Small Wars Journal

Winning Small Wars in Contests for the People

Thu, 03/05/2020 - 12:28pm

Winning Small Wars in Contests for the People

M. Knight


In 425 BC, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, a contingent of elite Spartiac hoplites found themselves stranded and surrounded on the island of Sphacteria.  They had been unable to subdue their opponents who insisted on using slings and arrows as an effective distance-weapon to counter the heavy infantry close-quarter tactics of the Spartans.  The Athenians refused to engage the Spartans in a manner that would ensure their own defeat, much to the chagrin of the Spartans.  Facing defeat themselves, the Spartan forces on Sphacteria send a message to Sparta asking what they should do. The reply was clear, “Do nothing shameful”(Nichols, 2015).  Following discussions the Spartans on Sphacteria decided that their best course of action, and one that held no shame, was to surrender.

A similar dilemma is now facing western militaries, in-so-far as, the contextual terrain has shifted to such an extent that their enemies refuse to engage them in a manner that would ensure their own destruction.  Focus on this modern Sphacterian-dilemma has led to discussions and debates that are encapsulated within the ‘War amongst the people’ arena.  A recent notable addition to this discourse is “War Amongst the People: Critical Assessments” (Brown, et al. 2019) that summarises the present thinking and highlights common themes along with critical questions.  This paper is a response to the ‘Critical Assessment’ in Brown (2019), and aims to deliver an equally Laconic response as that received by the Spartans on Sphacteria, to the dilemmas identified in ‘War amongst the people’ (Rossi. N, & Riemann. M. ‘Conclusion’ in Brown, et al. 2019).[i]


Rossi and Riemann’s (2019) summary of the dilemmas affecting the practical application of ‘war amongst the people’ includes the contextual fluidity at the operational, domestic, and international levels that recalls the tenets of a ‘wicked problem’; i.e. that is resistant to solution because of complex interdependencies, efforts to solve one aspect of a ‘wicked problem’ create other problems rendering initial efforts redundant[ii].  Hence, it is argued that “to understand war amongst the people, there is a need to break with the dualisms and binaries that dominate conventional understandings of conflict and instead, embrace the culturally, contextually and historically ever-changing realities of war” (ibid: pp254).  Highlighting the paradoxes inherent within ‘war amongst the people’ this same fluidity is cited in contrary arguments for the necessity to reinforce ‘dualisms and binaries’, as the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, politics and war, and war and peace, have been eroded during contemporary intra-state conflicts.

Brown (et al. 2019) references operational experiences to show that strategic aims in ‘war amongst the people’ have remained unclear, and that this strategic ambiguity is compounded by the dilemma that tactical actions can have strategic impacts.  Recalling General Smith’s observation that “every action performed by every solider, at every level, holds strategic significance” (ibid: pp261), it is argued that linking strategy and tactics remains an unsolved issue in ‘war amongst the people’.  Furthermore, Smith observed that wars amongst the people are contests over legitimacy in which the overall political objective of the conflicting parties is to win the will of the people (ibid: pp259), an assertion that highlights the centrality of legitimacy, the attribution of which is identified as vital to successful execution of ‘war amongst the people’.  One element of legitimacy was shown to be the relationship between ‘victory’ and respect for international human rights, “[t]his raises the question of whether it is necessary to strike the right balance between both or whether these objectives are intrinsically linked and therefore mutually dependant.” (ibid: pp258).

Finally, Brown (et al. 2019) argues that in ‘war amongst the people’ the Clausewitzian paradigm – the sequencing of political decisions leading to military action – has been overturned.  This inversion of the dictum that ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’ places the military in the centre of the political arena, with a key characteristic of ‘war amongst the people’ being that politics becomes the continuation of war by other means.  The final paradox inherent within ‘war amongst the people’ is shown to be that tactical victories on the battlefield do not necessarily correspond with strategic success at the political level, hence, “[y]ou can win every fight and lose the war” (ibid: pp260).

Drawing on these conclusions it is clear that the dilemma facing the practical application of ‘war amongst the people’ is the requirement for a replicable approach that is adaptable to the fluidity of contexts – operational, domestic, and international – and which links the strategic and tactical, whilst acknowledging the centrality of human rights within a struggle for legitimacy.  Any such approach should operate within a model that acknowledges, and allows for, the inversion of Clausewitzian paradigm by facilitating the non-linear application of the political and military decisions and actions.

“Do Nothing Shameful”

In attempting to address the dilemmas identified, and echoing Brown (2019) this paper treats ‘war amongst the people’ less as a fixed and established phenomenon and more like a conceptual prism through which contemporary intra-state conflicts can be read and questioned.  Consequently, this paper is not attempting to more fully described a fixed phenomenon, but rather to better understand how to view existing contemporary conflicts in order that resources can be brought to bear more effectively in pursuit of the desired outcome, including military victory.  In this view, the required prism should not solely focus upon the context in which the ‘war’ takes place - ‘amongst the people’ – but rather should primarily address the dilemmas identified that insist that the focus to be on how to ‘win the people’.  General Smith identified such a focus in terms of a contests over legitimacy in which the overall political objective of the conflicting parties is to win the will of the people (ibid: pp259).

Smith (2007) further reminds us of the limits of military capacities, when stating that there are “only four things the military could achieve when sent into action in any given political confrontation or conflict: ameliorate, contain, deter or coerce, and destroy”.  It is axiomatic that the military capacities that deliver these impacts are insufficient to ‘win the will of the people’ through a contest over legitimacy.  The existing prism of ‘war amongst the people’ therefore requires expansion from the present focus on ‘war’ and the military to encompass the full spectrum of a state’s capacities, and, if they can be harnessed, international capacities and processes.  Through such a prism contemporary intra-state conflicts are not viewed as ‘war amongst the people’, but rather as a ‘contest for the people’.

Within this understanding, a successful resolution of contemporary intra-state conflict requires an approach that aims to ‘win the will of the people’ through a struggle for legitimacy, which includes military force but that also utilises non-coercive state and international capacities, and which addresses the dilemmas identified in Rossi & Riemann (2019) requiring an approach that:

  • Links the strategic and tactical;
  • acknowledges the centrality of human rights within a struggle for legitimacy;
  • is adaptable to the fluidity of contexts – operational, domestic, and international; and
  • allows the non-linear application of the political and military decisions and actions.

Strategic & Tactical: The primary dilemma in contemporary intra-state conflict, and the issue that has been persistently identified as detrimental to success, is the inability to link the strategic and the tactical.  In addressing this dilemma it is necessary to view contemporary intra-state conflicts as a ‘contest for the people’ and to construct a human rights framework within which to establish a cohesive strategy, and upon which to build a unified and integrated approach that bridges the tactical and strategic.  In this manner strategic and tactical outcomes are focused on the protection and enjoyment of human rights.

By adopting such an approach, the strategic objective becomes the attainment of an environment where human rights are protected by the rule of law, so that people can live in dignity (United Nations. 1948)  The articulation of the strategic objective in human rights terms establishes a common focus and direction of travel for both military and civilian capacities, at both national and international levels.  Achieving this objective clearly requires a coordinated effort that utilises both coercive and non-coercive capacities, in a long-term endeavour.  Within a human rights framework the engagement of military capacities can be clearly defined, focused, and limited to such time, and for as long as, coercive force is required to advance the strategic objective.  In contexts where coercive force is not required state and international civilian capacities will aim to achieve the strategic objective through non-coercive measures, including diplomacy and international aid.

A human rights framework therefore bridges the strategic and tactical by ensuring that tactical actions are premised on the same human rights basis as the strategic objective, and are therefore aligned with the strategic purpose, and support the direction of travel towards that objective.  In military terms, a tactical human rights framework is understood as the basis for the rules on the use of force, with individual soldiers confident of their right to use force in self-defence, and the defence of others, as well as minimum standards of treatment during detention.  A human rights framework for tactical military action does not detract from the ability to intensify force as the context dictates.  Militaries engaging in contemporary intra-state conflicts should be able to react tactically to fluid contexts through the escalation of  force as necessary, recognising and applying the prevailing framework of human rights and, as appropriate, during escalating conflict to include International Humanitarian Law.

Operational Actions[iii]:  The effective application of the strategic and tactical within ‘a contest for the people’ requires an operational approach that is able to exploit the advantages of a the strategic and tactical cohesions, afforded by the a human rights framework.  The operational approach requires the coordinated engagement of all capacities of the state with an international purview, including diplomatic, international aid, intelligence, military, etc.  In this operational approach actions are focused on actors within the arena of operations, which possess the capacity to positively or negatively influence the attainment of the strategic objective. These actor’s capacities are understood in terms of assets and/or legitimacy.

Assets are understood in the first instance as physical resources, including equipment, money, property, and means of communications, as well as more complex understandings, such as structures and networks of formal or informal groups. Legitimacy is a far more complex and fluid concept. Legitimacy incorporates an acceptance of authority by both elite and non-elite groups, although not all individuals are equally able to confer legitimacy. Different groups confer degrees of legitimacy upon different individuals and structures.  Within the operational model presented, the type of actions required in ‘a contest for the people’ fall into three categories:

  • Influence an actor’s position.
  • Capacitate an actor’s legitimacy, and/or assets.
  • De-capacitate an actor’s legitimacy, and/or assets.

Influencing an actor’s position requires convincing the actor to support the attainment of the strategic objective, such influence can be enacted through traditional diplomatic processes as well as other means, focused on communications and engagement.  Furthermore, actors who support the attainment of the strategic objective but are assessed as having low asset-capacities, require actions intended to capacitate their assets.  Such actions can be delivered, in part, through capacity-building initiatives utilising existing aid/ development processes and structures.  Furthermore, actors that support the attainment of the strategic objective but are assessed as having low legitimacy, require actions intended to capacitate their legitimacy.

Alternatively, actors that oppose the attainment of the strategic objective and are assessed as having high asset-capacities, require actions that deny or inhibit their access to, or ability to utilise, these assets. Denial of access to, or utilisation of, these assets includes the removal of assets, inhibition of their function, and/or their destruction. Actors that oppose the attainment of the strategic objective but are assessed as having high-legitimacy, require actions intended to de-capacitate legitimacy.

Bringing Force to Bear

Approaching contemporary intra-state conflicts as a ‘struggle for the people’ allows for the full capacities of the state, and where possible international capacities, to be effectively brought to bear to achieve a consistent strategic objective.  As such, ‘struggle for the people’ is not viewed predominantly as a military undertaking, although there is scope for utilising military capacities in all of the operational actions outlined, as well as specific scenarios where the military would be deployed to deliver its core combat capabilities.  The approach envisages multiple operational actions being enacted simultaneously through the various levels of engagement – operational and international – by the various capacities of the state.  In such circumstances the traditional understanding of separate and exclusive political and military arenas is redundant, as is the linear application of political and military decisions and actions.

Adaptability to fluid contexts is a key strength of the approach as the operational arena is not defined by geography but rather by the locations of the ‘actors’ prioritised for ‘operational actions’.  This can encompass not only the state in which the intra-state conflict takes place, but also neighbouring & regional states, the domestic-home state, along with any other locations where ‘operational actions’ are deemed necessary based-on an ‘actors’ presence. For example, this may include engaging in ‘influence’ as an operational action focused on the international arena with the purpose of bringing into alignment the resources of inter-governmental organisations, with the strategic objective.  Furthermore, the human rights framework supports communications within the home-domestic arena by facilitating the acceptance, legitimacy, and validity of foreign engagements when viewed and communicated through a human rights lens.

In addressing the dilemmas identified in Rossi & Riemann (2019) it is argued that a successful resolution of contemporary intra-state conflict requires an approach that aims to ‘win the will of the people’ through a struggle for legitimacy that includes military force, but that also utilises non-coercive state and international capacities.  This holistic approach is summarised as a ‘contest for the people’, at term that aims to encapsulate the differences with the prevailing focus of ‘war amongst the people’.  Within this approach a human rights framework bridges the strategic and tactical and provides a model for Operational Actions, either: (a) influence an actor’s position; (b) capacitate an actor’s legitimacy, and/or assets; (c) de-capacitate an actor’s legitimacy, and/or assets. Operational actions aim to to support the strategic objective, defined as: ‘The attainment of an environment where human rights are protected by the rule of law, so that people can live in dignity’.


Brown. D, Murray. D, Riemann. M, Rossi. N, & Smith. M. (Eds). 2019. War Amongst the People: Critical Assessments.  Howgate Publishing Limited.

Knight. M. 2019.  Security & Human Rights in Peace Processes: Advising armed-insurgents. CSG Paper 19, May 2018. Centre for Security Governance, Ontario.

Knight. M. 2016. Reversing the Stabilisation Paradigm: Towards an Alternative Approach,  Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, Centre for Security Governance, Canada.

Nichols, P.M. ‘Thucydides and the pursuit of freedom’ Ithaca ; London : Cornell University Press, 2015.

Smith, R 2007 The utility of force: the art of war in the modern world. New York, Knopf.

United Nations (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations.

End Notes

About the Author(s)

Mark Knight is an expert consultant on security and human rights in complex environments. He has over 20 years of experience delivering conflict and post-conflict programming in Africa, Asia and the Balkans, including directly engaging with belligerent parties during armed-conflict to facilitate dialogue, and advising parties on the process and content of successful war-to-peace transitions.  Mark has previously published on DDR, SSR, stabilisation interventions, rebel/military integration, and negotiating security issues in peace agreements. He holds a Master’s degree in Post-War Recovery Studies from the University of York. He has operational military experience having served in the British Army.



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