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Thread: Applying the lessons of late 19th/early 20th century asymmetrical warfare

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    Council Member Kevin23's Avatar
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    Question Applying the lessons of late 19th/early 20th century asymmetrical warfare

    I was thinking earlier in the week looking at the current engagments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the way these conflicts are being controversially compared to Vietnam both in the public sphere and in other areas like the policy one at least in the US. However, I feel late 19th/early 20th Century conflicts like the Boer Wars that occured in South Africa, the Philippine–American War, or even some aspects of the First World War would offer comparisons and lessons also due to many of the dynamics of those conflicts and the way they were fought in some ways by all sides involved.

    So I was wondering if these wars hold lessons that can be applied to modern day small wars and if so what are they?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin23 View Post
    I feel late 19th/early 20th Century conflicts like the Boer Wars that occured in South Africa, the Philippine–American War, or even some aspects of the First World War would offer comparisons and lessons also due to many of the dynamics of those conflicts and the way they were fought in some ways by all sides involved.

    So I was wondering if these wars hold lessons that can be applied to modern day small wars and if so what are they?
    Sure they do. I and a few others here have been saying so for quite some time. The lessons have to be understood within some very specific contexts, but yes, military history is the main key to strategic success - not silly concepts and "new ideas."

    What I really want to ask, is why the COIN-oil salesmen and the agenda monkeys keep pedalling bad history and history free ideas.
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    Default Postbipolar world vs the golden age of colonialism

    I think the title says it all. Think about how national liberation wars (say 1946-1975), Declaration of human rights /1948/, Weapons of mass destruction, the holocaust, and globalisítion etc. has changed our views on warfare, on combatants and non-combatants on casualties and so on.

    Edit
    One more thing. The 'white men's' technology was so superior (and was used with such ruthlessness) that the natives did not see a chance for succesful resistance. In the west it is an often overlooked fact that the japanese victories in 1941-42 shattered the myth of the 'white men's' superiority. It was the first time (THE precedent) that ingenious forces can prevail on the long run (ie not in 1-2 battles).

    IMHO This is the main difference between victorian and postbipolar world.
    Last edited by UrsaMaior; 11-05-2009 at 10:14 AM. Reason: Extendsion
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    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    Sure they do. I and a few others here have been saying so for quite some time. The lessons have to be understood within some very specific contexts, but yes, military history is the main key to strategic success - not silly concepts and "new ideas."

    What I really want to ask, is why the COIN-oil salesmen and the agenda monkeys keep pedalling bad history and history free ideas.
    I couldn't agree more,

    As I think conflicts like the Boer Wars hold lessons for COIN both in terms of how to defeat an insurgency and how not to defeat an insurgency.

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    Default Time changes the observations / history

    Kevin23,

    You will need to be careful at the sources for your research. The lessons learnt I expect change over time. Using the Boer War(s) as the example, what did the contemporary histories / foriegn mission reports etc say and what later works like Pakenham and others said?

    Secondly, IIRC John Fishel made a comment here on El Salvador, a successful COIN campaign, but thirty years later the main opponent is elected to power. That makes the earlier campaign look different: http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/...ead.php?t=8499.

    davidbfpo
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 11-07-2009 at 12:00 AM. Reason: Add link

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    Council Member William F. Owen's Avatar
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    The other thing you might want to do is get rid of the silly term "asymmetric" - it simply does not work. The 1st Boer War saw the Boers as well trained and well equipped as the British. Supposing that there are two distinct things called "COIN" and "War fighting" is not smart.

    My view is here
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    - The job of the British Army out here is to kill or capture Communist Terrorists in Malaya.
    - If we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.
    Sir Gerald Templer, foreword to the "Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya," 1958 Edition

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    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    The other thing you might want to do is get rid of the silly term "asymmetric" - it simply does not work. The 1st Boer War saw the Boers as well trained and well equipped as the British. Supposing that there are two distinct things called "COIN" and "War fighting" is not smart.

    My view is here
    Ok lets just call it guerrilla warfare or even small wars then if that term works better?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin23 View Post
    Ok lets just call it guerrilla warfare or even small wars then if that term works better?
    Almost. Irregular Warfare is warfare conduct by or against irregulars. It WHO fights, not how or why. Small Wars is a very good description, taken on the Victorian/Edwardian context. - but note: The difference between Warfare, and Wars. Small Wars does not mean small Warfare. Small wars generally means irregular warfare.

    Obvious so far?
    Infinity Journal "I don't care if this works in practice. I want to see it work in theory!"

    - The job of the British Army out here is to kill or capture Communist Terrorists in Malaya.
    - If we can double the ratio of kills per contact, we will soon put an end to the shooting in Malaya.
    Sir Gerald Templer, foreword to the "Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya," 1958 Edition

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    Quote Originally Posted by William F. Owen View Post
    Almost. Irregular Warfare is warfare conduct by or against irregulars. It WHO fights, not how or why. Small Wars is a very good description, taken on the Victorian/Edwardian context. - but note: The difference between Warfare, and Wars. Small Wars does not mean small Warfare. Small wars generally means irregular warfare.

    Obvious so far?
    Yes!

    I guess small wars would be better description for the colonial conflicts of the 19th/early 20th century Century?

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    WILF and I will agree 100% that the current grasping at new terminology to describe old things is not helpful.

    We will differ as to the importance of "size" as a defining criteria. From my studies, it is understanding the nature of the competitor and his purpose for action that sheds the best light as to how to most effectively deal with him.

    Wars waged by states against states for political purpose can be large or small. Similarly, wars waged by populaces against states for political purposes can be large or small.

    A State, however, has very different risks, vulnerabilites, strengths, etc than a populace-based organization that must be addressed very differntly (and both fine tuned by the details of the situation at hand.

    So ask yourself, are your dealing with a state, or a populace as the first, and most important branch in your quest for understanding.

    I also contend that the one thing truly unique today is the rate and availability of information. This does not change the nature of war, but is does require one to reassess the TTPs that were developed for dealing with populace based wars prior to the 1980s. I believe it was this modern information age that actually brought down the Soviets (sure the West's containment efforts and the Soviet's own weak economy and mistakes contributed), but when it all began to quickly unravel, it was the people across eastern europe empowered and informed that made it happen. This was just the bowwave of similar popular uprising in the Middle East and Africa today.

    One significant differnce is that Gorbachav made the conscious decision not to counter these popular uprisings. The West, faced with a similar loss of control over populaces of the Middle East chose a differnt route... So the Soviet puppets were tumbled, the Western puppets still sit; pretty fascinating stuff actually.
    Last edited by Bob's World; 11-07-2009 at 06:27 PM.
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    I have found it is always quite difficult to use modern terms in reference to centuries old warfare. The debate about the about Jeff Davis' "offensive-defensive" vs. "defensive-offensive" is but one example.

    At times, one man's insurgency is another's conventional war.
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    Quote Originally Posted by UrsaMaior View Post
    Edit
    One more thing. The 'white men's' technology was so superior (and was used with such ruthlessness) that the natives did not see a chance for succesful resistance. In the west it is an often overlooked fact that the japanese victories in 1941-42 shattered the myth of the 'white men's' superiority. It was the first time (THE precedent) that ingenious forces can prevail on the long run (ie not in 1-2 battles).

    IMHO This is the main difference between victorian and postbipolar world.
    It's important to note that this technological advantage only occurred in certain conflicts and locations. What often made the difference wasn't technology so much as it was training. This is especially true of small wars waged after about 1860.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
    T.R. Fehrenbach This Kind of War

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    Quote Originally Posted by davidbfpo View Post
    Kevin23,

    You will need to be careful at the sources for your research. The lessons learnt I expect change over time. Using the Boer War(s) as the example, what did the contemporary histories / foriegn mission reports etc say and what later works like Pakenham and others said?

    Secondly, IIRC John Fishel made a comment here on El Salvador, a successful COIN campaign, but thirty years later the main opponent is elected to power. That makes the earlier campaign look different: http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/...ead.php?t=8499.

    davidbfpo

    Sorry for the late reply Davidbfpo,

    I really wasn't planning any extensive research paper or anything else on this subject at current time, as I mainly started this thread as topic of discussion. However to answer your post, haven't really had a chance to read anything by Pakenham or about the Boer War recently. Although I did read the illustrated edition of his book on the Boer War a very long time ago. Also I have read Martin Meredith's book on the war, Diamond's Gold, and War. So overall throughout the years I've always thought as the Boer War as mainly a guerillia war and I have seen it presented in that way when reading history.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    I also contend that the one thing truly unique today is the rate and availability of information. This does not change the nature of war, but is does require one to reassess the TTPs that were developed for dealing with populace based wars prior to the 1980s. I believe it was this modern information age that actually brought down the Soviets (sure the West's containment efforts and the Soviet's own weak economy and mistakes contributed), but when it all began to quickly unravel, it was the people across eastern europe empowered and informed that made it happen. This was just the bowwave of similar popular uprising in the Middle East and Africa today.

    One significant differnce is that Gorbachav made the conscious decision not to counter these popular uprisings. The West, faced with a similar loss of control over populaces of the Middle East chose a differnt route... So the Soviet puppets were tumbled, the Western puppets still sit; pretty fascinating stuff actually.
    Other than Iran in 1953, where has "the West" countered a popular uprising in the Middle East... and where in the Middle East does "the West" still control a populace?
    Last edited by Dayuhan; 11-11-2009 at 08:40 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Blair View Post
    It's important to note that this technological advantage only occurred in certain conflicts and locations. What often made the difference wasn't technology so much as it was training. This is especially true of small wars waged after about 1860.
    In many ways the Second World War started a permanent alteration in the Small Wars balance of power, and the Cold War cemented that change. In Asia in particular WW2, as mentioned above, permanently destroyed the myth of the white man's invincibility. On a more practical level, the widespread assistance given to local resistance movements fighting the Axis, even in very small numbers, made a huge difference: the natives learned to shoot, and learned the rudiments of irregular tactics. Once introduced to the basics they proved quite adept at improvising on their own and at spreading the knowledge.

    During the Cold War both parties made extensive use of proxies, and in the process discovered an incentive to provide their proxies with arms and training, often discovering that neither arms nor training would necessarily be applied only to the goals originally pursued by those who provided them. The genie ain't going back in the bottle.

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    Default Everywhere

    Quote Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
    Other than Iran in 1953, where has "the West" countered a popular uprising in the Middle East... and where in the Middle East does "the West" still control a populace?
    Control is a relative term of course, and if one takes it too literally one is apt to mollify themselves into a self-serving perspective that casts ones meddling into a benign, always good to all people, light.

    This is not how the populaces of the region see it, and it is their perception that matters in the current conflict. The U.S. must target that perception to prevail, not the insurgent elements of those populace, nor even be perceived as merely building the capacity of those governments we have helped establish and sustain to continue their reigns over their populaces by crushing popular uprisings in the name of "counterterrorism."

    Take your own home. The people of the Philippines don't believe there is excessive US meddling in their governnance? The people don't perceive that on many issues the national government listens more to, and responds to, what the US wants over what they want? The people of the nation, don't in large numbers support organizations like the NPA in the north, or the MILF and MNLF in the south as expressions of their sense of lack of representation in and support by their own government? Even with the extremely carefully tailored US operations in support of the AFP in the south, with every action by-thru-with Philippine lead, is there not perceptions and constant challenges raised that the US is exerting its will there and helping the government to suppress a problem rather than actually resolve it?

    Perception is fact in this business, and in many places we make it all too easy for those who oppose the status quo to spin facts to support their agendas. My position is that the US must update its engagement for the current world order rather than the last one, and thereby disempower the messages of many of these resistance movements by becoming a leader for self-determination and freedom for all peoples. And that requires relinquishing control of what those outcomes will look like. By controlling less, I believe we will influence more.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dayuhan View Post
    In many ways the Second World War started a permanent alteration in the Small Wars balance of power, and the Cold War cemented that change. In Asia in particular WW2, as mentioned above, permanently destroyed the myth of the white man's invincibility. On a more practical level, the widespread assistance given to local resistance movements fighting the Axis, even in very small numbers, made a huge difference: the natives learned to shoot, and learned the rudiments of irregular tactics. Once introduced to the basics they proved quite adept at improvising on their own and at spreading the knowledge.

    During the Cold War both parties made extensive use of proxies, and in the process discovered an incentive to provide their proxies with arms and training, often discovering that neither arms nor training would necessarily be applied only to the goals originally pursued by those who provided them. The genie ain't going back in the bottle.
    I never contended that the genie was going back in the bottle. What I was pointing out was that the "white man's invincibility" had been a myth for some years prior to World War II and that there were small wars prior to the Boer War. Artificially starting the "small wars clock" at that point risks missing everything that came before, as does focusing the examination on European colonial possessions in the Pacific region.

    There's nothing wrong, obviously, with giving those conflicts careful and thoughtful study. But there are other regions and periods that would repay examination.
    "On the plains and mountains of the American West, the United States Army had once learned everything there was to learn about hit-and-run tactics and guerrilla warfare."
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Blair View Post
    I never contended that the genie was going back in the bottle. What I was pointing out was that the "white man's invincibility" had been a myth for some years prior to World War II and that there were small wars prior to the Boer War. Artificially starting the "small wars clock" at that point risks missing everything that came before, as does focusing the examination on European colonial possessions in the Pacific region.

    There's nothing wrong, obviously, with giving those conflicts careful and thoughtful study. But there are other regions and periods that would repay examination.
    I suspect that much of the West's experience with small wars (notably European nations to include UK, France, Portugal, and Germany) is more closely tied to the occupation of Africa during the latter half of the 19th Century. Efforts on the Pacific rim gain importance for Americans because that's pretty much the only place US troops fought (Boxer Rebellion, Phillippine Insurrection) outside our own continent prior to the World Wars.

    I also have trouble calling the 2nd Boer War a small war (400k+ Brit troops was an enormous commitment for those days) and think that Pakenham may not be the best source for that war as well (largely a British perspective in his presentation). Others' mileage may vary.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Blair View Post
    I never contended that the genie was going back in the bottle.
    I didn't mean to suggest that you had. I wished to point out that our antagonists in today's small wars have access to infinitely greater resources and capabilities than those in the small wars of old, which might limit the value of the lessons to be learned from those conflicts. It's also worth noting that many of the methods used in early small wars such as the Philippine-American War (not an insurrection) or the wars against the native Americans would today be regarded as illegal, politically unacceptable, and in some cases genocidal, and would hardly be applicable to today's conflicts.

    I'm not saying these conflicts do not deserve study, but any lessons deduced need to be taken with several grains of salt.

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    Default The plot thickens, it seems...

    First we have this...

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    One significant differnce is that Gorbachav made the conscious decision not to counter these popular uprisings. The West, faced with a similar loss of control over populaces of the Middle East chose a differnt route... So the Soviet puppets were tumbled, the Western puppets still sit; pretty fascinating stuff actually.
    And then this...

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    This is not how the populaces of the region see it, and it is their perception that matters in the current conflict. The U.S. must target that perception to prevail
    So what do we face here, a perception that needs to be addressed or a policy that needs to be changed? There is a difference. Are you saying that the perception is accurate, or that we need to counter its inaccuracy? If the former, I think that claim needs to be supported with evidence and reasoning.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    nor even be perceived as merely building the capacity of those governments we have helped establish and sustain to continue their reigns over their populaces by crushing popular uprisings in the name of "counterterrorism."
    Again I have to ask; which governments are we talking about? What governments did the US help establish? Where have we crushed popular uprisings in the name of "counterterrorism"?


    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    Take your own home. The people of the Philippines don't believe there is excessive US meddling in their governnance?
    In general, no, they don't. A few loud voices on the left do, but if any significant portion of the populace agreed with them the demonstrations outside the embassy wouldn't be made up of the same 200 mantra-chanting leftists that have been rallying there for the last 30 years, and they wouldn't be outnumbered 10 to 1 by the horde of visa-seekers. The NPA leaders don't like the US, but they represent a tiny fraction of the populace; most NPA fighters are fighting over personal grievances with the Government or its representatives, and have little concern with US "meddling". The MILF is actively seeking a US role at peace negotiations: they know the US wants a deal made and they know the US can pressure the Philippine government.

    All of this illustrates some problems I see with the reasoning you suggest.

    It is simply impossible to speak in any relevant terms about what "a populace" or "the populace" wants or believes. No populace is monolithic, some think some things and some think other things. We often grant far too much importance to the views of small numbers of people who have very loud voices, are allied with influential groups of foreign ideologues, or are willing to use violence. Just because a group is loud does not mean it represents a populace.

    If there is an active insurgency in a nation, that does certainly suggest that a large portion of a populace or sub-populace is disaffected. The existence of a terrorist group does not have to mean the same thing: many terrorist groups do not represent popular sentiment, only the opinions of a highly disaffected fringe. For example, if Al Qaeda had sufficient support in Saudi Arabia to generate an insurgency, they would certainly do it. They haven't done it because they simply don't have the support. Saudis may support AQ as long as they are fighting someone else, somewhere far away, but they don't want AQ taking over their country.

    It is all too easy for us to project our own desires or sentiments onto a foreign populace, and assume that they want what we would want in their place and that they want us to help them get it. This is not necessarily the case. Many populace in the Middle East may want more self-determination, but their idea of how that would look is likely to differ radically from ours, and they certainly don't want us trying to meddle in their struggle to attain what they desire. Any involvement on our part will be interpreted as self-interested interference. We can't cure past meddling by meddling more.

    We also need to understand that our capacity to exert pressure on Middle East governments (except perhaps that of Israel) is limited. If we're talking about the oil-producing governments, other than that of Iraq, our influence is practically non-existent. These governments don't need us, they don't depend on us, we don't sustain them. Anything we do for them they can get elsewhere, anything we sell them they can buy elsewhere, anything we buy from them can be sold elsewhere. The Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, Emiratis etc have far more leverage over us than we have over them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    My position is that the US must update its engagement for the current world order rather than the last one, and thereby disempower the messages of many of these resistance movements by becoming a leader for self-determination and freedom for all peoples. And that requires relinquishing control of what those outcomes will look like. By controlling less, I believe we will influence more.
    I'd agree that we have to update our methods of engagement, but I suspect that this needs to mean less meddling, not an effort at counter-meddling. I'd also be curious to know which resistance movements you see in the picture that are arguing for self-determination and freedom. Certainly Al Qaeda, which is (or should be) our primary antagonist at this point, is not arguing for either; quite the opposite.

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