Small Wars Journal

Adding Strategic Nonviolence to the Unconventional Warfare Doctrine

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 1:13pm

Adding Strategic Nonviolence to the Unconventional Warfare Doctrine

Thomas Doherty

The United States has been involved in the unconventional warfare (UW) business since the nation’s inception. As a result, there is an immense amount of literature discussing UW. This literature predominantly focuses on insurgents, such as the Kalashnikov-touting Mujahidin of the second Soviet-Afghan War or the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Famous leaders commonly associated with UW include Washington, Mao, Che, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Osama bin Laden, all of whom utilized violent resistance strategies.  However, there are leaders—such as Mahatma Gandhi— who accomplished the same goals without the use of violence as the primary means for regime change. This article argues that United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) should expand its understanding of doctrine and incorporate the use of strategic nonviolence to accomplish the objectives of a UW campaign. 

There is an increasing body of research that argues that nonviolent resistance movements are more effective than violent resistance movements.  According to a study conducted by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, nonviolent resistance movements (NvRM) are nearly twice as effective as violent resistance movements (VRM) in accomplishing significant shifts in power. The United States, however, has predominantly sponsored insurgencies that use violent forms of resistance that Chenoweth and Stephan argue has only resulted in success 26 percent of the time. In comparison, the same study argues that NvRMs are successful 53 percent of the time. The increased effectiveness indicates that NvRMs utilize a more effective stratagem. Although, U.S. military doctrine does include many components of nonviolent techniques to aid a violent campaign, sometimes referred to by the military as nonlethal targeting, these techniques are regulated to a supporting role.[i]  

The newest U.S. military manual detailing how to conduct UW — ATP 3-18.1 Special Forces Unconventional Warfare — is the most recent version and was released in March of 2019. This manual demonstrates SOF's increased awareness of NvRM tactics by including items like Genes Sharp’s “198 methods of nonviolent action.”[ii] Nevertheless, on the very first page of chapter one, the manual explicitly states that violence is mandatory for the conduct of UW.[iii] It does this by only recognizing two forms of warfare, conventional and irregular. Using this construct the military states that UW is a form of irregular warfare. Which the military states is "characterized as a violent struggle."[iv]         

Additionally, the ATP 3-18.1 demands that U.S. military forces utilize a guerrilla force while conducting UW. In a highlighted subsection of the manual titled “Resisting the ‘Guerrilla Force’ in the Army Unconventional Warfare Doctrine Definition,” the manual takes a page and a half to fight against any effort to make the use of a guerrilla force optional.[v] Specifically, it argues against changing the definition of UW making a guerrilla force optional. At one point, the UW manual states:

The attempt to force a change from “A, B, and C” to “A, B, or C” is illogical because it weakens, not strengthens the explanatory power of the doctrinal concept. “A, B, and C” means that all three functions are required for the concept and the commander or planner analyzing their assigned case should anticipate seeing the specific indigenous examples of these modeled functions. For example, one should expect to find the resistance armed element (guerrilla or armed force). [vi]

I argue, however, that making a guerrilla force optional does not weaken the model but instead allows for a less restrictive view of how to accomplish the ends of UW, which are to “coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power.”[vii] Although the U.S. military is famous for not knowing its doctrine, purposely building in, a page and a half to restricting and even demanding that the means to be used in a UW strategy ensure institutional restrictions are placed on commanders. Instead, space should be left in the definition allowing a commander to choose strategic nonviolence as a means to achieve the ends of a UW strategy.

To its credit, the ATP 3-18.1 specifically points out that doctrine is not dogma. While attempting to make this argument, the ATP undercuts its own argument that a guerrilla force is required. The manual goes on to state, "Is it possible that a specific resistance can be successful without a “guerrilla force?” Of course."[viii] This statement counters the previous argument that a guerrilla force is mandatory.

Adding to the authoritative nature of doctrine is its use in professional education.  Military schools and observer trainer controllers (OTC) at combat training centers are supposed to teach, advise, and evaluate based on doctrine. If the doctrine explicitly states there must be violence, then military leaders will be taught and therefore institutionalize that concept. This institutionalization has second and third order effects as subordinated commanders attempt to gain mission approvals. 

The first step to acknowledging that NvUW has existed for a while is looking at what constitutes UW. According to the DoD dictionary, unconventional warfare constitutes “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area.”[ix] It is irrefutable that Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in “overthrow[ing] a government or occupying power” when he forced Britain to abandon India.  But part of the definition of UW is “and guerrilla force.”[x] This restriction limits the ability of Special Forces (SF) —the proponent for UW—to officially forgo a violent strategy for a nonviolent strategy as a form of UW.

The first part of the definition of UW states that there must be “a resistance movement or insurgency.”[xi]  The DoD dictionary states that a resistance movement is “An organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability.”[xii] Gandhi clearly met every requirement in this definition.  For example, the British were the legally established government in India when Gandhi became the leading figure in the Indian independence movement.  Gandhi mobilized the population to expel what he viewed as an occupying power and repeatedly disrupted civil order and stability. Therefore, by the DoD’s definition, he was a leader of a resistance movement—albeit an NvRM.

Gandhi and others have accomplished the ends of UW in that they did “coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power.”[xiii] But he failed to use the prescribed means detailed in the UW doctrine. Specifically, Gandhi failed to utilize a guerrilla force. The DoD defines a guerrilla force as “a group of irregular, predominantly indigenous personnel organized along military lines to conduct military and paramilitary operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied territory.”[xiv] A creative think could attempt to argue that the guerrilla force could be used nonviolently. This argument, however, ignores how the military understands what a guerrilla force is.

When a military commander reads “personnel organized along military lines to conduct military and paramilitary operations,”[xv] all of the training the commander has received is going to lead to the conclusion that he or she is to use violence.  Reinforcing this concept is the DoD definition of paramilitary forces as an, “armed forces or groups distinct from the conventional armed forces of any country, but resembling them in organization, equipment, training, or mission.”[xvi] Therefore, the commander knows that the force is to be armed, trained, and used to conduct missions similar to any military unit.

Moreover, there is the commander’s understanding of the enemy. If friendly forces have a guerrilla force, then it can be safely assumed that the enemy will conduct counterguerrilla operations. To a military commander, counterguerrilla operations are “activities conducted by security forces against the armed paramilitary wing of an insurgency.”[xvii] Again, the terms used include paramilitary and armed, leading the commander to conclude that if ordered to conduct UW, he or she must have an armed group using violence to achieve their objectives.     

Since Gandhi led a resistance movement that achieved the ends associated with UW, I assert that he was a successful UW leader.  Nonetheless, the Army does not widely study leaders such as Gandhi.  This lack of recognition may be because Gandhi’s strategy involved nonviolence.  The Success of Gandhi and others prove unquestionably that nonviolent strategies can succeed.  The popularity of Che and Castro is disproportionate when one considers that nonviolence has been successful multiple times, whereas the foco form of insurgency accredited to Castro and Che, has only been successful once in all of history. Yet, foco is still taught in the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC).

Why then have we not already incorporated nonviolence as a strategy?  After all, if an ammunition company offered bomb A with a hit rate of 26 percent, or a cheaper bomb B, with a hit rate of 53 percent, the debate would last seconds.  A shift in institutional thinking is not that simple in any organization, especially in the service components that hinge their existence to kinetic warfare.  Adding to this is a misunderstanding of what constitutes nonviolence.  People commonly associate images of pacifists or Tiananmen Square with NvRMs.  However, nonviolence can be extremely aggressive.  Gene Sharp —a foundational scholar on the subject of nonviolence — identifies 198 methods of nonviolent action.[xviii] Among the methods are categories such as pressures on individuals, ostracism of persons, psychological intervention, and physical intervention.  Many of these forms of resistance are aggressive and often deliberately antagonistic.

Strategic nonviolence is a strategic decision to avoid deliberately inflicting physical harm on your opponent.  Stephan and Chenoweth define nonviolent resistance as “a civilian-based method used to wage conflict through social, psychological, economic, and political means without the threat or use of violence.”[xix]  A part of the concept is the decision on strategy.  Therefore a religious pacifist and a former guerrilla fighter can both execute NvUW.

The removal of the threat or use of violence and where that limit lies is contentious.  For example, there is disagreement if sabotage is violent or not.  My proposed answer to this dilemma is directly related to a legal definition of causation.  Therefore, NvRMs are not responsible for death or injury if the NvRM’s actions were not the operative and substantial cause of the injury or death.  That is to say, as long as the NvRM was not the primary cause of the injury.  For example, if an NvRM is blocking a bridge with a protest and the resulting traffic delayed medical service to a car accident or if the government forces shot into the crowd, then the NvRM did not cause the injuries.      

There is sometimes the impression that a successful NvRM will mean no one will be hurt or killed.  Unfortunately, nonviolent resistance often results in injuries and death.  Additionally, an NvRM’s most effective weapon is bodily injury or death of its members by either the regime or its allies.  Regime oppression often causes a phenomenon known as ‘backfire.’  Michael Gross published an article about ‘backfire’ called “Backfire: The Dark Side of Nonviolent Resistance” in which he described ‘backfire’ as,

How protesters successfully employ nonviolent tactics to provoke a brutal and disproportionate response from their adversary to solidify domestic support, encourage defections among state military and law enforcement personnel, and swing international opinion to their side.[xx]

Whether an NvRM provokes the violent response or not an NvRM must be ready to make use of violence if it occurs.  Creating ‘backfire’ is how an NvRM uses nonviolence to combat violence.

There are several benefits inherent in an NvUW strategy.  First is the ability of regime security forces to shift sides since there is no threat to their lives by an NvRM.  Second, there are arguments that an NvRM is more acceptable to other governments and nongovernmental organizations. Third, regime members are theoretically more likely to give in to demands if they know the resistance leaders will not physically harm or kill them.[xxi]  Fourth, the pool of resistance member is also much larger since pacifists, the old, and the infirmed are still able to participate actively.  A nonviolent resistance member does not have to be a young, fit, or a barrel-chested freedom fighter to go on strike or participate in boycotts.  Finally, sponsoring a NvUW campaign would theoretically be cheaper since there is no need to purchase weapons, explosives, and ammunition.  There is, however, a gap in the literature regarding cost analysis. 

NvUW is not suitable for every situation.  Given the depth of the literature to date, this article cannot hope to touch on every situation.  There will be times when a VRM is more appropriate.  Additionally, a hybrid warfare (HW) campaign simultaneously utilizing both a VRM and an NvRM is possible. If an insurgency employs this form of HW, then the insurgency will have to prevent cross-contamination of the movements.  A regime is very likely to attempt to group them under a common umbrella of violent insurgents.

When choosing what form of UW to conduct against a targeted country, the intelligence analysis will point to the efficacy of using a VRM, NvRM, or HW.  In some circles, this would be referred to as COA (Course of action) 1, 2, and 3.  An example of states that may be NvUW resistant is oil-rich states.  Oil-rich states are more likely to be successful in suppressing NvRMs.[xxii]  Reasons for this include international reliance on the continued flow of oil, the ability to maintain an income stream, and possession of larger more loyal militaries.[xxiii]  Never the less as a command develops courses of action adding NvUW to the list may allow a better success rate than always going kinetic.

This article could not hope to cover all the arguments for and against the use of NvUW.  However, given the reported success rates of NvRMs verse, VRMs further study may increase the effectiveness of future UW campaigns.  Additionally, it opens options that policymakers may not have considered.  For example, the political situation in a Mideast or South American country may not allow for sponsorship of a VRM, but an NvRM would be politically acceptable.  In other situations, a partially occupied country in Europe could conduct a conventional military campaign in one part of the country and sponsor a NvUW campaign in the occupied part of the country effectively conducting HW.

Current U.S. doctrine is already on the cusp of being able to absorb nonviolent strategies. U.S. unconventional warfare doctrine argues that commanders should customize their courses of action to the situation that presents itself stating, “Special Operations Commanders must understand UW theories, principles, and tactics, and adapt them based on circumstance, the resistance, the opposition, and the desired end state.”[xxiv] Consideration, therefore, should include an analysis of what types of resistance are best suited to the political situation and the existing resistance movements available within the targeted area.

Additionally, conducting UW campaign using strategic nonviolence does not violate the principles of UW.  As seen in figure 1, the ATP 3-18.1 lists out the principles of UW and states that principles are "fundamental rule[s] or an assumption[s] of central importance."[xxv] As can be seen from the principles in Figure 1, conducting UW nonviolently only violates the definition but not the principles of UW. If principles are fundamental, then changing definitions within the principles should not be overly burdensome.


Figure 1: Principles of Unconventional Warfare, as seen in the ATP 3-18.1 Special Forces Unconventional Warfare.[xxvi]

There are other reasons for changing the definition and not creating a separate format. Words have meaning there is a reason we have the tactical mission tasks of defeat, neutralize, and destroy. They give the commander guidance on the specific results a subordinate is to achieve. So, adding a new set of words such as Nonviolent Unconventional Warfare would help separate the methodology from the ends. There are a few reasons to maintain both under the same umbrella.

First, unlike defeat, neutralize, and destroy NvUW and UW have the same ends state.  They only differ in methodology, which under mission command theory is supposed to be a decision by the commander conducting the mission. Second, creating an entirely separate element would result in a much more significant intuitional shift with drastically increased resistance. Questions about who will be the proponent command, new doctrine and manuals would have to be developed, new schooling, new human resources demands, etc. This level of change will meet its own resistance movements within the military. The alternative is to change a word here and there within the dictionaries used by the military, add some professional reading, and possibly add a few pages to existing UW doctrine.

Further proof that the US military doctrine already allows for the concept of NvUW.  The Army’s training circular Unconventional Warfare Mission Planning Guide for the Special Forces Operational Detachment–Alpha Level lists out what it calls the Unconventional Warfare Golden Bullets.

  • UW is not about the U.S. Soldier; it is about leveraging the indigenous partners.
  • UW is not about U.S. processes and resources; it is about leveraging indigenous resources.
  • If a Soldier cannot articulate how he plans to win “through and with” the indigenous partners, he has failed to demonstrate that he is proficient in UW.
  • If a Soldier cannot articulate how UW can be conducted successfully without the U.S. Soldier ever firing a single round in combat, he has failed to demonstrate that he understands UW.[xxvii]

Therefore, the Army’s own golden bullets for a UW campaign fits within the scope of a NvUW.

In the era of great power competition, the United States can ill afford to ignore nonviolent resistance as an offensive strategy employable by ourselves, our allies, and also our enemies. The ability to achieve UW end states using strategic nonviolence will increase the options and capabilities available to policymakers and allow us to understand it when utilized against U.S. interests. Strategic nonviolence does not employ an armed guerrilla force; instead, it uses a nonviolent resistance movement to form an action arm that achieves the same UW objectives. Thus, strategic nonviolence is effectively nonviolent unconventional warfare (NvUW). By adopting NvUW strategies, the US will be able to achieve the same end states as traditional UW without causing the same level of escalation.

End Notes

[i] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” International Security 33, no. 1 (Summer 2008): 8. The Chenoweth and Stephan numbers are still in dispute within the literature. With arguments including not accounting for movements that are suppressed quickly and benefits of having a radical flank.

[ii] Department of the Army Headquarters, ATP 3-18.1 Special Forces Unconventional Warfare (Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2019), E-2–E-8.

[iii] Ibid., 1-1.

[iv] Ibid.; In discussions with doctrine writers I was told this may change that the word "violent" is recommended for removal from the definition. At the time the manual was produced and this article written violent is still part of the official definition. If changed a change to the manual may occur.

[v] Ibid., 2-192-20.

[vi] Ibid., 2-20.

[vii] Joint Chiefs of Staff, DOD Dictionary, 243.

[viii] Department of the Army, ATP 3-18.1, 2-19.

[ix] Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington DC: The Joint Staff, 2018), 243.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 202.

[xiii] Ibid., 243.

[xiv] Ibid., 102.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., 181.

[xvii] Ibid., 55.

[xviii] A complete list can be found on the Albert Einstein Institutions website at:

[xix] Chenoweth and Stephan, “Civil Resistance Works,” 9.

[xx] Michael L. Gross, “Backfire: The Dark Side of Nonviolent Resistance,” Ethics & International Affairs 32, no. 3 (December 2018): 317.

[xxi] Chenoweth and Stephan, “Civil Resistance Works,” 11-13.

[xxii] Desha M. Girod, Megan A. Stewart, and Meir R. Walters, “Mass protests and the resource curse: The politics of demobilization in rentier autocracies,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 35, no. 5 (September 2018): 504.

[xxiii] Girod, Stewart, and Walters, “Mass protests,” 505.

[xxiv] United States Army Special Operations Command, UW Pocket Guide V1.0 (Fort Bragg NC: U.S. Army Special Operations Command, 2016), 3-4.

[xxv] Department of the Army, ATP 3-18.1, 1-2.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Department of the Army Headquarters, TC 18-01.1: Unconventional Warfare Mission Planning Guide for the Special Forces Operational Detachment–Alpha Level (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2016), 1-14.

Categories: unconventional warfare - UW

About the Author(s)

Thomas Doherty has a Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University and Strategic Security Studies from the National Defense University. He has served in both the enlisted and officer ranks in both the National Guard and active duty Army. Originally commissioned through the Arkansas National Guard OCS program he was re-commissioned via a direct commission. He has served in multiple military occupational specialties. He has served in 3rd Ranger Battalion, 7th and 3rd Special Forces Groups, 51st LRS, JRTC, and other staff and instructor positions. He has deployed to Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tajikistan, Botswana, and Germany. Currently he is serving as a Special Forces officer. Follow him on Twitter at, @warfarebytom



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