(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.