Small Wars Journal

An Alternative: Brains of Enormous Value

Sun, 11/18/2012 - 7:30am

“Arms of Little Value: The Challenge of Insurgency and Global Instability in the Twenty First Century.”

By G.L. Lamborn

Casemate Publishers, Havertown PA, 2012.

“If the agony we experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan-due to our inability to grasp the nature and scope of those wars-has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us to pay attention to the aspiration of the local people and thereby avoid inflicting pain on ourselves and others”

Written on the eve of Iraq and Afghanistan Arms of Little Value warns both civilian and military professionals that failure to internalize lessons of small wars, particularly those from countering insurgencies, will guarantee unpreparedness. Conventional wisdom and strategic ideas do not fit the challenges faced by an America in the 21st Century.  The American society, along with civilian and military leaders remain unprepared to deal with the complexities of insurgencies and small wars.

Echoing the admonishment of Colin Gray[i] that The American Way of War could adapt with great difficulty to irregular warfare, Lamborn, a Vietnam Veteran with a 42 year defense career to include 26 years with the CIA, is a small wars historian who uses his command of American and third world history to capture the essence of why it is difficult to adapt. Lamborn convinces us, that even while we have been engaged in many small wars we have yet to institutionalize, or commit to philosophy and organizational memory the national, strategic and tactical lessons.

Lamborn trumps Gray by suggesting that, even with more experience in small wars than conventional, Americans remain in a strategic funk regarding the complexities of Small Wars and Insurgency. Uneducated, Americans place blind trust in elected officials who are ignorant themselves of America’s history, its role in the world, its geography, and the impact of cultures both within and outside CONUS, hopelessly ignoring and often unwilling to understand that the will of the people will always remain victorious over armed force.

Lamborn illustrates the consequences of such limited understanding by telling three cautionary tales that reinforce what now has to become a principle of war; namely, that no conventionally armed force can defeat hostile public opinion. He convincingly, and briefly, takes the reader on a historic ride highlighting the failures of both British and French military and civilian leaders in employing conventional forces that ignore the will of the people in the American colonies, (Cornwallis and Green in 1780-1781), Mexico (Gen Bazaine and Juarez in 1861-1867) and French Indo China (Navarre vs Ho Chi Minh in the late 1940s).

In recounting the lessons learned from America’s role in the small wars in the Philippines, China, Korea, French Indo China, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vietnam, he hammers home the confirmation that small wars, and specifically insurgency are social wars at the graduate level.  He identifies and adddresses the dilemmas and conundrums faced by conventional thinkers who become engaged in small wars. The counterinsurgent faces multiple dilemmas; some are counterintuitive to the western thinker and operator that actually present advantages to the insurgent.    The western counterinsurgent has a blind spot that may not ‘see’ the efficacy of political warfare, the consequence to which is a counterproductive application of military force, often creating more resistance. To be adequately prepared for these dilemmas and avoid the trap of overreacting by doubling down on mass and incurring exponential financial costs, civilian and military leaders must understand that they will be much more effective when they attempt to influence people, including the insurgent, using military strength sparingly and selectively.  

Lamborn demonstrates that the US and its military suffer from a myopia influenced by our European legacy and ignorance of our own history, as well as, the history of the ‘third world.’  We quote Jomini who literally ignores the size of the fight in the dog and who quite frankly should receive no mention in a contemporary graduate course on war.    We are impressed and become faithfully engrossed in numbers, almost religiously, and erroneously, believing that God is on the side of the larger battalions. 

Lamborn peppers his book with poignant questions, in a manner expected in a seminar, framed to educate through cognitive dissonance. What is our response to the overwhelming historic fact that conventional forces have usually outnumbered irregular forces 30-40 times but rarely ‘defeat’ the insurgents politically or strategically?  Where in our PME for leaders and planners is the dedicated study to small wars?  Why do so many of our leaders still think that firepower, massive force and high technology are keys to winning in small wars?  Which of our adversaries present an existential technological or conventional threat to the USA?

Lamborn offers an alternative to the small wars and insurgency dilemma that relies heavily on conventional thinking and forces.  According to Lamborn, we should invest our national interest where success is to be found, in the character and courage of people, not gold or guns. Civilian leadership is admonished to educate themselves on small wars history suggesting that ignorance does not serve our national security interests. Wise counsel at home is possible, however, Lamborn reinforces implications that many red-blooded Americans have grudgingly, painstakingly become acutely aware, yet stubbornly resist, namely,  “The American people must face the challenges of instability… together we cannot afford to be divided against ourselves.”

Preempt, reform, anticipate, mitigate and yes, it may mean nation building. Develop policies focused on select regions and then design strategic civilian-military strategy that accomplishes that policy that demonstrates a basic understanding of the will of the people in the target country.  This calls into question any old age thinking about the utility of unit deployment programs and security cooperation programs whose purpose is more personnel and unit management than selective strategic focus and regional expertise. We should refuse to work with any government who won’t reform or work with its constituents.  We should understand that military intervention without popular support is futile. Promote career officer and enlisted advisers, RAOs and FAOs. Identify those critical skills resident in civilian and military forces in government, advising, teaching, training, cultural knowledge, language and track those personnel, requiring that they obtain extreme knowledge of their region; then keep them in the region.   Design personnel assignment policies to capitalize on regional skills and expertise. Create organizations that take advantage of regional skills and experience.  A task organizational construct that requires commanders to absorb augments and ‘enablers’ in his command who are unfamiliar with his command and the region prevents cohesion, inhibits flexibility and is not responsive to the will of the people.

Every civilian and military leader must read and then internalize the implications of this book.  The Armed Forces will do well to add Arms of Little Value to their professional reading list.  Arms of Little Value is a must read for the Army, Marine, and Joint Staff writing team that is rewriting the COIN manuals to ensure lessons unlearned are applied. Capability developers must read and discuss the implications on training and education of leaders, equipment and technology requirements for small wars. It is not historically, nor strategically balanced to rely on heavy, conventional thinking and stuff and pivot our thinking back to our comfort zone.  

If we are honest about what the lessons of small wars imply, we might recognize that a myopic focus on the occasional conventional war ensures we will not be ready for the multiple irregular wars, which will certainly occur.  Perhaps the lesson is that preparedness for small wars, in which we will be engaged, will actually prove to be the best preparation for and reduce the penchant for conventional wars that we might conduct.  In the process of this professional education we should come to realize as Lamborn advises and history portends that even “professionalism alone cannot equal the strength of motivation that comes from deep emotional commitment to a desired goal of a people” so armed.


[i] Colin Gray, Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy; Can the American Way of War Adapt? Strategic Studies Institute, 2006.


About the Author(s)

Phil Smith, a retired USMC Colonel, is Deputy Director of the Marine Corps’ Center for Irregular Warfare and Integration Division. A career infantry officer, Colonel Smith served on active duty for 36 years and his operational experience included deployments to Grenada, Lebanon, Somalia and Afghanistan.


Bill C.

Tue, 12/04/2012 - 11:32am

(Modified from my original comment)

Our objective remains the same:

a. To increase the number of those who would embrace our attitudes, values and beliefs -- and our related way of life and way of governance and

b. To correspondingly reduce the number of those who would cling to and/or embrace alternative attitudes, values and beliefs -- and alternative ways of life/ways of governance based on these different ordering concepts.

And it would appear that we are more than willing to (1) take risks, (2) incur costs and (3) use all of the tools available to us (DoD, State, AID, Justice, etc.) to accomplish our mission.

Accordingly, we must be prepared to deal with those entities who, in order to avoid unwanted assimilation, likewise are willing to take risks, incur costs and use all of the tools that are available to them to achieve their objective.

Thus, if we look to the cause of "insurgency and global instability in the 21st Century," we need look no further than to the west's dramatic move:

a. Away from a goal of more-short-term and ultimately untenable "stablity" and

b. Toward a more-long-term and more-permanent "stability;" this to be achieve -- in west's eyes -- by the transformation of all outlier states and societies along modern western lines.

So: How to look properly at insurgency, terrorism, global instability, etc., in the 21st Century?

As, in the west's eyes, the price that must willingly be paid today to achieve (via outlier state and societal westernization) the goal of more long-term, more productive and more permanent stability and prosperity in the future.

With our "instruments of power" to be modified, developed and fielded according to (1) this new foreign policy direction and understanding and (2) the goals and risks associated with it.

Bill M.

Sun, 12/02/2012 - 10:31pm

Failure to prepare for the full range of conflict will guarantee unpreparedness, not just unpreparedness for small wars. Sadly only SOF was prepared to wage so called small wars effectively, and even that is surprising since the conventional Army tried to destroy Special Forces by focusing them on SR and DA in direct support of major combat operations. However, to be fair if we’re not careful we can allow the pendulum to swing to the opposite end where we’re unprepared to deal higher end threats. Our adversaries will always exploit our weaknesses at whatever range of conflict they may be at. Like many I think the right answer isn’t to ignore any range of conflict, which means we need to invest more time in quality training and education. Collin Gray coined the term hybrid war as a way for our myopic officers to grasp the fact you simply can’t focus on one priority or spectrum of conflict whether that is fighting the Fulda Gap scenario or a COIN scenario in Afghanistan, but one spectrum that has been willingly ignored is small wars.

This quote is accurate, “The western counterinsurgent has a blind spot that may not ‘see’ the efficacy of political warfare, the consequence to which is a counterproductive application of military force, often creating more resistance”, but that doesn’t always equate to the counterinsurgent employing minimum force and focusing on influence as it further goes on to explain. It obviously depends on what state the insurgency is in, in some cases there may be a valid need to surge the level of violence. However, getting back to our blind spot on political warfare we need to recognize our self-imposed weaknesses such as going to war with multiple different agencies that pursue independent strategies, these agencies include DOD, State, AID, Justice and others. The insurgent on the other hand is much more integrated politically and militarily; and therefore, is often very capable of waging political warfare. The U.S. and other Western militaries don’t even realize it is happening in their so called battle space, since they’re overly focused on the overt guerrillas and IED attacks. We engage in influence operations by spending a lot of money and pushing out a lot of propaganda, and generally fail to con anyone but ourselves. The insurgents live and interact with the people, they share a narrative, and when need me they conduct coercion in a way we’re prohibited from engaging in. The odds are only against us if we attempt to win with mass (people, bombs, money) instead of focusing on first gaining understanding and then developing an effective strategy. After 10 plus years of so-called small wars I still see little evidence we understand them, and instead of seeking understanding we simply respond by applying COIN doctrine. If X, then Y, and maybe that is the best we can do with the Army we have, but I hope we develop a better Army for tomorrow.

Political warfare at the village and city level shouldn’t be counter intuitive as the author claims since in practice it is very much a common sense endeavor. We just need to free our military from its doctrines and encourage them to think, learn, and adapt.

I found these quotes in the article particularly powerful:
“According to Lamborn, we should invest our national interest where success is to be found, in the character and courage of people, not gold or guns”.

“Lamborn demonstrates that the US and its military suffer from a myopia influenced by our European legacy and ignorance of our own history, as well as, the history of the ‘third world.’ We quote Jomini who literally ignores the size of the fight in the dog and who quite frankly should receive no mention in a contemporary graduate course on war”.

I look forward to reading it.

Move Forward

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 7:39pm

COL Pete Newell of the Rapid Equipping Force gets it. Smart, capable commanders and Soldiers/Marines are most critical and we are obliged to provide them the best tools possible. And although fundamentals of war may remain relatively constant, key technologies have completely transformed warfare repeatedly over the past century.

Aircraft carriers, submarines, machine guns, armored vehicles, planes and then stealth aircraft, rotorcraft, unmanned systems, missiles and missile defense, precision munitions, GPS, radio and text/data communications, advanced sensors, cyber/jamming/computing, simulation....

Backwards Observer

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 2:56am

<blockquote>"Leaders who are self-serving, venal and corrupt, and who make themselves masters to be served rather than servants of the people, eventually bring about not only their own ruin, but that of the state as well. Sooner or later arrogance will become venality, and venality will result in exploitation. Exploitation results in brutality, squalor and degradation. Ultimately, degradation, squalor and brutality produce popular violence." (From ch. 6 of Arms of Little Value)</blockquote>

Agree or disagree with the whole 'people's war' thing, the title reviewed is $3.99 on amazon kindle and certainly worth the read. Clearly written and to the point with a commendable sense of balance. Good recommendation. Thanks.

Scott Kinner

Wed, 11/21/2012 - 10:10am

In reply to by Hammer999

You bring up a very good - and confusing point - there is what we are required to do and there is what we say we are doing.

The school of offensive realists would say - and I think rightfully - that it matters very little who is in "charge" of a country, the foreign policy and use of force options and choices for the country remain the same. The foreign policy of Catherine the Great did not differ from that of Joseph Stalin which does not differ from that of Vladimir Putin. Similarly, the desires and requirements of being a regional power effected Persia and modern day Iran in the same manner.

When applied to democracies like the United States, we find that the practicality of real politik runs afoul of our ideals (or at least our attitudes) - but it remains "real" nonetheless. The dichomoty between what we are actually doing and need to do (acting pragmatically), and what we want to say or feel about it fuels a constant debate.

Are we debating and arguing about practical need, what we say we are doing, or both? In classic context - is our interest in the Middle East driven by oil? Stability for our allies which enables our global commerce? Spreading democracy? A conglomeration of all of them? Hard to separate reality from mere talk.

So you are right - there is a fundamental disconnect between the demands of reality and what we want to say or think about it. Ideally, we would repair that seam - doubt that will occur.


Tue, 11/20/2012 - 12:52pm

I think we can figure out how to win... What cripples us is the media, PC etc. Until we say "we are willing do whatever it takes to win" and that the only acceptable outcome is total distruction (or nearly so) of the enemy we will continue to fail.

Scott Kinner

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 9:04am

Phil - great to see this paper! If nothing else, it reminds us that solving military problems has never been, and is not now, a cookie cutter approach. When we write doctrine we are always talking about giving commanders rational, compelling guidance and food for thought that enables THEM to solve the tactical problem THEY'VE been given.

War is fundamentally unchanging - it's all been done before - but the variables of time, space, resources, people, culture, limitations, are so unending that truly, each tactical problem is unique. What has gone before can only inform what must be done is not without great value, but it is not a checklist to success...

Which means, as you put in your title - war remains firmly in the realm of the mind...

I need to go find this book...thanks


Move Forward

Sun, 11/18/2012 - 12:09pm

<blockquote>Civilian leadership is admonished to educate themselves on small wars history suggesting that ignorance does not serve our national security interests.</blockquote>

However, military historian leadership also must educate themselves on how technology changes how small and large wars can be fought..regardless of perceived lessons of even recent (last 50 years) history. Misinterpretation of recent history is another military and civil leadership problem. The helicopters, body and vehicle armor, night vision technology, and other sensors of today are not your father's systems. The computing and training simulation power that enabled the Apollo missions are now accessible in your teenagers I-Pad and are surpassed in their video games.

For instance, armor and mech infantry officers will look at Hezbollah's well-prepared Lebanon defenses in 2006 to insist that a GCV must weigh 84 tons due to the ATGM threats. This utterly ignores the logistics, deployment, $200(?) cost-per-mile for training, and mobility (bridges) challenges involved in having all tank-sized armored BCT vehicles. It also ignores the long timeframe Hezbollah had to dig in, the non-need for the IDF to deploy, and the problems it had resupplying armor over very few miles let alone those we and the Soviets experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there was the unique quality of their 2006 Hezbollah fighters...and frankly IDF reservists...that was reversed in 2008 Cast Lead.

Some with extraordinary first-hand recent 80s historical lessons in Afghanistan such as Rant Corporation appear to have a built in bias or lack of awareness of today's technology. He saw Soviet helicopters being shot down by Stingers and ground fire, and exhibiting poor marksmanship due to lack of precision munitions, night vision, and evolving IR and ground-fire detection countermeasures. Western helicopters have fared far better in terms of losses (due to tech and redundant systems) with nearly a superhuman, and well-engineered effort given the altitude and threats.

Yes, even the OH-58D is flying at altitudes that nobody would suggest would be possible but Army Aviators are getting it done. Some seem to believe that today's helicopters cannot fly in Afghanistan's altitudes despite a decade of such safe operation. Aviators of all services also are overcoming the tyranny of distance...just as he forgets that Marine and Army helicopters somehow made it into Afghanistan in 2001 despite having to originate from far away. However the airspace aspect in terms of overflight rights is one that historians should not ignore when some cite that we could have gotten out early and still would have had overflight and ground logistics access when later incidents occured requiring military airspace and ground routes. How quickly we forget the ineffectiveness of cruise missiles in taking out al Qaeda training camps.

This is no slam on us old timers because it is typical of even the most educated young military and civil leadership without all the current facts, or who selectively interpret historical facts (2006 Lebanon) to the detriment of our ability to fight current and future small and large wars. Then there is the frequency that think tanks and others project our G-RAAM and naval/airpower capabilities onto prospective threats. Just because we have extraordinary capabilities to employ precision munitions does not transfer similar capabilities to our enemies. Just because we have a decade of military experience in the air, on land, and at sea does not mean potential enemies have similar know-how or flight hours.

In terms of tech, few threats will ever have large numbers of stealth aircraft, modern air defenses, aircraft carriers, and advanced submarines because they simply cost too much given their far smaller defense budgets and sanctions often limit access (North Korea and Iran). One only need look at current Gaza events to realize that despite thousands of rockets, no IDF military deaths have occured who are presumably using armor, dispersion (unlike one 2006 unlucky incident), and bunkers to protect themselves...just as forward U.S. ground forces would...not to mention the missile defense tech that the IDF is so ably demonstrating.

There is a civil support and stability operations swords-into-plowshares aspect that is ignored as well. Army and Marine helicopters and Air Force and Marine lift aircraft provide extraordinary capabilities to assist disasters at home and abroad whether caused by natural or warfare events. Joint manned aircraft and UAS provide potential capabilities to assist law enforcement, border security, natural and manmade disasters from floods, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and counter-terrorism. Yet civil leadership and the press focus excessively on cost, privacy, and airspace issues that can be overcome instead of stifling capabilities to allow manned and unmanned aircraft to fly together, and as a team. Pundits cite collateral damage of UAS, for instance, without recognizing how precise current munitions are and how long targets often are observed prior to engagement to ensure minimal or no loss of innocent life.

Look at the precision of the attack that started the current Gaza affair to realize how far we have come. Don't invent reasons to cite that less costly non-stealthy UAS are irrelevant to future wars. They have survived in the past in acceptable numbers against Balkan, Iraqi, and Libyan air defenses and both the Israelis and Iran had to make multiple air-to-air shots at UAS with no success in Iran's case. Add in Iran's case that there were no F/A-18s, F-22s, and F-35 inbound at the time...and of course many threat aircraft would be destroyed on the ground and air defenses suppressed upfront.

Finally, believe it is instructive to look at a key quote from the recent Stimson Study by Gordon Adams:

<blockquote>Fourth, “defending the global commons” is not a useful planning algorithm. The security of space, air, and sea operations for civilian and commercial purposes is provided by international law and organizations, and shared interest, not by the US military. Our military forces do not defend every communications and observational satellite, every commercial jet, or every cargo ship and tanker.</blockquote>

And this:

<blockquote>Seventh, I support a more far-reaching approach to nuclear force reductions</blockquote>

The Chinese certainly will not obstruct “global commons” shipping lanes that they so desperately need for themselves. Our naval capabilities are more than ample for Iran and piracy. It is a far cry from being able to launch A2/AD missiles and being able to actually get the Chinese military to and on Taiwan or maintaining a large forward presence off the U.S. where no first island chain exists. Only Russia and China require anywhere near the number of nuclear weapons we have and both are deterred by history illustrates. If we are looking at means to afford future large and smaller wars thrust upon us, not to mention stability operations and being a “force for good,” spending less on nuclear weapons and 11 carrier groups is certainly an option.