the market for solutions to the question of the day…If you recall, Antoine Henri de Jomini, the Swiss theorist, promised victory to those who applied the correct doctrine...The idea has taken root that the solution to our irregular warfare nightmares is adoption of the right COIN doctrine. This is a half-truth at best. In historical practice, each case is so unique that although there are some valid principles which should govern irregular warfare, there can be no reliable template for all contexts.

Highlights the point that I have made in previous postings that the American Army’s domination by Coin doctrine has seduced us into thinking that we can win any counterinsurgency with correctly trained units using good Coin doctrine.

It follows from these concluding thoughts, and from the argument in much of this paper, that the United States should undertake little irregular warfare. It would be a political and strategic mistake to identify irregular warfare, COIN especially, as America’s dominant strategic future. If the country should make the mistake of committing itself to extensive COIN projects, it will require a much larger army. Technology will not substitute anywhere near adequately for numbers of Americans on the ground.

I would add to his last sentence that neither would the best Coin doctrine applied superbly by competent units substitute for the essential element of mass, or boots on the ground. Recommend you read the entire article.


12-13-2007, 01:00 PM
I stopped reading after the first endnote.

Gian P Gentile
12-13-2007, 01:16 PM
I stopped reading after the first endnote.

Because you were the note?

12-13-2007, 01:17 PM
Because you were the note?

Yea. That took away all credibility

12-13-2007, 02:00 PM
It was a mistake to leave Ol' Carl out of the manual. He has a whole lot to say about wars that are not total or have a lesser objective. Such as "seizing a valuable province and seek a political solution." Which was my SBW (Slapout Based Warfare) theory from the start. If Iraq had WMD and didn't want to cooperate with inspections, then just send the Snatch Back Man over there and Repo his oil fields until he changes his mind. And while he is thinking about it we should have been collecting an "Oil fine" from him for his bad behavior. Criminals(rouge heads of state) are very simple people and they can be handled in very simple ways, it's when you start trying to make something complicated that you will get into trouble..that type of personality thrives on complexity because he can always find a way to manipulate it to his advantage. Criminals can not stand clarity of purpose.

Rob Thornton
12-13-2007, 08:29 PM
A thought provoking, and well written piece - I like DR. Gray's style, its almost conversational in how it invites mental interaction. I copied quite a few quotes out of it. I agree with most of what he said, but not all. There were quite a few observations in the article that really invite introspection on our part. I'll try not to duplicate any of the quotes already highlighted. Keep in mind, that these quotes are pulled out and to really discuss the article you should consider reading it, then thinking about it (maybe over a beer), then writing about it.

from Gray:

But it is not the American way to do things by halves. In Britain, we tend to use quarter measures when half measures are called for. In the United States, the error lies in the opposite direction.

This is what Ken White often refers to as the pendulum swinging too far when we try and compensate for our shortfalls. Another good analogy might be somebody hitting a patch of black ice while pulling a trailer - it could get ugly before you even realized it. I think its just who we are - it has allot to do with free speech and the nature of our political process (here I mean beyond those elected or trying to get elected, but to include those who take any kind of political action to make their point). There are some good things about it as well as bad I think, what matters is probably just knowing who you are and what you are prone to so that we identify over compensation for what it is. I don't think I've ever heard it summed up so well as Gray has.

from Gray:

When policy demands effectiveness in COIN, the government––the military in particular, naturally–– blows dust off its ancient manuals if it can find them; unearths “classic writings” by Charles E. Callwell, the US Marine Corps, David Galula, Robert Taber, Mao Tse-tung, Robert Trinquier, Frank Kitson, and T. E. Lawrence; and rediscovers what previous generations knew, even if they didn’t always practice it well

Of course, the contexts have changed, and every work of theory, founded on the experience of the life and times of its author, is stuffed full of inappropriate as well as much good advice. No matter, when COIN—or whatever is the challenge of the hour—is king, whatever is to hand is rushed to the front to serve. Every piece of fashionable jargon, every execrable acronym, every dodgy idea is hijacked for the bandwagon.

I think this idea is also worth thinking about. First, it means examining (thinking about) the context surrounding those COIN & IW thinkers' writings and the subjective nature of the wars they were writing about. I think it means questioning the causes for their successes, failures and observations - this might better help us to distinguish differences, recognize similarities and adapt those ideas/solutions which most closely resemble whatever conditions and problem sets are at hand. We have to avoid seeing every problem in the image of the template for the last good solution. I think this is a good lead in to Gray's next observation:

What I am suggesting, admittedly rather ungenerously, is that when we confront a truly difficult challenge, one that American cultural programming is not well prepared to meet, we look for the “silver bullet,” the big comprehensive solution. So today we learn, again, how to do COIN; we discover the virtues of cultural understanding; we rediscover that war and warfare is about politics; and we grasp the necessity for an integrated approach, otherwise long known as grand strategy. It would seem that in desperation we are liable to believe many extravagant promises. Why? Because we want to believe that there are solutions or, better still, that there is a single, dominant solution

I believe us to be generally predisposed to this, but that its most dangerous when it manifests itself in the policy maker - when they decide to employ military force to achieve a political objective, they tend to see it as a "silver bullet" - a one shot, fire and forget instrument of national power that is the final arbiter. What they don't see is as is the physics of pool balls on a table where the pockets keep moving around. A friend of mine currently working on an advanced degree in IR is taking a course where many of his peers are veteran DoS employees says that every time a difficult, time sensitive problem in their practical exercises comes up (they role play civ-mil members from JPGs to country teams to the NSC) - its the DoS folks reaching for the hammer - it happens predominately when those non-military folks are thrust out of their comfort zone and role play military or military appointee roles. To me this constitutes a fundamental lack of understanding about the consequences of using military force to achieve political solutions, and it also says something about how we view problems and conditions in other parts of the world. Consider our search for Arab/Israeli peace - maybe somethings can only be managed and not solved with finality - I don't know, but its worth thinking about.

From Gray:

To close this initial broadside on a slightly upbeat note, I will say that what matters most, indeed what should be adopted as a principle, is to “get the big things right enough because the small errors eventually can be fixed.” Rephrased, pursue the path of minimum regrets. May our mistakes be modest and correctable.

I like this as well, its in keeping that with our inability to predict the future. I'd also add that it fits well with why fighting a war is different then investing in the stock market. The more flexibility you have in terms of forces and material available, the more flexibility you have when things change for the worse, or when opportunity presents itself. The higher the probability that things will go wrong, the more flexibility you need.

from Gray:

Writing a century ago, Colonel Callwell of the British army employed the contemporary term of art, “small war.” He defined it thus: “Practically it may be said to include all campaigns other than those where both the opposing sides consist of regular troops.”16 In other words, a small war is waged between state and nonstate adversaries. The legal and political status of the belligerents defines the irregularity.

A territory may be locked in a condition of permanent war and peace. That is conceptually—as well as politically, legally, and socially—confusing to tidy-minded academics and drafters of doctrine manuals.
For me, at least, the attractions of the broad church of irregular warfare include its ability to welcome regulars behaving irregularly. I must confess to some unhappiness with definitions that err on the side of exclusivity. Probably it is sensible to decline to choose.

Maybe the clearest distinction I've heard on what makes a "small war". Given the experience of the British, I like it. I also like Gray's 2nd paragraph where he considers the limitations of doctrine and academic literature to articulate complex ideas into something that balances retaining its true character, while being distilled enough for everyone to digest in practical fashion. The last sentence is wise advice.

from Gray:

Always be alert to the malign workings of the law of unintended consequences. You might wish to marry that law to the maxim that “no good deed shall go unpunished.”

When the American defense community makes a great discovery, in this case the phenomenon of irregular warfare, it tends to overdiscovery.

You might intend to go forth and do good, but I agree with Gray that because of the complexity and interaction in war that for every action, the probability is high that there will be unintended consequences, many of which will share the property of non-linearity - the effects will be out of proportion to the action - could be good or bad, but some will undoubtedly be bad.

The second sentence is another great way to make Ken's point about being out of balance.

I'll continue here in minute. Rob

Rob Thornton
12-13-2007, 09:13 PM
Here I agree with some, disagree with some. I'll highlight what I don't agree, or where I might differ (or just think we should think about and qualify) with Gray and explain why.

from Gray:

At some risk of overstatement, I will hazard the proposition that almost everything that is regarded near universally as “best practice” in COIN contradicts the American way in warfare.

To excel in COIN an army needs to:

1. Understand that all military action is political theater. Irregular warfare does not, cannot, have a military outcome.

2. Appreciate that the conflict is for the acquiescence or support of the people. Dead insurgents are a bonus; they are not a reliable mark of success.

3. Be prepared to tear up its doctrine manuals for regular warfare. Its first job is to protect the people.

4. Adopt different priorities among its skills. Being highly agile in maneuver and lethal in firepower are not especially helpful. Can it be that our military transformation was, or is, heading in a direction irrelevant, or actually harmful, for effectiveness in COIN?

5. Accept that COIN requires a long-term commitment, typically 10 years. Also, it requires security forces in large numbers. Historical analysis seems to show that one needs roughly 20 members of the security forces for every 1,000 people in the general population.26 Tactical skill and technology are not very relevant. They are nice to have, but the basis of success is numbers in the right ratio.

If your armed forces are shaped by and wedded to a military culture of rapid maneuver for decisive victory, if they seek to exploit firepower as the longest of friendly long suits, and if they draw a sharp distinction between the political and the military realms, COIN will be the source of endless frustration. Not only is an army excellent in the conduct of regular warfare unlikely to shine at COIN, that excellence will also prove a hindrance to understanding and responding to the different challenges posed by a context of irregular hostilities. The picture looks grim, perhaps unduly so. Are there grounds to hope for success in COIN?

in point #3 - I think its key to say that Gray writes "Be Prepared to", not that it must be so with regard to tearing up existing doctrine. I find most tenets in the cornerstone type doctrine to be enduring, and not at odds with waging COIN warfare - its all METT-TC dependent. I agree we may have to adapt how we consider some of that doctrine, but that goes for almost any new set of conditions. While I agree that we cannot be enemy oriented in every situation, if an insurgency does not have popular support (either it never got off the ground, or it lost its political appeal), then "focusing" on the enemy seems very appropriate to me. Even if the "focus" is on securing the population - in terms of isolating it from the insurgency in both physical, psychological and political ways, you probably still need to devote some effort to the enemy, else he just bides his time. I don't think I'm at odds with Gray, I just need to qualify it for myself.

in point #4 - I think it depends on which level of war Gray is referring to. At the tactical level some additional skills are needed, and in some cases may take on precedence, but the minute the situation changes from bad to worse, those combat skills become critical - so while I had my FO doing IO 90% of the time, there was a couple of times I wanted him doing his core tasks. I think this is just as true for units, or services. Its why I like the idea of better trained and better led multi-purpose forces.

in Point #5 - again I think it needs qualification - for us, technology and tactical skill are a combination of critical enablers and capabilities required to be able to play those "away games" we find ourselves in. They help us to deal with the unknown faster, and play the cruddy hands we're often dealt a little better then the other guy. If his point is COIN in general - where you could be thinking about a HN dealing with and insurgency, or where there is a long standing relationship between participants, maybe Gray has a better point.

from Gray:

While an army must discard most of its doctrine for regular warfare in order to be effective in COIN, it must not try to discard the essential facts of its regularity

– is this why currently 3-24 needs to be preeminent for those involved in COIN campaigns? I think there is a balance to be had here between specialty doctrine and cornerstone - we just need to recognize them for their qualities and limitations to get the most out of them.

from Gray:

While a COIN campaign requires a regular army to reorganize, retrain, and reequip, it does not require, it cannot require, the regulars to ape the irregulars.

– is this why HN (host nation) para-militaries might be more useful – they still have legitimacy, but are able to keep one foot in the LE pool and one foot in the Military pool? This is kind of an enduring question for me. I think there are at least 2 good points here - the first is about maintaining legitimacy through disciplined forces representing the government, an the 2nd is about the requirements of waging counter-insurgency - what role does the HN best play?

from Gray

The charge today is not to comprehend the COIN challenge. That is easy. Rather, it is to persuade our institutions to change their preferred behaviors while being alert to the possibility that institutional, strategic, and public cultures may not permit the necessary adjustments.

The audience was not impressed at that time. If the United States believes that it faces a generation and more of irregular challenges, it is going to have to address this potentially fatal weakness in its staying power. Irregular warfare is protracted and apparently indecisive.

“How to Win in Iraq” and similar, if less competent offerings, are quintessentially Jominian. If you recall, Antoine Henri de Jomini, the Swiss theorist, promised victory to those who applied the correct doctrine.33 The idea has taken root that the solution to our irregular warfare nightmares is adoption of the right COIN doctrine. This is a half-truth at best. In historical practice, each case is so unique that although there are some valid principles which should govern irregular warfare, there can be no reliable template for all contexts.

When I read this I thought about SEC Gates' speech in KS - specifically the part where he acknowledged the need for better instruments to execute "soft" power, but he also reinforced the distinction and limitations to "hard" military power. Additionally he said he'd be soon asking for more money for DoD because sooner or later we're going to have to use it again to react or counteract something - it goes with the quote -"you may not have an interest in war, but war has an interest in you". I also thought about some of the things Gray had brought up in the body of this piece as to limitations and the danger of adopting a Jominian view of "victory through the Science of War" - its all to attractive to do so, and risks obfuscating the true nature of war in order to make the use of military power more attractive when wishing for quick fixes.

Finally I like the way Gray closes - its a paragraph of wise advice:

To summarize the argument just advanced: beware of the great oversimplifications. Look out for the falsely promised silver bullets. Caveat emptor. I have suggested that culture, COIN doctrine, SOF, and the paramountcy of the political have all been adopted as iconic solutions to the hideously complex challenges of COIN. While each is valuable, none is the answer.

Thanks to Prof. Gray for writing it, and for SWC member Gian Gentile for posting it.

Best regards, Rob

Ken White
12-13-2007, 09:19 PM
broadly similar but you did a great job and i;'m not about to enter the compettion and look silly. :D

Yes, yes, I know... ;)

Seriously, well done and I agree with all including your last paragraph.

William F. Owen
12-16-2007, 05:00 AM
I am huge fan of Colin Gray. A bit too academic for some, but he cuts through the bull brilliantly, so….

Why when we have men like Gray, do we go on listening to people like Lind? Why can we not tell the good from the poor, or mediocre, and why have we created generations of Army officers with no grounding in their profession, as concerns learning and theory.

Ask most UK or US officers if they have read Clausewitz, Sun-Tzu, Mao, Leonhard or even Simpkin and they’ll say yes. Ask them detailed questions and you’ll see a blank face. This allows the men like Lind to flourish and promote garbage like 4GW.

Rant over. Guns to rest. Crews report ammo and faults.

12-16-2007, 05:09 AM
Somebody listens to Lind?

I believe there is a fourth generational warfare but it is not COIN which predates high mobility armor. But that is a topic for another time. While doing a paper for a conference I found references for fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth generation warfare.

Ken White
12-16-2007, 05:43 AM
Is there a Record on that?