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Defining Contemporary War Part 3 - Terms we like

(Over the last few weeks, I have written a series of blog posts attempting to define the terms used to describe contemporary war. In the first week, I described the issues. Last week, I described the terms I do not particularly like. For the third installment, I write about the terms that I feel accurately describe modern war.)

The major difference between the terms I like and terms I dislike is accuracy. Terms like irregular, unconventional or low-intensity are all misleading descriptions of contemporary warfare. On the other hand, I like the following terms because they either describe a sub-set of contemporary warfare--like guerilla warfare, revolutionary war, insurgency/counter-insurgency, and civil wars--or because they describe they current world in accurate terms.

The first phrase that comes to mind is guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare adequately describes the tactics of many groups in insurgencies or small civil wars. Not so much a description of the larger conflict, but an excellent term to describe a set of tactics. Essentially, small bands live off the population (through persuasion, coercion or force) either in an urban, suburban, or rural settings, and attack a larger force’s weak points. They understand the limitations of a conventional force--better than any general--and use this knowledge to insert, attack the weak point, and escape.

Revolution is the violent overthrow of political governments by disposed minorities or classes whether it be the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution or the Chinese governments. It might seem odd to put revolution in with terms on warfare, but that fails to recognize how incredibly violent past revolutions have been. In the Makers of Modern Strategy, John Shy and Thomas Collier describe the Maoist revolution in the phrase revolutionary war. I don’t use revolution that broadly, but when discussing contemporary war the political motivation, in some cases extreme motivation, need to be mentioned. In this sense, revolutionary war is very helpful when describing the contemporary operating environment. For example, while to the US replacing a Sunni dictator with a Shia government might not seem momentous, to the Middle East it is revolutionary.

What about attempts to overthrow the government but lacking a spontaneous, overwhelming uprising? For that we have the term insurgencies. The most common in the post-colonial world, roughly post-WWII until the fall of the Soviet Union, were liberation insurgencies of former colonies. That being said, one could argue that the Muslim populations in Thailland and the Philippines still fight for their liberation. However, some insurgencies have no separatist aspect and merely seek to redistribute power as in the Taliban overthrow of the Afghan government after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union.

The final class of conflicts are civil wars. While the American Civil War was quite evenly matched, much more often the fight is asymmetric and fought with guerilla tactics. In contemporary civil war, we have seen different size groups vie for power in nations in bloody contests. Even more distinct from the American Civil War, the line between the fighting armies and civilian and soldier blur in contemporary civil wars.

The above terms all describe types of contemporary war. Obviously they all share a common trait, but that trait is not their irregularity, their unconventionality, their smallness, nor their intensity. Therefore, I will use all the terms above to define particular conflicts, but I still feel like I need one term that truly defines contemporary war.

The next two terms attempt to do just that. First, the phrase 4th Generation of Warfare (4GW) describes the evolution of warfare since the invention of gunpowder and the creation of the nation-state. Basically, insurgencies, civil wars, and all fights with guerilla tactics fall into the category of 4GW. According to the theory laid out by Marine Corps Colonel Thomas Hammes in the The Sling and the Stone, as information technology expanded, globalization spread, and cheap weapons flourished, a new style of warfare was born beyond the maneuver warfare of WWII. This theory helps capture the rise of transnational groups and the reasons a conventional force like the US Army is bogged down in two overseas wars.

Recently, I finished The Accidental Guerilla by David Kilcullen. He describes a new theory of warfare combining transnational terrorism and insurgency he calls, Hybrid War. He asserts that groups like Al Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah fuel conflicts by using terrorist tactics on a global level and insurgent tactics at a local level. I like this term to describe how specific groups in our globalized world operate. Kilcullen also encourages looking at contemporary war not as an aberration for specialized troops (using terms like irregular when that style of war happens much more frequently then regular war), but as an ongoing phenomenon with unique challenges.

Notable in my two lists of terms I like and dislike is the absence of terrorism. I feel that this term, which I like as a tactic but not as a description of contemporary war, deserves much more than a paragraph to truly capture.

Having described all the terms I like, I still feel like none capture the true essence of contemporary warfare. The struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing hostilities in Israel and Palestine, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, the failed state in Somalia, what phrase can tie all these terms together? Next week I will present my proposed answer.

eight comments

Sir! Why do you have to keep us hanging for a whole week!

On a serious note, I’m really enjoying your blog writings. Very informative. I always look forward to the next, and it really applies to me as I continue my studies in Terrorism/Counterterrorism and International Relations.

Keep ‘em coming and I hope all is well with you.

Thanks for the good word and the support. I really do appreciate it.

I think you´ve broken down the semantics of what you should call the opposition´s tactics pretty well. I guess thats part of your job as an officer, though I wonder how practical and useful that is. What I think is definitely more important is to understand your enemy´s tactics, strategic goals, motivations, who they are, and their way of life. Basically know your enemy, don´t just label them. Thats something I think the Army in general has utterly failed to understand.

Could you do a piece on American semantics, rhetoric, and strategy? Of course the GWOT has now officially been renamed, I don´t know if they´re giving out Overseas Contingency Operation medals yet, but officially the Pentagon has dropped the GWOT (and not changed the name of the GWOT service medal?)

What do you think of the terms War and Occupation?

I think War has become an overused and and inaccurate term to describe what is normally happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. A war implies something like WWII with uniformed combatants in one military versus another. I think the “war” ended soon after the invasions (though I wouldn´t go so far as to announce Mission Accomplished on an the deck of an Aircraft Carrier), and were very brief stages in both cases.

The term occupation recurs among a lot of critics and analysts particularly in relation to Iraq. I personally think the term military occupation better describes the role of the US and its allies in Iraq certainly, though I´m not sure to the extent to which that is true or not in Afghanistan. I´d like to hear your views on that.

Ok, I have to say I learned something from this post. I was not aware that there was a large Muslim population in Taiwan. Where can I go to find out more about the struggle going on there?


I believe he is broadly referring to the separatist movement in Taiwan (the ones who don´t want Taiwan to be to integrated into mainland China).

@ Will and Chris- No to clarify I put the wrong Asian nation. I meant the Thailand insurgency. My apologies for the proofreading.

@ Chris- To generally answer your questions, yes we plan to do articles eventually on all those terms: terrorism, global war on terrorism, war and more on violence. While it might seem like semantics to debate terms, it is vital to understanding them and the conflict at large. Again, I apologize for my error.

To continue on the semantics, I think the understanding of America could have gone two ways: either police vs. criminals, or army vs. army. We choose the latter, we choose to go to war.

Understanding the language, defining terms, is the first step of every debate. I think we almost should have done this earlier.

@Chris – Two things. One, I think “war” is more often like Vietnam or Afghanistan than it is like WW1, WW2 or the civil war. Especially in a post-colonial world. Two, know your enemy should be our mantra! I totally agree. We’ll have art posts on fridays dealing with this and Enders Game coming soon.

I agree with Chris C that the term ‘war’ has become a wide reaching term that encompasses many levels of violence. War can be anything from full conflict between standing armies to hoodlums shooting each other for territory they think they have a right to. There’s a vast difference between types of conflict and I’m glad this is recognized and addressed.