The Regularity of Irregular Warfare

By Vacca, W. Alexander; Davidson, Mark | Parameters, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Regularity of Irregular Warfare


Vacca, W. Alexander, Davidson, Mark, Parameters


"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world"--Ludwig Wittgenstein

The US military and our allies are currently facing challenges from adversaries employing a wide range of tactics and pursuing uncertain objectives. Policy makers, analysts, and practitioners are grappling for terms and concepts to apply to these challenges that convey the unique tactical and strategic aspects of these conflicts. With these terms and concepts they formulate and evaluate options for conducting operations, procuring equipment, and organizing the defense establishment. Given the great importance of these choices, the utmost care must be used in choosing accurate terms. The widespread use of the term "irregular warfare" in official and unofficial documents is an unhelpful and dangerous trend. This article argues that something as seemingly innocuous as poor terminology can have serious consequences.

Confronted with tactics radically different from our own standard tactics, analysts created a new category, "irregular warfare," to describe the security challenge we face. In creating a new category, they created more conceptual mischief than they resolved. "Irregular warfare" as a term conflates tactical asymmetry with strategic difference. While the tactics employed by the belligerents may be different, the strategic objective is the same. Suggesting otherwise is both ahistorical and misleading.

By maintaining that wars that pit sides with vastly different tactical systems and resources against one another is "irregular," analysts run the risk of making deductive and inductive errors. Deductively, analysts will fail to apply generalized lessons and analytical frameworks to the specifics of the strategic challenge at hand. Inductively, analysts will fail to draw generalized lessons and place the conflict into the broader concept of warfare. Incidents of irregular warfare throughout history thus become analytical orphans, of interest to military history buffs but unfairly excluded from the scientific accumulation of knowledge in strategic studies. This simultaneously weakens and limits theories of warfare, while leaving strategists conceptually disarmed when confronted with strategic challenges that do not fit neatly in a specific model.

Tactical asymmetries are an enduring characteristic of warfare across three centuries. The French Republican experience with the counterrevolution in the Vendee in the 1790s displayed many of the characteristics of what today some would call an irregular war, and was fought concurrently with the traditional and proto-Napoleonic Wars of the Coalitions on France's eastern borders. The second phase of the Franco-Prussian War pitted Gambetta's civilian Government of the National Defense against Molke's occupying armies and was very different from the set-piece battles of Gravelotte and Sedan in the first phase. In the second Boer War the British had to overcome two very different phases of Boer resistance, and develop a tactical synthesis within their army.

Strategic thinkers, even those as formidable as Moltke the Elder, were frustrated by the apparent failure of these wars to follow the logic of warfare. Without generalized models or concepts to draw on, strategists struggled to formulate effective responses. Once the wars were finished, the historical and tactical lessons of these wars were separated from the broader theoretical and analytic study of warfare, degrading later military efforts to confront similar challenges. As the United States military prepares to reflect on the history of the previous decade of conflict, it is imperative that these lessons not be isolated as an "irregular" historical curiosity, but are instead fully integrated into a broad and flexible tactical and strategic understanding of warfare.

The Enduring Characteristic of Warfare

Clausewitz offers a blunt definition of warfare as "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will. …

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